No Arab in Hollywood

T. E. Lawrence in Damascus after it was taken by the British in 1916

Europeans, you must open this book and enter into it. After a few steps in the darkness you will see strangers gathered around a fire; come close, and listen, for they are talking of the destiny they will mete out to your trading-centres and to the hired soldiers who defend them. — Jean-Paul Sartre in the Preface to “The Wretched of the Earth” by Franz Fanon.

I am not sure, but I do not think an Arab film has won an Oscar, ever.

The only Arab films vaguely close to winning an Oscar were: ‘Paradise Now‘ ‘The Insult‘ , ‘Capernaum‘. ‘The White Helmets‘ is a film set in Syria about the resistance in Aleppo by a group that claimed a humanitarian motive which is now under question. White Helmets won an Oscar but is technically a British film.

‘Laurence of Arabia‘ is still the greatest Oscar winner (seven Oscars) about the ‘Middle East’. The film portrays a romanticized version of the Arab world invented by Europeans where the Ottomans were driven out by colonial Britain with the aid of Arab elites. T.E. Lawrence attempted to get Saudi and Syrian kings like Faisal and Hussein to form their own countries in what was then Asia Minor or Anatolia. Without irony, Lawrence justified this by saying: “It’s better for them to do it imperfectly than for us to do it for them perfectly.” Unsurprisingly T. E. Lawrence wrote his thesis at Oxford about Castles built during the Crusades.

Painting of T. E. Lawrence

Nearly all the Arab characters in Lawrence were played by Englishmen. One character (Sharif Ali) was played by an Egyptian (Omar Sharif). Egyptians, despite popular belief under the influence of Hollywood, are not Arabs. However Sharif’s parents came from Melkite Catholics from Zahle in what was Syria and now Lebanon. So he was really an Arab living in Egypt.

Omar Sharif bullied the Palestinian writer, Edward Said, when they attended an English school together in Cairo. Edward Said described his bully as being “notorious for his stylish brilliance and his equally stylish and inventive coercive dealings with the smaller boys.

The Turkish Bey was played by a Mexican, Anthony Quinn, who later played Zorba in the Zorba the Greek which won three Oscars*.

T. E. Lawrence as a Bedouin
Sherif Ali ibn el Kharish played by Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia
Cairo Conference 1921 – Among the delegates are the principal conspirators: Churchill (centre front), Lawrence (second row, centre) and Gertrude Bell (second row, second from left).
The Sykes-Picot agreement between the English and French at the end of WW I which drove the Ottomans out of Arabia.

The main decisions in Sykes – Picot were:- Iraq and Transjordan were to be British-controlled, Syria to become a French mandate, Hussein, an old ally, to be abandoned – these decisions had all been taken in advance. Sir Basil Liddell Hart later wrote: “Everything staged before they went out … Talk about leaving things to man on spot – we left nothing.”

Sadly, no Arab/Australian has ever won an Oscar*.

Ian Curr
11 July 2022

*The ‘Oscar’ is a golden statuette which depicts a knight rendered in the Art Deco style.

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