Review of Scott Anderson's "Lawrence in Arabia"

tags: World War I, Arabs, T.E. Lawrence

Ron Briley reviews books for the History News Network and is a history teacher and an assistant headmaster at Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of The Politics of Baseball: Essays on the Pastime and Power at Home and Abroad.

Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East
by Scott Anderson
Doubleday (2013)

Lawrence in Arabia is not a traditional biography of the enigmatic T. E. Lawrence; instead, the story of Lawrence’s exploits in Arabia is rendered in great detail by veteran war correspondent Scott Anderson, who proves to be an excellent storyteller. While the book concentrates upon Lawrence, Anderson also examines the impact of Western imperialism on the Middle East through German academic and diplomat Curt Pruűffer, American Standard Oil representative and later diplomat turned scholar William Yale, and Jewish agronomist and Zionist Aaron Aaronsohn. This biographical approach makes for interesting reading and also includes, among others, in-depth portraits of British diplomat Mark Sykes and Arab leader Emir Hussein and his son Faisal ibn Hussein.

But the core of the book remains Lawrence’s adventures in Arabia in which the British soldier often found himself in conflict with the policies of his government. The British in an effort to tie down Turkish troops encouraged an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire. The leader of this revolt was the respected religious figure Emir Hussein from Mecca, who was promised an Arab nation which would include Syria and Palestine. Yet unknown to the Arabs, in 1916 the French and British negotiated the Sykes-Picot agreement which placed limitations upon any future Arab state by reserving Palestine and Iraq for the British, while the French, despite their lack of a significant military presence on the Middle Eastern front, were to be awarded the primary role in Syria and Lebanon. In addition, the 1917 Balfour Declaration committed the British to the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. In seeking to explain the double dealing of the European governments toward the Arabs, Anderson writes, “For many Europeans, steeped in the condescension of the late imperial age, independence didn’t mean letting native peoples actually govern themselves, but something far more paternalistic: a new round of the ‘white man’s burden,’ the tutoring -- and, of course, the exploiting -- of native peoples until they might sufficiently grasp the ways of modern civilization to stand on their own at some indeterminate point in the future” (183).

For Lawrence, however, who had committed himself to the Arab cause and championed Faisal ibn Hussein as the best Arab military option against the Turks, the secret Sykes-Picot agreement was a betrayal of the promises he made to his Arab allies and friends. Lawrence made an effort to integrate into Arab culture with his dress and customs -- a fact which was much appreciated by the men he led into battle. Nevertheless, this approach was not followed by Lawrence’s fellow British officers who accused him of “going native.” This sense of identification with the Arabs, along with a strong affirmation of personal honor, led Lawrence to inform Faisal of the secret Sykes-Picot accord; an action which Anderson argues might certainly be interpreted as an act of treason. Yet, a rather arrogant young Lawrence insisted that spreading the Arab revolt beyond the narrow confines envisioned by Sykes-Picot would serve both the British and Arabs well while limiting the designs of the French, for whom Lawrence had little respect.

Thus, Lawrence disregarded plans for a British assault upon the port of Aqaba; instead, leading a small Arab force in a surprise land assault upon the strategic port. This military action brought Lawrence enhanced respect from both the British and Arabs, paving the way for Lawrence and Faisal to later occupy Damascus in support of a British offensive against the Turks. Despite the advances of the Arab forces, the British insisted that the Arabs must adhere to the outlines of the imperial agreement the British made with their French allies. In response, a disgruntled Lawrence asked to be relieved of his military duties. He would make one last attempt to dissuade Britain from its imperialist ambitions during the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, but when his efforts were once again unsuccessful; Lawrence withdrew into private life and sought to acquire a new identity in the Royal Air Force.

While generally sympathetic to the policies pursued by Lawrence, Anderson is not uncritical of Lawrence. For example, Anderson acknowledges the ruthless side of Lawrence which was quite apparent after his capture by the Turks at Deraa. While there is some ambiguity surrounding what exactly happened to Lawrence, Anderson suggests that as a possibly repressed homosexual, Lawrence was filled with shame regarding how he responded to torture and rape. Thus, as Arab forces advanced toward Damascus, Lawrence was involved in the massacre of retreating Turkish forces. The horrors of war certainly engulfed the young Englishman who originally perceived himself as a scholar of the Middle East.

Anderson tends to embrace the political ideas espoused by Lawrence for reshaping the Middle East after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The author is hardly naïve enough to suggest that all of the current problems in the region might have been avoided if Britain had not reneged on promises made to its Arab allies. Anderson, however, does argue that the betrayal of the Arabs following World War I fostered a culture of opposition in which “Arab society has tended to define itself less by what it aspires to become than by what it is opposed to: colonialism, Zionism, Western imperialism in its many forms” (494). To some, Anderson will appear too critical of the British decision to support a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Yet, Anderson essentially agrees with Lawrence who asserted, “‘If a Jewish state is to be created in Palestine, in will have to be done by force of arms amid an overwhelmingly hostile population’” (426). In addition, Anderson argues that Faisal’s efforts to accommodate the Balfour Declaration provided ammunition for his more conservative Moslem rivals such as ibn-Saud and his fundamentalist Wahhabist followers.

In conclusion, Lawrence in Arabia is an important book based upon Anderson’s investigation of over twenty archives, both private and governmental, in three continents. The prose is lively, and it is difficult to read these pages without thinking of Peter O’Toole’s portrayal of Lawrence in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1961). While Lean ignored many historical details, his psychological depiction of Lawrence is similar to that developed by Anderson. Although Anderson is quick to distance himself from biographers such as Jeremy Wilson who embrace Lawrence as a hero, Lawrence in Arabia is generally a favorable account of Lawrence’s exploits. The auxiliary biographical accounts of Prűffer, Yale, and Aaronsohn provide the book with some less familiar stories and indicate the variety of interests involved with the creation of the modern Middle East. And Aaronsohn’s life certainly illustrates the tragedy associated with the birth of today’s Middle East. The Romanian-born agronomist settled in Palestine and worked with the Turkish government before establishing a Jewish spy ring for the British. While Aaronsohn escaped to London, his sister and father were captured and tortured by the Turks before losing their lives. Yet one cannot help but wonder whether this legacy might be less violent today if more heed were paid to the thoughts of a young British soldier named Lawrence.

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