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6 November 2015updated 20 Aug 2021 9:22am

How the Arab world grapples with the cultural legacy of Lawrence of Arabia

 “They’re the ones that have the power and the gaze is towards us.”

By Bethan Staton

“I’ve never trusted history,” Abeer Jaradat says. “I feel like everyone is telling his story, and we’ll never know the truth.”

Jaradat, a Jordanian amateur photographer, is contemplating TE Lawrence. She’s part of a group of artists deconstructing the legacy of the British officer this month, in an exhibition and workshop series led by British photographer Tom Hunter.

Lawrence lends himself easily to controversy. Renowned for his knowledge of the Middle East, he fought alongside Arab forces in the 1916-18 revolt against the Ottoman Empire. But after Britain and France carved up the region between them in the Sykes-Picot agreement he came to be regarded as an agent of colonial betrayal.

Amera al-Masha’al, a writer whose family were expelled from Palestine in 1948, believes everything that’s since transpired in Arab countries was affected by Lawrence, and finds herself admiring his force of character despite the perversity of colonial influence. The ambivalence extends to her knowledge of the man, who layers of fiction and history has turned into a myth.

In the exhibition Amera and her fellow artists have created in Amman, the classic movie Lawrence of Arabia is omnipresent, in cinema reels, movie posters, and even the title: A Sideshow of a Sideshow. More than anything it’s the film that’s defined the story of Lawrence, and for most westerners the entire Arab revolt. The narrative it depicts, predictably, casts a white male adventurer as the leading protagonist of an Arab struggle.

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“It’s such a horrible movie. It puts Lawrence as the hero. Those people that sacrificed their lives for their freedom, in the movie they show them like thieves, like savages,” photographer Lubna Anani says. Watching the film, with its scenes of Arab soldiers brawling while Peter O’Toole shudders at violence and leads them to victory, it’s easy to see what she means. “You’re selling an idea,” Hunter continues. “You’re selling a beautiful white man with blue eyes. And he becomes the Madonna of the Desert, and everyone else are his understudies.”

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The romantic white lead, of course, is an idea with a robust heritage. During the First World War, sensationalised reports of Lawrence by American journalist Lowell Thomas were capturing western imagination and Lawrence’s own memoir  the not-inconspicuously titled Seven Pillars of Wisdom – added to the mystique. For many, Lawrence’s whole life seems an orientalist fantasy. “He was living out his childhood dream. He got to live in a castle, and lead the Bedouin,” Anani says. “I think he had very orientalist ideas of the middle east, and came, and got to live those experiences – it’s almost theatrical.”

That the idea of Lawrence is mythologised and reimagined, however, doesn’t stop it shaping the present. The workshop’s participants say they recognise the films “superior” western perspective in media that marginalises and discredits Arab voices – media that they’ve grown up consuming. “They’re the ones that have the power and the gaze is towards us,” Anani says. She sees the centralising of western voices as crucial in fuelling the neo-colonialist policies that continue to shape the region.

This week, the group’s exhibition will open at Darat el Funun, an artspace close to where Lawrence wrote parts of his memoir nearly a century ago. Participants will display their own interpretations of what he means and his significance: Anani with a self-portrait modelled on his iconic photograph in Arab dress, Masha’al a short story series, Jaradat a map of the Middle East from bullets. 

Hunter, aware of his perhaps ironic role as a British man coordinating a reassessment of TE Lawrence’s colonial legacy, is focusing his work on objects he’s found in Jordan. 

“We’re very aggressively putting ourselves in the picture,” Anani says.