The Philadelphia-born photographer talks to Raymond Gardner about her breakthrough in documentary making
There is a desert proverb which says that you must teach your women to read so that they may read the Koran, but that you must not teach them to write or they will write love letters to young men. They may not have heard of Miss Germaine Greer in the harems of Arabia - although the title of her book might provide a box office hit in the cinemas of Mecca - but according to Eve Arnold, who wrote and directed yesterday’s “World About Us” film on BBC-2, the ladies of the harems are learning to write. And the ladies have not been slow to make good use of their new found liberty: in the Trucial State of Dubai the Commercial Bank has already opened a purdah section.
Harems, of course, have always been a source of humour in the West. The Carry On brigade immortalised the image and every self-respecting male chauvinist pig dreams of them when he arrives home to a burnt dinner and five bawling kids in his semi at Surbiton. Eve Arnold’s view is somewhat different: she does not share the views of her liberationist friends who felt some distress at her proposed trip to that benighted part of the world.
“Benighted, hell,” says Mrs Arnold. “You know, in this enlightened part of the world I couldn’t find enough women with training in the film medium to come with me. Editors, directors, and producers perhaps, but no lighting camerawoman.” She took off for her native America where she found a Chinese camerawoman but they were having a “yellow peril” scare in the Trucial States at the time and not wishing to find herself cast into the desert without a camel Mrs Arnold returned to London ready to give up the idea of filming life in the harems.
The prospect was a daunting one. She had already done a three-part magazine series on Muslim women with the writer, Lesley Blanch, in itself something of a scoop since harems are not the kind of places one drops into for coffee. As a result of friends made on that trip she received an invitation to the wedding of the Crown Prince of Dubai and while she was there persuaded the Royal Family to allow her camera team in to film the proceedings for television. By this time she had a full-blooded Anglo-Saxon male cameraman. She says: “I needn’t have worried. I should have remembered that in the harems the women are served by non-Arab men. It appears that to the Arabs only another Arab is a man... well, if you are not an Arab you are not a threat.” Vernon Layton, the cameraman, was unavailable to give his thoughts on that one.
Eve Arnold has been a member of Magnum, the most exclusive of photographers’ cooperatives, for 15 years. Her still photography, which includes the memorable sequence in “Life” on the birth of a baby, has earned her an international reputation of the kind which permits her to agree with Bresson’s comment on photographers, that when they are good they are maybe a little better than watchmakers. In any case, she herself says that it is better to shoot than to talk.
This was her first film. In it she avoided belabouring women’s lib, though Eve Arnold is no more convinced by women’s lib than she is that the women in her film are oppressed. “I think they felt bored,” she says. “That was the key emotion. And where our way of life intrudes things are very tough. There are nervous breakdowns where before there were none. There are problems about baby sitters where before the extended family coped automatically. I don’t know that our way of life would be right for them. I’ll be shot for saying so but I have a strong feeling that things develop naturally... I think discrimination against men is horrible.”