Middle East & Egypt

From the Caravan Journals: Getting a grasp on the clustered nations of the Middle East requires immediate recourse to a good map. I am trying to etch the configuration into my brain so I can see them as I speak. Turkey sits at the top like a rumpled hat. The countries of the Arabian Peninsula anchor the southern end. The large expanse of Iran sits to the east. On the western side, along the Mediterranean coast, are the countries of the Levant: Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and the disputed island of Cyprus. Iraq rests at the upper center as the Cradle of Civilization, and Egypt, rival to that claim, sits separately on the corner of North Africa.

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MovieJourneys is a project that looks at the difference between history and the movies. On the surface, this is a simple matter of contrasting Hollywood movies over the last century with what can be known of the realities of world history. But a third dimension has been added to this process. It is the direct experience of travel to destinations around the globe. Now we are getting somewhere. This formula starts with stepping off a plane or a bus or a boat and noticing what a place wants to say about itself. That being done, the next step is to recollect the ways in which the movies, reflecting the received mythologies of the deep past, have shaped our understanding or misunderstanding of the history and culture of the place at hand. I am reiterating this formula at this point because nowhere is it put to greater challenge than in the Middle East. In this tightly packed landmass, there is such a variety of worldviews, and such passionate commitment to each one of them, that it sometimes seems this divisive wound on the face of the earth will fester forever.

The area of the Middle East has been largely out of bounds for Western travelers since the late 20th-century wars. What is left of the ruins is being ground into dust or looted for profit. Even in the movies from Hollywood, there is little to be seen of the splendor of ancient Mesopotamian cities. Egypt has done much better at capturing the movie spotlight, thanks in no small measure to the love-life of Cleopatra.

Travel to Egypt in the second decade of the 20th century, however, requires some extra caution. At the southern end of the Middle East cluster is Saudi Arabia, birthplace of Mohammed and the religion he founded in the sixth century CE. It is as well the hub from which Islam spread its influence to the east and west across the Old World. Arab history and culture has been almost entirely ignored by Hollywood except for the folklore associated with the Arabian Nights. Robin Williams, as the genie in Aladdin, is Hollywood’s favorite interpreter of Arab culture. I have placed Lawrence of Arabia under The Realm of Islam because of its geographical setting, and its relevance to the formative history of the modern Arab world.

If Roger Ebert, the best-known populist movie critic of his generation, is correct in his conviction that the genius of the movies is in their ability to invite viewers to look at things through other eyes, then perhaps he strikes a note of hope for a better world. This website, partly in tribute to Ebert, is a laboratory for learning to talk about the peoples of the world from a position of common ground, rather than a perception of threat. I can’t say I always agreed with Ebert, but I was always interested in his perspective. Common ground, of course, can be a utopian land as elusive as Eden or Shangri-La.