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Lawrence of Arabia
a tragic + enigmatic hero
The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There is always more mystery. ― Anais Nin
Thomas Edward Lawrence, known to the world as Lawrence of Arabia, entered the world on Thursday August 16th, 1888 in Carnovonshire, Wales, out of wedlock. His father, Sir Thomas Chapman found himself in an unhappy marriage to a religious fanatic, himself leaning to heavily into the sauce and he fell in love with a clever and cheerful governess 15 years his junior. That governess, Sarah Lawrence, became Thomas Edward’s mother. T.E.’s father gave up a lordship and all the trappings of a posh life to follow his love. T.E. cut an unassuming, almost boyish figure as a man — slight + gracile at a height of 5 foot 6 inches tall. Lowell Thomas made this dramatic and complex man a national hero and a household name by writing about T.E.’s adventures. David Lean + Peter O’Toole further catapulted T.E. into larger than life status with the now classic film Lawrence of Arabia.
I won’t waste your time repeating what’s already out there about this bloke. You can check out the Lowell Thomas archives here, you can check out an analysis of the movie here. T.E. wrote a book, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, on which Lean based the his movie. When I look at some of the clips made by Lowell Thomas I get silent film Valentino’s The Sheikh vibes. The masses need stories, and they don’t need facts. The British placed T.E. in an impossible situation, and he embraced it, in his innately masochistic manner. It’s most certain he knew about the Sykes-Picot agreement when he began working with Faisal in the Arab Revolt. He remained troubled for the rest of his life at his role in history. In a 1960s BBC an Arab described him as fearless, a wolf. Whatever we think of him, we can agree he made an indelible impact on the Middle East. And his men, those who fought alongside him, absolutely adored him.
I’m going to go on record as saying the need to deny T.E.’s reports of rape and torture by the Ottomans is telling me more about yourself than you are about T.E. We really do have hang-ups about masculinity, and it amuses and annoys me.
Why did Faisal and his men embrace T.E. so readily? Did he win them solely with his cultural sensitivity, and personality? Could his gracile/effeminate and boyish cut, blonde-haired + blue-eyed figure have drawn a sort of exotic interest from the Bedouin people? We, in our 2023 western mindset often see exoticism going in one-direction. So, what can we attribute to Lawrence, vis à vis Arab history and the legacy for Muslims?
The success of the Arab Revolt—in particular his bold plan to take the Red Sea Port of Akaba from the desert (involved a trek through the Nefud desert, no places to resupply water)—Lawrence in this campaign essentially became a guerrilla warrior, blowing up bridges and launching terror attacks on Hejaz railway line from Damascus to Medina
He put the Arab world and the middle east on the global map, he put that into everyone’s living room.
He contributed to the victory of the British over the Ottomans—the taking of Akaba provided an important impetus.
He failed diplomatically—he led the Arabs to a revolt and promised them independence he knew they wouldn’t get. How did that impact how the Arabs viewed Europeans?
The failure of T.E. to help Faisal gain independence for the Arab people via a Bilad-al-Shams pan-Arabia meant that the Arabs turned their sights to Palestine as a symbol of their battle for independence from colonial rule. This gave al-Husayni, still a young man at the time, a purpose.
T.E. fought for the destruction of the Ottoman Empire. So, post WW1 would leave a post Ottoman populace with poor education and literacy, heavily indoctrinated with anti-British + anti-French propaganda now facing British and French Mandatory rule.
Incidentally, al-Husayni switched sides in 1917—deserting his post as an Ottoman Lt after sick leave sent him home to Jerusalem for 3 months and taking a salary in gold from the British he recruited 1500 men from Palestine to fight alongside T.E. Yes indeed, until he got word that the British were negotiating with the Zionists, al-Husayni did work for British intelligence.
T.E.’s diplomatic failure set a path for the post Ottoman Middle East that led to British appeasement upon appeasement of the Arabs (to no end) and the development of a tense and conflict-riddled geopolitical situation.
“Sherif Hussein is not working in the British interests, except in so far as they further the particular dreams and hopes of the political party to which he belongs. His aim is the establishment of a Khalifate (not the only one) for himself, and independence for people speaking Arabic from their present irritating subjection to people speaking Turk. His aims are thus in definite opposition to the Pan-Islamic party, who are his strong obstacle, and to the Young Turk party, who are however less dangerous to his schemes; his activity seems beneficial to us, because it marches with our immediate aims, the break up of the Islamic ‘bloc’ and the defeat and disruption of the Ottoman Empire, and because the states he would set up to succeed the Turks would be as harmless to ourselves as Turkey was
before she became a tool in German hands. The Arabs are even less stable than the Turks. If properly handled they would remain in a state of political mosaic, a tissue of small jealous principalities, incapable of cohesion, and yet always ready to combine against an outside force. The alternative to this seems to be control and colonisation by a European power other than ourselves, which would inevitably come into conflict with the interests we already posses in the Near East.”
—T.E. Lawrence, Unsigned Memorandum The Politics of Mecca, 19141
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