Books > Lawrence in Arabia: war, deceit, imperial folly and the making of the modern Middle East

03 April 2014

Lawrence in Arabia: war, deceit, imperial folly and the making of the modern Middle East

Unreliable guide in the desert

Reviewed by Mark Allen
ATLANTIC, 506pp, £25

Tablet bookshop price £22.50           
Tel 01420 592974

The centenary of the outbreak of the First World War is a reminder to people like me of how uncertain we are about that period of history. Comfortable for years with generalisations about the whys and wherefores – I can remember older teachers at school reminiscing about the trenches in Flanders – suddenly our prejudices are challenged; our ignorance jolted. Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia, an action-packed account of the Arab revolt, rubs up these uncertainties like a Brillo pad. Bracing? Sure, but this big, heavy book is a fascination and an entertainment as well as a frustration.

Although Lawrence described it as a “side-show of a side-show”, the Arab revolt in 1917-18 helped bring Allenby to Damascus and saw the rolling up of the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire – and lay behind the Versailles peace conference’s conferral of mandates on France and Britain, which resulted in turn in today’s Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. The Balfour Declaration of 1917, promising to support a “national home” for the Jewish people in Palestine, belonged to the same era. So the disorder now raging from Beirut to Baghdad prompts a lip-biting reflection on outsiders’ interventions in other people’s politics, on unintended consequences, and on the difficult balance between local and international interests.

Anderson, an American war correspondent and occasional novelist, doesn’t shrink from raising these larger questions, and his account of the revolt provides a thought-provoking addition to the centenary retrospect. He plots the drama through the linked narratives of T.E. Lawrence, a German intelligence operator called Curt Prüfer, an American oilman turned State Department agent, William Yale, and a Zionist agronomist settler in the Holy Land, Aaron Aaronsohn. The first of this quartet will be familiar to most of us from the David Lean movie, with its unforgettably catchy theme tune and the hypnotic Peter O’Toole in the title role. The other three appear to have been brought out of obscurity largely to add colour and illumination to Anderson’s sub-plots, Zionism and oil, and, I suspect, to differentiate his book from the rest in the already large canon of Lawrentiana. These four characters criss-cross the Near East, repeatedly running into each other like dodgem cars.

The background is colourfully caught through panoramic shots of the Western Front, of Whitehall, and the British military headquarters in Cairo, with cuts to the Central Powers’ liaison with Istanbul and the Jewish diaspora. Whether this approach works or irritates will be a highly personal preference. Some of the detail is certainly vivid – in Yale’s dealings, for instance, with Djemal Pasha, the Young Turk and Ottoman governor of Syria, and in Aaronsohn’s difficult relationship with Chaim Weizmann – but I found the heavy structuring obtrusive.

The vignettes add detail to the well-known Lawrence story, but they do not really amount to a telling argument that the British were out-and-out cynics, dealing in bad faith with idealist but vulnerable Arabs, whose trust in London was tragically misplaced. It’s curious that while there is a constant interest in Lawrence’s attitude to sex (the Deraa incident, and his relationship with his servants Daud and Farraj), the idea, when it came to political risk, that there were plenty of consenting adults in the drama, is overlooked in the hurry to cast cruder blames. It was, after all, a desert sheikh who warned Lawrence to take care with the Hashemites – “if they can betray the Caliph of Islam [i.e. the Sultan in Istanbul], they can betray you”. It is notable that in today’s Jordan T.E. Lawrence is allowed mention as a lure to tourists; in the usual version of the country’s history, he is redacted out of the story. The best that can be heard said of him is that he was the good servant of his country … inconveniently, perhaps, for the Arabs, but not shameful.

It is a frustration to read another book on Lawrence which reveals such slight knowledge of the Arabs. Wasn’t it among the Arabs that Lawrence made his name? Howlers like “dragomen” as the plural for “dragoman”; lazy slips like the assumption that the ‘Uqail are a tribe (in fact they were a caste of camel caravan leaders, rather like a privileged guild of long-distance lorry drivers); a weak grasp of the human and physical geography of north Arabia and of the tension between Islamic and tribal interests. These leave the reader wondering how safe the writer is as a guide to a complicated story. For me, Lawrence’s achievement was to deliver a military success out of the disparate energies and ambitions of major personalities in an utterly foreign culture. This required a paradoxical combination of real sensitivity and real toughness, of tremendous commitment with a minimum of egotism.

Anderson tries to bring a wider focus to this tale. With the help of hindsight, he goes for an analysis which focuses on following up threads of conspiracy and dishonesty. It makes for an exciting read, but the mystery of T.E. Lawrence’s personality remains undisclosed, as indeed it was even for those who knew him. It’s more the attempt, if not to knock, at least to cut down to size and squeeze into a mould, a complex story not without a degree of heroism which will sadden any reader who has had to experience the muddles and gaffes of power. Inevitably, each generation gets in the light when it writes history. So, perhaps, each generation’s take on history tells us more about itself than about the past. The mood music for Anderson’s book seems supplied by recent American experience in Iraq rather than the war which the Americans never had against the Ottomans. The result is not without interest, but it’s not quite what is promised on the packet.

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