The Arabs – A Living History, 1979-1983

Video Arts Television in Association with Kufic Films B.V
Executive Producer Michael McKinnon
Channel 4, UK / Channel 13 PBS, USA

Running Time: Approx. 10 x 50 minutes

Series Synopsis

A series of ten one-hour documentaries which explores Arab history, culture and society from within through the lives and opinions of Arabs today.

1) The Making of the Arabs

The first film in this important series introduces the viewer to the rich variety of life, opinion and history that exists in the region we call the Arab world ­ the lands which stretch from the mountains of Morocco to the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, from the valley of the Nile to the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea.

Why do the 180 million people who inhabit these lands call themselves Arabs? As he journeys through this crucial region our writer and guide Basim Musallam talks to man and women from the four corners of the Arab world and searches for the source of the Arab identity which he and they share. The film starts in his troubled home city of Beirut; moves to Cairo; to the bustle of Kuwait; to the ancient and beautiful land of Morocco.

With a rich mixture of historical and living imagery and through the encounters with his own generation of articulate, questioning Arabs, Basim Musallam, shows how modern Arab political identity crystallised early in the 20th century, and how the Arabs drew, as they still draw, on the historical and cultural achievements of their medieval forebears.

Major Locations

Lebanon, Egypt, Kuwait, Morocco

2) Between Two Worlds

What was Arab society like during the thousand year period following the decline of the Arab Empire? What memories, what feelings, does it provoke in the minds of today’s Arabs, caught as they are in the turbulence of 20th Century change?

Abdelmalek Tazi is a member of an influential family of Fez, ancient seat of the rulers of Morocco. As Abelmalek plays with his children, looks for business contacts in the Arabian Gulf states, prays at his father’s tomb, or revisits his childhood haunts in the medieval quarter of Fez, our writer, Abdallah Hammoudi, questions how deeply the manners, beliefs, attitudes and values of the old Arab world penetrate the lives of modern Arabs. As he says: “Is it really possible to be an Arab in that traditional world and in the world of tomorrow?”

Major Locations

Fez, Morocco

3) The City Victorious?

This film looks at changing fortunes in the traditional relationship between Arab city and countryside. We focus on one small corner of Cairo and one small village in the Nile Delta, sixty miles to the north. In the village we meet a young peasant, Mitwali Balah, and come to understand his arduous life which he wishes to exchange for the seemingly magical prospects of life in Cairo. The film follows the young man to Cairo where he seeks the advice and company of other migrant workers from his home village. Disillusion sets in and he returns to the Delta.

The lives of these young peasants are looked at not only in the context of the overburdened, overpopulated Cairo of today but in the context of a 19th Century dream, of creating a city to rival Paris. Ever-present are the great monuments of medieval Cairo ­ a potent reminder of the power that flowed from her when she was the greatest of all Arab cities. In observing the struggles and hopes of the migrant workers, economist Galal Amin shows how the once-dominant Arab city has become simply another metropolis, dependant for its survival on manipulation from afar and social forces which are now universal.

Major Locations

Cairo, The Nile Delta

4) The Power of the Word

The ancient Arabic language, transplanted, with the spread of Islam, from the Arabian Peninsula to Europe and the borders of China, remains the pivot of Arab culture today. Arabic, the language of the Quran, is the sacred language for all Muslims and has played a major role in shaping and maintaining Arab society. Poetry remains the forum for political debate, and major poets attract thousands to hear them recite their latest works. In the words of our writer, Khalida Said: “Poetry is the best witness to our crisis ­ it’s our creative response to these bad times.”

Paradoxically, war-torn Lebanon’s a meeting place of contemporary intellectual thought in the Arab world; still the publishing centre, still a refuge for poets, painters and novelists form troubled Arab lands; “the capital of the Arabs’ deepest wounds”.

We discover poets and the origins of poetry, actors and the origins of Arab theatre; but above all this is a film about how Arab writers respond to the challenges of the modern world.

Major Locations

South Yemen, North Yemen, Syria, Lebanon

5) New Knowledge for Old

900 years ago Arab Muslims were the world’s greatest seekers after knowledge and wisdom of the Greeks. Today that Arab scholarship is a natural part of the inheritance of all scientists and thinkers, not least of the modern generation of Arab research-workers, many of whom work in the new Institutes in the Gulf States which we visit in the course of this film. Abdulhamid Sabra, himself an historian of science, stresses the need for all modern societies to recognise and embrace their own scientific and cultural heritage.

Only forty years ago Kuwait was dominantly a small community of traders, fishermen and pearl divers on the Eastern fringe of the Arab world. But there was already the promise of oil. The oil-generated wealth of the past twenty years has transformed Kuwait into a thriving, modern city state with highest per capita income in the world.

It’s a place to which scholars and scientists now come to share in the new technological opportunities, and where modern education and research are pursued with vigour.

Now Kuwait is making a major contribution to the preservation and sharing of the Arab heritage, with the opening, in February 1983, of the new National Museum and especially its magnificent collection of Islamic art.

Major Locations

Kuwait, Cairo, United States of America

6) Ways of Faith

Muslim author and poet Ali al Mek looks at the ways and meaning of the Islamic Faith as they affect one particular group of Muslims within his own experience, the people of the village of Umduban in central Sudan. No single community or village can ever adequately represent the entire Islamic Faith, but this encounter with the religious life of Umduban leads to an understanding of that living Islam which informs the very existence of Muslims the world over.

Umduban is also a religious centre. The film follows small groups of individuals who have come to the village ­twin boys sent to the Quranic school, a young woman seeking a cure, a Khartoum tradesman who belongs to a Sufi order and finds fulfilment in ceremonies through which man draws closer to God. But there is another expression of Islam present in Umduban too- that which lays its sole emphasis on obedience to the laws derived from the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet’s teachings. This Islam is expressed through the teachings of an elderly religious Sheikh and through his family ­three generations of Muslims who talk about their Faith at the Eid celebration ­ the time of year when all Muslims return to their parents’ hearth.

Major Locations


7) The Shadow of the West

This film assesses the changes which came about as the Arab countries were drawn into the new political and economic order of modern times. Those changes not only affected the Arab countries but also the way in which they came to be viewed by people in Europe and America.

Its main focus is on the plight of the Palestinians, which can be seen as the most enduring residue of the modern encounter between the Arabs and the West.

Edward Said is a Palestinian living and working in New York. He is outspokenly and actively critical of the treatment of his fellow-Palestinians and is no longer welcome in the city of his birth, Jerusalem. In this film he develops the themes contained in his trilogy of books ‘Orientalism’, ‘The Question of Palestine’ and ‘Covering Islam’. He traces the course of European involvement with the Near East from a vision of the Holy Land, via the Crusades, to Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt in 1799 and the French and British entrepreneurs, adventurers and empire-builders who came in his wake.

Major Locations

Lebanon, Israel, United States of America

8) Building a Nation

The last three films in “The Arabs” focus on the processes of post-Colonial change in the Arab world. Mahfoud Bannoune analyses the problems faced by Arabs as they constructed their new nations over the past quarter of a century and the solutions open to them. He does so by reference to his own country, Algeria, which achieved its independence in 1962, with appalling loss of life.

If old ways were obsolete and a new age had to be created in the aftermath of an eight-year war, what industrial and economic options were open to the Algerians?

Mahfoud Bannoune looks at the process of industrialisation and its effects upon a traditional farm and peasant-based economy; its effect upon the quality of day to day life as services and facilities have tried to keep pace with the rush to the cities. Today, housing, education and transport are all clamouring for attention in a state which has existed, on its own terms, for a mere twenty years. Nevertheless Algeria has created a path and has followed it, striving to remove the shackles of economic and cultural dependency as once it struggled to remove the colonisers.

Major Locations


9) Family Ties

Most Arab women’s lives still centre on the family, their traditional responsibilities to their own children and the power of parents and relatives to dictate their role in life.

Writer and journalist Nadia Hijab weaves this film around a large extended family of Jordanians living in Amman. The mother, Umm Ghassem, is clearly the powerful heart of this family ­strong and humorous and frank in her description of her life.

In spite of its traditional restraints, the extended Arab family is seen to work ­ as secure and loving and caring as it has always been. But we also meet other girls and women who feel that the traditional role of wife and mother is insufficient ­ the Tunisian girl who longs to leave home and find her own flat, the modern Jordanian woman who flies a Tri-star and plays squash to keep fit.

As she talks to Arab women and their families and to women active in medicine, politics, literature and the law, Nadia Hijab asks “How can we Arabs preserve the strengths of our family life and still give women a chance to lead their own lives?”

Major Locations

Jordan, Tunisia, Egypt

10) Arabs Now

What do the Arabs believe to be the most potent forces in their society at the present time and how do they assess their condition today?

How possible is criticism of that condition and who will be the most effective critics? The intellectuals? The politicians? Arab youth? Fifty percent of all Arabs are under the age of twenty and 20,000,000 Arab children are in school today. What effect will this explosion in education have on society? What will be the effect of the huge labour-migration across the Arab world or the revolution in communications, as air-travel, television, video and satellites serve to bring Arabs of all nations into close contact with one another?

Just how successful have the Arab political orders been coping with all the needs and pressures of our time and what future developments are likely or possible?

Basim Musallam returns to the Arab world for this final programme of the series, to ask the questions that Arabs ask themselves; not in the hope of finding definitive answers, for those are beyond reach, but in order to allow the Western viewer to share in those concerns which are uppermost in the Arabs’ own minds.

Major Locations

Cairo, Lebanon, The Arabian Gulf, Morocco


  • Executive Producers: Michael McKinnon and Michael Peacock
  • Series Producer: David Collison
  • Directors: Geoff Dunlop and Colin Luke
  • Principal Editor: Edward Roberts
  • Composer: Ali Jihad Racy
  • Principal Photography: Mike Fox and Jeramy Stafenhagen

Produced by Video Arts Television in Association with Kufic Films B.V

Series Advisory Panel

  • Panel co-ordinator: Michael McKinnon
  • Series Historic Consultants: Albert Hourani and Dr Martin Hinds
  • Historic Consultants: Prof Ihsan Abbas, Prof Jacques Berque and Prof Abdel Hamid Sabra


  • 1) The Making of the Arabs: Basim Musallam
  • 2) Between Two Worlds: Abdallah Hammoudi
  • 3) The City Victorious?: Galal Amin>/
  • 4) The Power of the Word: Khalida Said
  • 5) New Knowledge for Old: Abdulhamid Sabra
  • 6) Ways of Faith: Ali el Mek>
  • 7) The Shadow of the West: Edward Said
  • 8) Building a Nation: Mahfoud Bannoune
  • 9) Family Ties: Nadia Hijab
  • 10)The Arabs Now: Basim Musallam
All content © McKinnon Films 2020