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

JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge