Michael Oren emphasizes role of Middle East in U.S. history

His favorite book is Exodus, his favorite movie is “Lawrence of Arabia” and he believes the Middle East had played an influential role in America’s politics for two hundred years prior to Sept. 11.

Michael Oren, New York Times best selling author on his new book “Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present”, discussed Americans’ romanticized view of the Middle East Monday night at the Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies.

The lecture was sponsored by the University of Miami Departments of International Studies, History and Political Science in addition to Judaic studies program.

Oren suggested that most Americans believe that United States’ involvement in the Middle East came shortly after World War II. In actuality, involvement in the region began in the 1780s when the Barbari pirates captured 127 American soldiers-the first U.S. hostage crisis in the Middle East.

Oren emphasized the infatuation that early Americans had with the fantasy of the Middle East and how this influenced American culture.

For instance, he said the original statue of liberty showed a veiled woman holding a torch and the original lyrics to the star spangled banner spoke of humbled Middle-Easterners bowing down to the victorious flag of the United States.

Oren admitted that most of the misconceptions and fantastical ideals about the Middle East were spread by books such as “A Thousand and One Arabian Nights” or by Hollywood’s exaggeration of the dark-skinned Nomad wearing black flowing robes who rode off into the desert.

Eventually, Americans were forced to change their ideals about the Middle East. Oren points out that after 9/11, Americans were asked to make profound decisions about policies regarding the Middle East that would impact the security of not only the U.S., but the security of most of the world.

“In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq and all three themes-power, faith and fantasy-came together,” Oren said. “We had American troops controlling the streets of Baghdad, which was also the fabled city in ‘A Thousand and One Arabian Nights’.”

Oren believes that students do not learn about the influence of the Middle East in history classes because the region is still so culturally and geographically distant to the United States.

University of Miami students who attended the lecture were surprised at the early influence of the Middle East in U.S. development.

Tara Irani, a junior, said she took an interest to Oren’s lecture due to her Persian background.

“There’s not a lot of information and education about the Middle East,” Irani said.

Many Jewish residents from the Coral Gables area also attended the lecture.

Rabbi Mayer Abramowitz, UM class of ’51, had been looking forward to Monday night’s lecture.

“Oren is an expert in associating Islam with everything that has happened in Israel today,” Abramowitz said.

Oren ended the lecture with a caveat inspired by the words of George McClellan, a famous general in the American Civil War.

“People of the United States look at the Middle East as an extension of the U.S., almost like a tarnished and cracked mirror that can be made to resemble the United States with a little bit of American elbow grease,” Oren said. “As long as Americans persist with this ideal, and do not recognize that the Middle East as its own civilization and culture, they will be doomed to misunderstand the region.”

Karyn Meshbane may be contacted at k.meshbane@umiami.edu.