The Arabian Peninsula. The year is 1916. The powder keg has exploded, the world is at war. The borders of world empires are bursting at the seams and the old order is dissipating before one’s eyes like a desert mirage. In another film set in the same time, the blue-eyed T. E. Lawrence rides at the head of the Arab Revolt. In Theeb (2014), the feature debut of the Jordanian director Naji Abu Nowar, the epochal events at the beginning of the 20th century and the liberation of Arabs from the rule of the Ottoman Empire serve above all as a loose historical framework within which an intimate and personal coming-of-age drama takes place.
Theeb, a young Bedouin boy on a dangerous journey through the Jordanian desert Wadi Rum undertaken with his brother Hassan to accompany a British officer to his destination, encounters the cruel reality of war and undergoes a consequently traumatic initiation into the world of adults. When he sets off on this journey, he himself and his world-view are still quite innocent. Only a few days later, against the backdrop of the sunset, he returns like some hardened cowboy used to everything and without a dime in his pocket to a completely different reality.
There are a lot of other signs suggesting that we are actually watching an Arab version of a Western. The vast expanses of the picturesque Jordanian desert in which the film was shot in its entirety and through which a group of solitary travellers on camels are making their way in silence are no less epic than the legendary images of Monument Valley from any John Ford classic, while the dramatic tension and the visual minimalism in the rare shoot-outs are reminiscent of the spaghetti masterpieces of the celebrated Sergio Leone.
The echoes of the lone riders of the Wild West can also be heard in the film’s soundtrack, in which the melodies from the North American Prairies meet traditional Bedouin poetics. The latter also creeps into the wonderful, fire-lit night scenes, which suddenly make us aware that, in addition to a historical film subtly hidden under the layer of an unusual Western, we are also watching a nostalgic portrait of a Bedouin community disappearing into the desert night.
This melancholy portrait captures in its frame the dying tradition, the disintegration of nomad communities, the loss of one’s connection with nature and the irreversible erosion of specific types of knowledge no longer needed in the contemporary world. Nowar’s debut can thus also be considered a film document. Theeb manages to engrave a microscopic part of Bedouin culture into film memory, recording it at the moment when global political forces are starting to change it irreversibly.