Tzivi’s Update (7/23/10): This ’07 chat was posted on FF2 in March ’07. The first half of it also appeared in the June ’07 issue of the JUF News. In June ’09, Oren was named Israel’s Ambassador to the USA, one of the most complex, important jobs in the world. Click here to download this complete chat as a pdf file.
LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is my all-time favorite film, so when I found out it was also the all-time favorite film of Michael B. Oren (author of the best-selling new book POWER, FAITH, & FANTASY: AMERICA IN THE MIDDLE EAST, 1776 TO THE PRESENT) I scheduled a follow-up call with Oren at his office at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.
Boker Tov, Michael. Our subject today is LAWRENCE OF ARABIA & how this movie influenced American thinking about the Middle East. LAWRENCE was originally released in theaters in December, 1962. When was the first time you saw it?
MICHAEL: My father took me to see it when it came out. I was 7. It’s all fantasy. There was no darkness, no disease, only the beautiful sprawling desert with rhapsodic music–charging on camelback, swords flashing. The whole thing was deeply, deeply romanticized & so irresistibly alluring. If that was your image of the Middle East, you wanted to learn about that.
I’ll tell you an interesting story: Bernard Lewis was my professor at Princeton. I was living in the desert for five years & I took Bernard Lewis out for a trip in the desert near where I was living. It was the middle of winter. It was cold & as we approached this Bedouin camp, all these children came running out to greet Bernard Lewis.
Bernard Lewis is dressed in his signature blue blazer & blue cravat, red shirt, & these children run out. Their faces are streaming with snot. Some of them are deformed. They’re filthy; hair matted. & I could see Bernard Lewis literally, physically recoiling.
What this moment meant to me was the academic image of the Middle East mixed up with the real Middle East. This was about as real as you could get. This was real Bedouin life, & real Bedouin life is not an easy life. Real Bedouin life is full of disease; the Bedouin have one of the highest mortalities rates from the world. There’s nothing romantic about it, but several generations of Americans were sold on a romantic image of the Middle East by LAWRENCE OF ARABIA.