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Two trips to the Arab world

October 22, 2003|Scott Sandell | Times Staff Writer

The latest war in Iraq is never directly mentioned in "Inside Mecca" or "Lawrence of Arabia: The Battle for the Arab World." Nor is Sept. 11. Yet it's sad to say that because of those events, these two documentaries on KCET tonight will receive more notice than they otherwise might. They deserve to be seen on their own merits, not solely through the prism of the war on terrorism.

Starting at 8 p.m., the hourlong National Geographic special "Inside Mecca" looks at the hajj, the sacred pilgrimage that is required of all Muslims who can manage it at least once in their lives. Producer-director Anisa Mehdi's film follows three of the 2 million people who trek to Mecca annually: an Irish-born educator from Austin, Texas; a well-heeled businessman from Malaysia; and a radio commentator from South Africa.

The three each endure hardships, whether physical discomfort, prejudice or classism. Though some elements of hajj put pilgrims on an equal footing, others lend themselves to VIP concessions that have become big business in Saudi Arabia. And though 80% of Muslims today live outside the Arab world, a green-eyed Irishwoman and a black South African still come under suspicion from some fellow believers.

Exactly why someone appearing to be from the West might arouse mistrust among the Arab world is addressed in tonight's second documentary, at 9 p.m. It singles out Britain's reneging on a deal to give Arabs self-rule as a defining moment in how they perceive the West.

Much like "Inside Mecca," "Lawrence of Arabia" tells both a personal story and a much larger tale. On one level, it goes behind the mystique surrounding T.E. Lawrence, the British army officer who led a band of Arab tribes against the Turks during World War I. Anyone familiar with the 1962 feature film of the same name should be intrigued to see newsreel footage of the real Lawrence and learn some of his life's titillating details.

The more important aspect of filmmaker James Hawes' documentary, however, is not about Lawrence or even his military exploits. It's what happened after World War I. Though Lawrence worked tirelessly to make good on promises of an Arab homeland, the powers that be -- Britain, France and the U.S. -- had another plan in mind.

Did it taint Arab relationships with the West, as the experts here suggest? No matter how one answers the question, Lawrence himself could scarcely live with the decision.

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