Command and conquer: Djemal Pasha, Ottoman governor of Iraq and Syria (centre)
Show Hide image

A messy legacy: Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson

Lawrence continues to grip our imagination but can be a problematic lens through which to examine the Middle East.

Lawrence in Arabia 
Scott Anderson
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. 

 

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

Getty
Show Hide image

Why Richard T Kelly's The Knives is such a painful read

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert  this novel of modern British politcs is more like a mirror being shot at.

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert: a noise harsh but not dynamic, and with no resemblance to any instrument in the orchestra. What is often forgotten is that his enduring soundbite started life on the losing side of an argument. In The Red and the Black, Stendhal says that he is tempted to present a page of dots rather than subject the reader to an interlude of dreadful speechifying. His fictional publisher replies by asking him to square that with his earlier description of a novel as “a mirror going along a main road”. If your characters don’t talk politics, the publisher concludes – in a scene that does some damage in its own right to Stendhal’s realist aspirations – then your novel will fail to provide an honest reflection of Frenchmen in the year 1830.

Richard T Kelly’s new novel bets everything on this position. Kelly wants to show that a political novel – even one with characters who give political speeches and conduct discussions about policy – doesn’t need to be an ear-bashing polemic or a scuzzy piece of genre writing, but can succeed as a work of realism no less than the story of a provincial dentist’s mid-life crisis, or an extended family crumbling at Christmas.

Kelly is more a descendant of Trollope and Dickens than of Stendhal. His first novel, Crusaders (2008), a consciously neo-Victorian portrait of Newcastle in the 1990s, featured a Labour MP, Martin Pallister. The Knives is a sequel of sorts – a long, dense novel about a Conservative home secretary (Pallister is his shadow) which arrives at a moment when we are thinking about domestic politics, political process, Westminster bartering and backstabbing, and the role of the home secretary.

Kelly begins with a note explaining that The Knives is “a work of fiction . . . make-believe”, and it is true that any resemblance between David Blaylock and the real-life recent occupant of his post is scuppered in the prologue – a long gun battle in the Bosnian countryside with virtually no resemblance to Theresa May’s tenure at the Association for Payment Clearing Services. Yet the novel contains plenty of allusive nudging. Kelly’s member for Teesside may not be standing in for the member for Maidenhead, but a prime minister who is “primus inter pares” of a group of “university contemporaries and schoolmates” rings some bells. There are also borrowings from Robert Peel and Tony Blair, as well as a quotation from Trollope and a discussion of Coriolanus (“He wouldn’t last five minutes”).

As the novel begins, Blaylock is widely respected, has even been named Politician of the Year, but he is also surrounded by possible pitfalls: the presence in Britain of foreign nationals with charge sheets, the proliferation of radical Muslim clerics, the debate over ID cards, mounting questions over his record on unemployment, immigration, human rights. There is also an ex-wife whose work as a barrister converges on Home Office business. The Knives is a full-bodied account of Blaylock’s day-to-day business, in which the relationship between journalism and realism, research and description, is generally fruitful. Kelly’s mirror travels through meeting halls and community centres, down “the plum carpet of the long corridor to the cabinet anteroom”. The problem is that Kelly is too effective – too diligent – and the book is detailed to a fault, at times to the point of mania.

His habits in general tend towards overkill. As well as his note to the reader, he introduces the book with a trio of epigraphs (Joseph Conrad, Norman Mailer, Norman Lewis) and a not-inviting list of dramatis personae – 60 names over two and a half pages, in some cases with their ages and nicknames. Virtually all of these figures are then described fully in the novel proper. One character is compared to a thinker, a dancer, a Roman and a pallbearer in the space of a single paragraph.

Stendhal took his publisher’s advice but did not ignore his own instincts: having accepted that politics might have a place in a realist novel set in Paris in 1830, he is careful to give us an extract from Julien’s 26 pages of minutes. Kelly gives us the minutes. But it isn’t only world-building that detains him. Early in the book, out jogging, Blaylock passes “a young blonde” who is “wand-like from behind”: yet only by virtue of “a conjuror’s trick – a stunning trompe l’oeil – for from the front she was bulgingly pregnant, to the point of capsizing”. Almost every sentence carries a couple of excess words.

In Kelly’s universe, hubbubs emanate and autumn insinuates and people get irked by periodic postal admonishments. At one point, we read: “The likelihood that they worsened the purported grievances of said enemy was not a matter one could afford to countenance.” In a dinner scene, “brisket” is served by the “briskest” of waiters. There are tautological similes, dangling modifiers (“A vicar’s daughter, Geraldine’s manner was impeccable”), truisms (“The law was complex”), fiddly phrases (“such as it was”, “all things considered”), Latin tags and derivations, and every conceivable shade of adverb. When Kelly’s phrasing reaches for the mock-heroic, it often comes back to Earth with too great a thud: “Blaylock, tired of the joust, accepted the black ring-binder.” All this verbiage obscures the novel’s function of bringing the news – or rather, the truth behind the news – and the cumulative effect is grating, even painful, like a mirror being shot at.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

The Knives by Richard T Kelly is published by Faber & Faber (475pp, £12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge