[inset_left]Lawrence In Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle EastBy Scott Anderson575 pagesAtlantic Books, London 2014[/inset_left]The narrative goes something like this: The British sent one of their spies, T.E. Lawrence, to incite the Arabs to revolt against the Ottomans. Thus the British seized control of the Middle East, which they then carved into pieces in a deal with the French known as the Sykes–Picot Agreement. On the margins of the main events, the British also issued the Balfour Declaration, which gave Palestine to the Jews who created Israel.
The crucial point in that narrative is to obtain a proper understanding of its central personage: Lawrence.
If you thought you knew all you needed to know about “Lawrence of Arabia,” if only thanks to David Lean’s epic film, think again. Scott Anderson’s magisterial new book retells the story in a way that challenges some aspects of the Lawrence myth.
Put briefly, the myth is about a young English eccentric who lands in the Ottoman Levant during the First World War and succeeds in leading the Arabs in a revolt that helps knock the Sublime Porte out of the game, ensuring the Allies’ victory. Over the past century, the Lawrence myth has been used for conflicting purposes. Some have used it to underline the supposed English penchant for heroism. Others have presented it as an example of British “imperialist” deviousness, especially when it comes to stabbing friends in the back.
Anderson starts challenging these views by choosing to call the book “Lawrence in Arabia” rather than “Lawrence of Arabia,” thus putting the mythical hero into context. This is not a mere semantic pirouette. By no stretch of the imagination could we attach the sobriquet “Arab” to Lawrence. The young adventurer did know some Arabic, although it is not certain how much. He also had read some books on Arabs and had been involved in several archaeological excavations, mostly in what is now Turkey, that tangentially concerned Arabs.
Anderson then uses long shots, rather than close-ups which—while keeping the spotlight on Lawrence when necessary—to help the reader appreciate the historic and cultural elements of the setting. At times, his insistence on depicting the setting becomes a bit irksome. For example, Anderson describes the type of stone used in this or that building or the kind of moustache this or that officer was sporting. Nevertheless, the cumulative effect creates a sense of reality.
Next, Anderson fields a cast of “supporting” characters that help the drama move towards its denouement. Some, like Curt Prüfer, the “German Lawrence,” or William Yale, the American oil-man and spy, even manage to steal some of Lawrence’s limelight. Others, like the Zionist militant Aaron Aaronsohn or Bedouin warlord Auda Abu-Tayi, cling to memory as tragic/heroic figures.
Anderson then deconstructs elements of the Lawrence myth. He shows that the idea of an Arab revolt was not Lawrence’s invention. In fact, before the war started and before Lawrence arrived in the Middle East as an apprentice archaeologist, Abdullah, one of the sons of Sharif Hussein, the nominal governor of Mecca, had raised the idea with General Kitchener, the British ruler of Egypt in Cairo. Kitchener dismissed the idea but, presumably to keep options open, put Hussein on the payroll. Arab nationalist groups such as Al-Fatat (The Knights) and Al-Ahd (The Pledge) had also sought the support of Western powers, especially Britain, in their struggle against the Ottomans. What we had was not “imperialism” trying to expand on the back of native freedom movements; it was a case of native movements trying to use a distant “imperialism” against near oppressors.
The idea of an Islamic jihad against the infidel had also been in circulation before the war. The Germans wanted to use it against the British Empire, which, at the time, included more than half of the world’s Muslims and thus could be regarded as the largest “Muslim power.” The idea of European colonial powers using Muslims as a weapon had even inspired a novel, Greenmantle by John Buchan, published a year before Lawrence started marketing his “Arab revolt.”
If anything, Lawrence, often a confused man, muddied the waters by emphasizing Arab nationalism as the main ideological ingredient of the revolt. Even then, he made the mistake of equating the interests of “Arabs” with those of Hussein’s cosmopolitan family. Years later, Lawrence had to admit that the concept of an “Arab nation” had been “just a mirage.”
Despite his genius for mise-en-scène, including dressing up as an Arab sheikh, Lawrence had little contact with Arabs. Apart from his stint as an archaeologist in Carchemish, an Assyrian village, where he met Ali Salim, possibly the love of his life, Lawrence spent little time in Arab towns apart from Cairo, where he lived in luxury hotels. His “Arabia” was a small portion of the Red Sea coast known as Tehama, where Lawrence visited Jeddah and later a string of smaller ports on several occasions, but then only for a few days.
Anderson also puts the military aspects of the Lawrence myth in more modest proportions. The bands he helped organize carried out a dozen or two sabotage attacks, mostly against the Hejaz railway, but seldom encountered Ottoman troops. The six Red Sea ports that fell to Lawrence’s “Arab army” had a total population of around 10,000. The population of Dera’a, the largest town that Lawrence and his “Arabs” captured, had a population of 7,000. Aqabah, where the Lawrence legend reached its peak, had a population of no more than 2,000.
Lawrence was able to pursue his shenanigans because the Ottoman governor, Jamal Pasha, known by Arabs as Al-Saffah (the Bloodsucker), was, in fact, reluctant to use the iron fist. He offered a prize for Lawrence’s capture, but then did nothing to find him. And when Lawrence was accidentally arrested in Dera’a, nobody bothered to check his identity. He was released after a few hours in which he claimed he had been sexually assaulted by the local Turkish governor. The “Arab army” actually fought the Turks on only four occasions, and with mixed results. In the end, the Ottomans were militarily broken by a regular British army operation under Gen. Edmund Allenby.
At times, Anderson repeats the usual clichés about that period in the Middle East. One example is his seething hatred of Sir Mark Sykes, the British politician who negotiated the notorious Sykes–Picot Agreement with France and Russia. A caricature artist in his spare time, Sykes could not have known that he would himself end up as a caricature of the British “imperialist.” Although he stabs Sykes with his pen, Anderson shows that the Sykes–Picot Agreement was never implemented. When the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in 1917, Trotsky published the secret text of the agreement to denounce “imperialist plots.”
Sykes, as Anderson explains, believed that Arabs would do well to accept colonial rule for a while. He wrote: “Ten years under the Entente (i.e. Britain and France) and the Arabs will become a nation. Complete independence now means Persia, poverty and chaos.” In the end, however, Britain and France did not adopt the Sykes–Picot Agreement. The fate of the Ottoman Empire’s Arab provinces was decided in a 10-minute walk by British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and his French counterpart Georges Clémenceau in 1918. “You keep Syria and we shall have the rest,” the British leader told his French companion, as they shook hands on the deal. Sykes had wanted only a 10-year rule over the Arabs, but the two leaders fixed no limit.
Anderson’s work is also interesting when it deals with the Balfour Declaration. This was a hand-written note of three sentences from the British foreign secretary to Jewish financier Lord Rothschild. It was not even discussed in the Cabinet and, as Anderson makes clear, the British never decided quite what it meant. After the Second World War, the government of Clement Atlee did all it could to prevent the creation of Israel, and when the Jewish state was announced did not recognize it for 18 months.
The idea of a mass return of Jews to Palestine did not start with the Balfour Declaration. Nor was it the fruit of efforts by a handful of British Zionists, notably William Ormsby-Gore. It had been part of the literary and political buzz of the times in Europe since the 19th century. Disraeli’s novel Coningsby and George Elliot’s Daniel Deronda toyed with the idea, while the Hungarian writer Theodor Herzl’s Neulatenstadt (New–Old City) tried to give it an ideological depth. The assumption was that Arabs and Jews, supposedly being “cousins,” would live and work together to create a new model of human society in which modern materialism was tempered by ancient spiritualism.
Lawrence in Arabia is a marvelous depiction of British incompetence, confusion and constant factional feuds. It also puts the spotlight on the cupidity of Arab leaders who held their people in contempt and spent their time amassing, sometimes even stealing, as much gold as they could. Lawrence used that jumble of a backdrop to promote his own image and feed the monster that was his ego. He himself admitted that what he was selling was “a sideshow in a sideshow.” At the time, Britain and its allies needed a morale-boosting myth to provide relief from the Western front, where millions waited to be butchered in a meaningless war in the trenches.
Years later, Lawrence, recalling his meeting with Allenby, wrote: “Allenby could not make out how much [of me] was genuine performer and how much charlatan.”
Well, what if it was a genuine performance by a charlatan?