Lawrence in Arabia
Atlantic Books, 576pp, £25
Lawrence of Arabia is one of those figures, like Mahatma Gandhi, who tends to generate biographies more or less every year. With the centenary of the First World War already upon us – and with the anniversary of Lawrence’s Arab Revolt in 2016 – Scott Anderson’s gripping new study, subtitled War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, is only the forerunner of what is likely to be a very long caravan of new Lawrence books to come lolloping over the desert horizon over the next couple of years. Anderson’s version of the story is a brilliantly pulled-off piece of narrative history that demonstrates both why Lawrence continues to grip our imagination and why he can be a deeply problematic lens through which to examine the tensions of the Middle East.
At the time, Lawrence’s dashingly cinematic raids on the Hejaz railway and his camel-borne attacks on Wejd and Aqaba during the First World War were regarded, as Lawrence wrote, as “the sideshow of a sideshow”. All eyes were on Ypres and the trenches of the Somme, where half the youth of Europe were being slaughtered on the Western Front. But the desert campaigns have become as iconic as they are because Lawrence provides a familiar face with which historians and biographers can tell one of the most complex and important stories of the war: the tale of the break-up of the Ottoman empire and the creation of the ongoing political train crash that is the modern Middle East.
For it is Lawrence’s eastern theatre that has left by far the more important and messy legacy of that war. It is a legacy that we are still trying to contain today as Egypt undergoes its multiple revolutions and counter-revolutions, as Syria burns, as Israel remorselessly settles Palestinian land and as the Palestinians displaced in 1948 continue to rot in refugee camps.
The events that Lawrence took part in during the First World War succeeded in turning the Islamic world for ever against the west and set in motion a series of disasters whose most recent consequences have been the debacles of inept Anglo-American post-colonial colonialism in Iraq and Afghanistan. Had the British not betrayed Lawrence’s desert allies by promising the Arabs the spoils of victory and instead dividing the Middle East between themselves and the French, simultaneously lopping off Palestine for the creation of a Jewish homeland, the world might look very different today.
Anderson tells the familiar story with skill, style and gusto. T E Lawrence was born on 16 August 1888, the illegitimate son of an Anglo-Irish aristocrat who had eloped with the family governess. He grew into a shy, bookish and scholarly boy obsessed with knights and jousting and medieval history. University holidays took him first bicycling around France, then trudging on foot around Syria examining Crusader castles, the subject of his undergraduate thesis. His two passions, archaeology and the Arab world, came together after he left Oxford when he joined Leonard Woolley on the
excavations of Carchemish. With the onset of the First World War, Lawrence’s skills as a fluent Arabist led to him being sent to Cairo. It was here that he dreamed up the plans that became the Arab Revolt.
Anderson intersperses Lawrence’s story with three other colourful western characters who came into contact with him in the Levant during the war. Curt Prüfer was a German spy and Arabist who was in many ways Lawrence’s opposite number, as focused on planning attacks on British targets as Lawrence was on disrupting Turkish ones. William Yale, a fallen aristocrat from the family that started the university, was the only American intelligence agent in the Middle East in the First World War. Aaron Aaronsohn was a brilliant scientist, an ardent Zionist and the mastermind of the most successful Jewish spy ring in the region.
Anderson weaves the tales of these very different agents with enviable pace and clarity, taking us through the extraordinary sequence of events that the four witnessed: the failed German attack on the Suez Canal and the even more catastrophic British disasters of Gallipoli and the siege of Kut; the Armenian Genocide; the Arab Revolt; General Edmund Allenby’s seizure of Palestine and taking of Damascus; then the great betrayals of the Balfour Declaration and the Paris Peace Conference. As Allenby’s deputy, the later Field Marshal Lord Wavell, wrote in a letter at the time, “After ‘the war to end war’ they seem to have been pretty successful in Paris at making a ‘peace to end peace’.”
The book ends with Lawrence’s strange atonement. He refused a knighthood, changed his name to T E Shaw and joined the air force. “I imagine leaves must feel like this after they have fallen from their tree,” he wrote to a friend a week before the motorcycle accident that killed him.
The problem with Anderson’s book is that his close focus on four western intelligence agents makes this a story of the Arab Revolt that contains remarkably few fully drawn Arabs – the only one named in the first hundred pages is the Bedouin Dahoum, Lawrence’s alleged lover, who is passed over in a sentence. It is also a story of the fall of the Ottoman empire that contains almost no Ottomans. The last sultan is given the epithet “despot” but is unnamed and the Young Turks, though more fully drawn, come across as devious orientals straight from central casting: Djemal Pasha is “cunning, remorseless . . . unpleasant and animal-like”, while his colleague Enver Pasha is “a man of stone. A face immovable, well formed, beautiful in the feminine sense . . . A streak of shocking hardness.”
On the way we are treated to quite a lot of the clichés of 19th-century orientalist historiography. The Ottoman empire is presented, inevitably, as the “sick man of Europe”, while the “wasteland” of Palestine, “with a lack of sufficiently educated locals”, is shown as a wilderness brought to bloom by Aaronsohn and his fellow Zionists.
Neither statement would be taken seriously by modern Ottoman historians. Late 19th- and early 20th-century Istanbul is now recognised to have had a last great renaissance, as the Ottomans built remarkable palaces and successfully modernised and reformed their still formidable empire. Likewise, as Adam LeBor has shown in his recent study of Jaffa, 19th-century Arab landowners were very capable of bringing the coastal plain of Palestine to bloom without Zionist assistance, creating in the process the great Jaffa orange industry, while the Christian community in early 20th-century Palestine included some of the best-educated people in Asia. It may seem ungenerous to carp at such a well-told tale but this vision of Arabs as bit-part players in their own history is exactly the sort of attitude that Lawrence fought against.
In the end, the most felicitous and sensitive version of this story comes from Lawrence himself: “The effort for these years to live in the dress of Arabs, and to imitate their mental foundation, quitted me of my English self, and let me look at the west and its conventions with new eyes,” he wrote in Seven Pillars of Wisdom:
They destroyed it all for me. At the same time I could not sincerely take on the Arab skin: it was an affectation only . . . Easily was a man made an infidel, but hardly might he be converted to another faith. I had dropped one form and not taken on the other . . . with a resultant feeling of intense loneliness in life, and a contempt, not for other men, but for all they do. Such detachment came at times to a man exhausted by prolonged physical effort and isolation. His body plodded on mechanically, while his reasonable mind left him, and from without looked down critically on him, wondering what that futile lumber did and why. Sometimes these selves would converse in the void; and then madness was very near, as I believe it would be near the man who could see things through the veils at once of two customs, two educations, two environments.
It is hard to imagine anyone will ever put it better.