In a seminal moment of David Lean’s classic 1962 film, Lawrence of Arabia, the eponymous hero momentarily turns upon the Arab allies he is aiding in their rebellion against the Ottoman Empire during World War I and exclaims in frustration, “So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long will they be a little people, a silly people—greedy, barbarous, and cruel.”

When Lean’s film was appearing in theaters, less than 50 years after the events it portrayed, the politics of the Middle East seemed on the brink of proving the basic logic of Lawrence’s message. Arabs had finally come together in a shared, pan-Arab nationalism and seemed on the cusp of transforming their region—as the British empire retreated from, the Soviet Union armed, and the United States appeased their great nationalist leader, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Lawrence of Arabia was nominated for ten Oscars at the 1963 Academy Awards, and its message—that the cruel reality of the Arab world was the result of external interference and internal division, and that only through the elimination of these things could its people be saved from that reality—helped shape a generation’s diagnoses of the problems in the contemporary Middle East.

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