Lawrence of Arabia: The making of a romantic hero and a troubled Middle East
By Alex Glynn
With the Middle East currently seeming to reject the artificial lines drawn by Europeans after WWI, veteran correspondent Scott Anderson was joined by journalist and author Christopher de Bellaigue at the Frontline Club on 25 March to discuss how much the romantic historical figure of T. E. Lawrence shaped the region. This is the basis for Anderson‘s new book, Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East.
De Bellaigue questioned Anderson about his interest in the extensively studied and glorified character, who was more commonly known as Lawrence of Arabia. De Bellaigue observed that in his book Anderson takes a different approach to many “obsessives” and “has taken a step back and made [Lawrence] part of a quartet”.
“We learn a great deal from [Anderson’s] book about not simply what was happening in the Levant and in Arabia in WWI, but also, by implication, what was happening on the Western front.”
Replying to de Bellaigue about the reasons why he wanted to write about such an examined figure, Anderson said:
“Having spent a lot of time in the Middle East, one thing I found whenever I had a conversation of substance with anybody, it didn’t matter if they were political or religious background, invariably people traced the roots of the problem in the region back to the peace that was imposed upon them at the end of WWI.”
He added, “it was always in the back of my mind I wanted to explore that history. I knew Lawrence had played a pivotal role in that.”
“I went back to the core riddle of Lawrence’s life – essentially, how did a painfully shy Oxford scholar, without a single day of military training, how did that guy go off to Arabia and become a battlefield commander of a rebel Muslim army?”
“He had a tremendous amount of freedom of movement,” said Anderson, referring to how the British Army was occupied with WWI and not paying much attention. “If this rather eccentric officer can go off in Arabia and cause problems for those who were allied with the Germans, then go to it.”
This was where Anderson found an original basis for his book: “If that was true about the British, who were by far the biggest imperial players in the region during WWI, it must have been true about the other major powers, and from there I found these other characters.”
This was how Anderson expanded the Lawrence story to include the American William Yale, the German Curt Prüfer and the Jewish Aaron Aaronsohn, who each had their own equally colourful stories.
De Bellaigue pointed out that the “titanic struggle at the heart of this book is between the pro Arabs and the Zionist cause; Lawrence was frustrated in his wish to stand up and uphold the Arab cause”.
Anderson agreed, recalling a comment from Lawrence at the time, shortly after the Balfour Declaration in 1917: “Jewish primacy, a Jewish state in Palestine can only be achieved by a force of arms, and only maintained by a force of arms.”
“Lawrence became increasingly tortured in the field. He was torn between this dual allegiance to the British crown and to the Arab rebels. He after all was fighting for a cause, that being Arab independence,” said Anderson, who admitted he still holds affection for Lawrence, even after writing the book. “Because he knew about the secret Sykes–Picot accord that divided up the region, he called himself a fraud and a charlatan.”
When an audience member remarked that during his travels in the Middle East most people he spoke to didn’t know who Lawrence of Arabia was, Anderson replied:
“I was talking to a Syrian today, and he said when he grew up Lawrence was a revered figure in the 1920s and 30s, to the point where Lawrence is a common name in Syria. They saw him as the one westerner who had tried to stand up.
“But then at some point it switched. They saw him as an agent of imperialism, and to the degree that it is this is that was taught in schools.”
Watch and listen to the full discussion below: