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You’re an interesting man, no doubt about it.
The above is the excerpt from T.E. Lawrence’s file that General Allenby reads out loud in the scene of their first meeting, in David Lean’s film Lawrence of Arabia. It’s a description made of contradicting terms, a trend which can be found in any attempt to talk about the Lawrence myth. A fascinating myth, nevertheless, which has captured the attention of historians, biographers, artists and military men. Scott Anderson’s book, Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, aims to shed the allure and unnecessary mystery and look at the facts, truth(s) and the cause-and-effect relationships of the events that happened during the First World War in the region.
The most interesting choice Scott Anderson makes in structuring his work is to present three more additional stories, alongside that of Lawrence: William Yale (his great-great-uncle was the founder of Yale University), a connected oil-man turned secret agent for the Middle East; Carl Prufer, a German diplomat who envisioned igniting a jihad against the British; Aaron Aaronsohn, a Jewish colonist in Palestine who organized a ring of spies for Britain. All characters have ended up interacting with each other, directly or indirectly, and their actions and motivations have repercussions that are continuing to shape the world we live in today.
The book has the feeling of a thriller, the story being driven forward by alternating the perspectives of different characters. While the tone is captivating and intriguing, the content is fact-based and the author presents the different point of views available, whenever the sources he consulted contradict each other. The author takes the readers back in time using accurate descriptions, while pulling them back to the current state of affairs in the world with simple and objective remarks. It’s quite an experience to read the book with CNN somewhere in the background, as you come to realize, with a chilling feeling, the very real legacy of events that seemed minor and secondary 100 years ago.
All the main characters have complicated reputations, but none as complicated as Lawrence’s. In David Lean’s movie, he is asked by Faisal bin Hussein bin Ali if is he is loyal to Britain or to the Arabs. Faisal is quick to point out that Lawrence cannot be faithful to both. Lawrence’s answer is reflected in his actions. In both David Lean’s movie and Scott Anderson’s book, Lawrence is portrayed as a committed Easterner. His deep cultural understanding of the region influenced his military approach and thinking. For example, he was one of the few people who understood, early on in the development of WWI, the strategic importance of capturing the port of Alexandretta, but his rationale was dismissed as the focus of resources and attention were on the Western front.
Eventually, the eyes of the Allied Powers turned to the Middle Eastern front. It was in this moment that Lawrence knowledge of the region and of its people, his great strategic military flair came into action and led to starting the revolt in Hejaz, blowing up railway tracks (such as the one that linked Medina to Damascus) in order to cut the access to supplies for the Turks, capturing Aqaba and taking charge of civic and military orders in Damascus for several weeks after the successful British attack on the Turks.
Lawrence lived like a Bedouin: he ate with the members of the tribes, he dressed like them, rode camels with them and he earned their respect. The connection created with them led to him committing an act of treason, by sharing with Faisal details of the Sykes-Picot agreement (signed in secret in 1916 and publicly exposed in 1917) before it became open information. The document featured an understanding of how the territories of the future former Ottoman Empire would be divided between Britain and France at a time when the situation in the Middle East was uncertain to say the least and while Britain had an agreement with Faisal father, Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca, which promised full independence.
Lawrence hated being part of this deception and the toll it took on him, together with the experience of the horrors of the war, led to his resignation from the army after the Great War ended. Scott Anderson’s book briefly explores the post-war years for Lawrence: his enrollment in the RAF under an alias, his deteriorating health, serving in India between 1927 and 1929. His actions and words from the time describe a man who suffered from PTSD. His life ended in 1935, in a motorcycle accident.
This moment is illustrated at the beginning of David Lean’s masterpiece, impeccable from a technical point of view (it won seven Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Music Score, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design and Best Sound Mixing). At Lawrence’s funeral, a journalist approaches the attendees for their thoughts about the deceased and their answers vary greatly from one man to another. The film is based on Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the book written by Lawrence after the war, about his experience in the Middle East. David Lean’s approach is very different from Scott Anderson and marked by several historical inaccuracies such as Lawrence finding out about the Sykes-Picot agreement only in the waning days of the war and the illustration and timing of the battle of Aqaba. Lawrence of Arabia is a dramatic and artistic product, which captures the transformation of Lawrence during the final moments of the war, culminating in the movie with him killing any Turk that got in his path on the Tafas battlefield.
Both Scott Anderson’ book and David Lean’s film portray a man who gave too much of himself for a higher purpose (that in the end wasn’t fully accomplished). Lawrence’s approach is admirable for the cultural emotional intelligence he demonstrated. In the end, the desert consumed him and he vowed he would never want to see it again. How can one person commit to such a cause while remaining human and whole? is the question to ponder as a learning from Lawrence’s actions.
By this point, some of you may be wondering if there is any female heroine in the book or in the movie. There are a few in the book, but none comes close to the grandeur of Lawrence’s persona. This may trigger frustrations regarding a male focused telling of history. Those objections are valid and (re)discovering history through a gender equality lens may very well teach us all some very important lessons.
Nevertheless, Lawrence in Arabia is a must-read because it does not put the man above the facts and the actions. The book is a forensic analysis that looks beyond the idea of who is making history, and it focuses on the how, on the long term cost and consequences of decision-making, the sort of process that affects several generations of men and women alike. The general and personal lessons to be learned from Lawrence’s story should be studied by both genders, as history has a funny way of repeating itself because we do not know enough of it.