My friend and frequent contributor Ken used to live in the Middle East. He is not only passionate about this part of the world. He is also one among the few expats I know who embraces the Middle East and understands it.
Ever since I stepped off the plane from London in January 2002 into the cold winter air of Kuwait to start my first consulting project in the Middle East, I have been bewitched by all things Arabic: the culture, the history, the complexity and – above all – the people.
So it was with Captain Thomas Edward Lawrence almost a century earlier, when he first inhaled the distinctive smell of the Middle East (as he put it) from the deck of a liner approaching Cairo. Times were of course different then. The “war to end all wars” was raging in Europe and it was almost inevitable that the great powers of Britain, France, Germany, Austro-Hungary, Russia and the Ottoman Empire would soon fight their proxy wars across the Middle East in the same way that great powers do now.
In Scott Anderson’s masterly book which focuses primarily on Lawrence’s life and surrounding events in the Middle East, he paints a picture of a man whose passion for Arabia allows him to gain such an intimate knowledge of the region (culture, history, complexity and people) that he alone could predict and then witness the havoc wreaked by outside forces, while being powerless to prevent it.
Reading the book for me (as I am sure it must have been for Lawrence as he witnessed these events) was like watching a car crash in slow motion, as the arrogance, narrow-mindedness and ignorance of the great powers propelled them towards conflicts where losing 40,000 men on a battlefield in a single day was deemed inconsequential. As an American whose nation had relatively little involvement in the shaping of the Middle East (at least before the 1930s when the dash for oil started) Anderson does not take sides and the narrative is refreshingly lacking in pomp and circumstance.
Nor does he take prisoners. Through Lawrence and a group of people from different countries who arrive in the region for a variety of connected reasons (primarily espionage and business development), Anderson describes, with clinical precision in a gripping narrative, the way events and decisions affecting the region today fell into place then. His focus on events rather than the personality of Lawrence explains his title “Lawrence in Arabia” rather than “Lawrence of Arabia” about whose life much has already been written – including by the man himself in “Seven Pillars of Wisdom.”
Having said this, Anderson does a good job of trying to make sense of Lawrence’s character which was complex to say the least. How did a highly introverted Oxford scholar transition from desk-bound cartographer to revolutionary solder at the head of a Hashemite army, pioneering a new form of desert guerrilla warfare? This was even more remarkable, as his rank of British Army captain was honorary, bestowed on him to increase his credibility when briefing superiors in the Ministry of Defence and working in-country for British Intelligence out of a plush Cairo hotel.
Lawrence, like the region he loved, was never the same again after the great powers had made their mark. His life was one of steady decline after the thrilling times he had spent in the desert with the Arabs who (unlike the Europeans) trusted him as one of them. He is a hero and role model for me and I feel his pain.
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