Lawrence In Arabia

Lawrence In Arabia

War, Deceit, Imperial Folly And The Making Of The Modern Middle East

Book - 2013
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"The Arab Revolt against the Turks in World War I was, in the words of T.E. Lawrence, "a sideshow to a sideshow." As a result, the conflict was shaped to a remarkable degree by four men far removed from the corridors of power. Curt Pruefer was an effete academic attached to the German embassy in Cairo, whose clandestine role was to foment jihad against British rule. Aaron Aaronsohn was a renowned agronomist and committed Zionist who gained the trust of the Ottoman governor of Palestine. William Yale was the fallen scion of the American aristocracy, who traveled the Ottoman Empire on behalf of Standard Oil, dissembling to the Turks in order gain valuable oil concessions. At the center of it all was Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence. In early 1914 he was an archaeologist digging ruins in Syria; by 1919 he was riding into legend at the head of an Arab army, as he fought a rearguard action against his own government and its imperial ambitions."--Jacket.
Publisher: Toronto : Signal, c2013.
ISBN: 9780771007668
Characteristics: xii, 577 p., [24] p. of plates : ill., maps, ports. ; 25 cm.


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PimaLib_ChristineR Feb 09, 2021

"As with many of Lawrence’s other predictions, his warning about ibn-Saud and the Wahhabists was ultimately to prove true. In 1923, ibn- Saud would conquer much of the Arabian Peninsula and, to honor his clan, give it the name Saudi Arabia. For the next ninety years, the vast and profligate Saudi royal family would survive by essentially buying off the doctrinaire Wahhabists who had brought them to power, financially subsidizing their activities so long as their disciples directed their jihadist efforts abroad. The most famous product of this arrangement was to be a man named Osama bin Laden."

Lawrence in Arabia is much less a biography of one man, than a broad-reaching historical exploration of WWI in the Middle East and how that has impacted the Middle East today, told through the lens of four figures: T.E. Lawrence for the British, William Yale for the Americans, Aaron Aaronsohn for the Jews in the Middle East, and Curt Prüfer for the Germans. Anderson is absolutely scathing about the British, in particular, leadership in WWI. For the many failures in the Middle East, Anderson sums it up in his preamble to the Battle of Gallipoli: "Throughout history, there have been occasions when a vastly superior military force has managed, against all odds, to snatch defeat from all but certain victory." But he doesn't save it all for the British, snarking, "in looking at the conduct of the war and the almost preternatural idiocy displayed by all the competing powers, perhaps its most remarkable feature is that anyone finally won at all." And the details he gives definitely bears out the author's disdain.

On the other hand, Anderson does dig in to Lawrence, his childhood, what likely happened to Lawrence both physically and emotionally, and poses that Lawrence was a pro at creating his own story, writing his own history, claiming that "earlier than most, Lawrence seemed to embrace the modern concept that history was malleable, that truth was what people were willing to believe." If you are interested in knowing more about Lawrence of Arabia, this is a great place to start.

Perhaps the most interesting aspects of the work though, is how Anderson shows Lawrence and various others can see what the future will hold, yet they were repeatedly ignored leading us to the morass that is the Middle East today. From the creation of a Zionist state, to the forming of the Arab identity, Lawrence in Arabia is a must read if you want to understand the region and how it became what it is.

About the text itself: I highly recommend the ebook, if like me, you like to be able to click on a place name and pull up the map of that area. I found it invaluable. What I didn't like about the format, however, was that the endnotes had not been linked into the body of the text and all the images are at the very end of the endnotes and are also not linked to the text in any way. It was still the best way for me to see the battles and travels and I'd still recommend it.

May 21, 2019

I read this book as I traveled to visit a friend in Amman, Jordan, and from there through the Wadi Rum desert to Aqaba. Fortunately for me, the history on these pages came alive as I read and traveled through much of the region where this history was made. I mention this because I found this book absolutely fascinating, and have since recommended this to others if they are traveling to the region or interested in 'modern' changes to the area and start of some the modern day conflicts in the Middle East. I held no real curiosity in TE Lawrence prior to reading this book, and I suppose this book fulfilled all I will ever need to know about him. I can't really fault Scott Anderson for spending too much time talking about TE Lawrence in a biography of TE Lawrence, can I? Rather I was seeking a book that would provide modern historical context for my travels in Jordan, which was surprisingly hard to find. I think this book nailed it for me; weaving historical narratives of the infamous Lawrence, his role in WWI, and the other significant historical figures at play into a mildy entertaining (for history), account of changes in the Middle East during a turbulent time. They didn't teach me this in high school. Four stars, because it is not necessarily a page turner, even for a motivated reader.

Feb 04, 2018

T. E. Lawrence is seen as a reflection of what many commoners might have felt in the midst of the morass that became World War I: determined to get through the byzantine (no pun intended) negotiations and considerations that were foisted upon the world by outdated principles to arrive at an outcome that would allow his country some honor and the Arabs he was trying to help a measure of dignity that would justify the sacrifices he helped convince them to make. That he made great sacrifices himself is arguably the primary reason there was any honor or dignity to the outcome at all, but the compromises Lawrence had to make to get that far weighed far heavier on him.

This volume gives an extensive account of how Lawrence came to the Middle East, why he became attached to the war effort and, most importantly, what he did. Anderson also explores the lives and careers of others who influenced the war and to some extent the outcome, including the German academic Curt Prufer, the American oilman William Yale and the Romanian-Palestinian-Jewish agronomist Aaron Aaronsohn. What all of three of the men shared was that they were also at one point spies, and each of them was trying to play the conflict in the Ottoman Empire to achieve their own ends. To do that, all of them needed the mercurial Djemal Pasha, one of the leaders of the Young Turks, in one way or another.

But Lawrence is the star. The quintessential outsider-looking-in, he knew enough to distrust institutions, but his childhood interest in medieval warfare also led him to believe in doing the right thing. Why did he identify with Arab independence? Perhaps because his time in the region was his happiest memory; perhaps because there were aspects of the culture that reminded him of medieval Europe; perhaps because he had no love for imperial manipulation. Regardless of why, up until the very end of the war, he considered that his cause, not protecting British interests in the region.

The description of the beginning of the Armenian genocide will make the reader wince- much as it did both Faisal Hussein, Lawrence's military and political partner in the region, and Djemal Pasha, who tried to offer as much protection to the survivors as he was capable of. The specter of what happened to the Armenians also haunted the Zionists both inside and outside of the region.

Zionism was less controversial in the 1910s, but not by much. Like every other consideration of the war, it wasn't considered on its own merits but by what strategic advantage it could offer its sponsors or detractors. Lawrence himself was stridently anti-Zionist during the war in large part because he thought the proposals were ill thought-out and would further compromise the Arabs. However, by the Paris Peace Conference, he arranged for Faisal and Chaim Weizmann, the leader who would become the first President of Israel, to support each other's desiderata.

While much is made of the disastrous Sykes-Picot agreement (and the description of Mark Sykes is another moment that will make the reader cringe), Anderson notes in the epilogue that it wasn't the previously discredited agreement that paved the way for the modern mess in the region. During the Paris Peace Conference, the prime ministers of England and France wanted to make sure that they presented a united front against the other phantom of World War I- the idealistic but arrogant Woodrow Wilson. Sykes-Picot would have been an improvement over what they ultimately came up with.

You can't talk about Lawrence without talking about Deraa. Anderson comes to the conclusion that Lawrence was most probably tortured *and* raped, and his inability to offer an accurate account of it was due probably to both the social mores of his era and the psychic trauma the event would have caused anyone. Regardless, there is a certain bloodthirst in Lawrence that we only see after Deraa- and this is what mars the Lawrence legend more than anything else.

Aug 07, 2016

I recently saw David Lean's magnificent film "Lawrence of Arabia" (In the theater, as it should be.) and was curious about the historical context and the real Lawrence. Scott Anderson's compelling and illuminating book both gives you a picture of Lawrence as well as goes into depth about the politics of the period, which resulted in the Sykes-Picout Agreement that created the modern MIddle East and did an incredible amount of damage. It's useful to remember that the imperial ambitions of France and England laid the foundation for the conflicts we are still dealing with. An important book that anyone who seeks to make sense of the Middle East should read. I'd also recommend "The Fall of the Ottomans" and "Power, Faith, and Fantasy."

May 09, 2016

Very well written and an enjoyable read but very detailed. Consequently I could only read about an hour of it per sitting. This is a must read not only for understanding the mess in the Middle East today but the stupidity and horror of WWI.

Jan 23, 2016

Scott Anderson's sweeping history and biography of several major players in the WWI era is a compelling, masterful read, including for anyone who is trying to understand the roots of what is happening in the Middle East today. With its unique perspective and wonderfully-arranged and researched detail, it is a fitting companion to the best of WWI histories that focus on the theatre in Europe.

Jan 02, 2015

Excellent read. Thoroughly researched and a great bibliography! I now have a must-read list of 12 books from this bibliography alone. Very well written which is a treat now a days! It covers more than just Lawrence's life but all the other players during this period as well without making it confusing. Anderson does provide a very balanced view of Lawrence without vilifying him or making him out to be more of a hero than he was. Highly recommended and I'm a bit sorry that the book had to end.

Nov 08, 2014

This book is fine for the amateur historian who loves excruciating detail. I got lost in it and put it down about half way through. If you want a summary, see the movie. From the table of contents, I don't see a useful statement about why Arabia is or behaves the way it does, although that information might be gleaned from the book overall. But the book is unlikely to shed light on how the Arabs should be engaged in the modern world.

A must read for any student of Middle Eastern history. The story of T.E. Lawrence is a fascinating look at a pivotal place and time in history in which events were set in motion that continue to have impact today. Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for 2014.

Jan 06, 2014

A very well written book. Many of us know WWI history from the European western front standpoint, but don't have a grasp of what transpired in the Middle East during WWI. I found it well written and thoroughly researched. I was intrigued with how he described how the Western mentality of handling the Middle East carries through to today, numerous wars later.

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