peteg's blog - noise - books - 2009 12 19 Lawrence SevenPillarsOfWisdom

T. E. Lawrence: Seven Pillars of Wisdom a triumph

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The classic sandals-and-machine guns saga by Lawrence of Arabia. Like the movie (but more so), it is an incredibly long and repetitious account of Lawrence's efforts during World War I to forment and support the Arab Revolt. Amongst these 700 pages one might hope that he would provide more context more regularly; often people are mentioned once or twice only, using just a surname or nickname, and the composition of caravans is left implicit. This makes it difficult to keep track of who is where when, what the military objectives were, and who is feuding with whom over what.

The language is pretentiously florid, as if the author is trying to write a Bible of Arab insurgency. Lawrence introspects regularly, albeit with a knowingness that does not work well with a non-specialist such as I, and the progress of his thinking is obscured. Reglarly my eyes glazed over and vast tracks made little impression. George Orwell continued in this tradition of siding with anti-establishment sentiment and writing about it, but realised early-on that flowery language gets in the way of clear apprehension.

Still, it is a fabulous tale. The land is vast, the camel rides heroic. The best parts analyse Arab culture on the road: feasts, sexuality, what is fair game to raid, what is valued, and so forth. Lawrence's motivations, where I could divine them, seem romantic: he would have been just as happy helping in the liberation of the Indians, it seems, if he had been digging up their antiquities instead.

Also interesting are the power relationships amonst the English and Arab hierarchies. Lawrence venerates General Allenby and Emir Feisal as the great men of the day, respects Auda for his ability in battle, and the technical knowledge of his sappers and troops. The Turks are regularly rubbished though, in contrast to the Germans who are deemed an enemy that one can be proud to have.

The international relations of the day seemed a lot more gentlemanly, centering on personalities and lobbying by venerated (upper-class) parties, and there was a lot more emphasis on direct control of the dominion, rather than the indirect approach of Pax Americana. I put that down to the technological limits of the times.

I guess I am more interested in the post-WWI history of the Middle East; after the efforts of King Hussein of Mecca and sons in the region stretching from Hejaz to Syria, how did Saudi Arabia come to occupy the two holy cities? — Lawrence's maps show just a relatively small kingdom around Riyad, which may also have been called something like Wahibistan. Wikipedia has some answers. From a local perspective the British efforts may well have looked like the last crusade.

Somewhat sadly, Feisal did not last too long in Syria, ruling from Damascus; the French ejected him in 1920. It seems that Jordan is the last remnant of the Hashemite regimes, and from this distance it appears to be one of the more tolerant, stable and successful countries in the region.

I'll have to watch the movie again.