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

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood