How do you write a new book about T.E. Lawrence, especially when the man himself described his escapades, or a version of them, with such inimitable genius? Scott Anderson’s answer is to intercut Lawrence’s extraordinary story — the camel raids and blown-up bridges, the rape and torture, the lies and shame — with those of three contemporaries, all supposedly engaged in a grand intelligence duel in Syria and Arabia.
Alongside Lawrence, the principals are the German playboy and scholar-spy Curt Prüfer, who tried to ignite his own pan-Islamic uprising on behalf of the Ottoman empire; the ‘Yankee blueblood’ William Yale, who intrigued in the region on behalf, principally, of Standard Oil of New York; and the Zionist agronomist and spymaster — a splendidly unlikely combination — Aaron Aaronsohn, who helped prick Britain into backing the idea of a Jewish homeland.
Aaronsohn is the most interesting of the supporting trio. A bloated bull of a man, he matched Lawrence for arrogance, but with the physical size and belligerence to go with it; Lawrence, of course, was short and shy. A pioneering Jewish settler in Palestine, Aaronsohn established a clandestine pro-British and anti-Ottoman spy network known, after words in the Book of Samuel, as Nezah Israel Lo Ieshaker, or ‘the Eternal One of Israel does not lie or relent’. As Anderson drily observes, NILI was a name ‘too exotic for the British’, who referred to it as Organisation A.
NILI’s creation is a significant landmark in the pre-history of Israel, but Aaronsohn’s own achievements were disappointingly slight. As he kicked his heels outside British military offices, NILI’s work in Palestine was continued by his fiery younger sister, Sarah. She deserves more than the few lines given her, what with the fact that she was ardently loved by her own followers, and what with the manner of her death. Captured by the Turks in October 1917, she denounced her torturers even as she fell into unconsciousness, and finally shot herself in order to protect her co-conspirators. Lawrence wouldn’t have managed as much.
Her brother’s contribution to Zionism, however, proved as meagre as his spying. At best, he focused British attention on his cause, and he also stirred some politically useful outrage with his creative memo on the supposed ‘sack of Jaffa’ in April 1917. The atrocities he described became, in Anderson’s words, ‘the ur-myth for the contention that the Jewish community in Palestine could never be safe under Muslim rule’. At the Paris peace conference, however, he was sidelined by Chaim Weizmann and, in May 1919, his plane vanished into fog over the Channel. His role here rather vanishes into the fog as well.
Prüfer enters this story promisingly. He speaks in a curious whisper, the result of a failed throat operation. He works within the German embassy in Cairo as a serial seducer — including diplomatically. He tours Egypt and Syria in Bedouin disguise ‘to promote the twin causes of pan-Islam and anti-colonialism’. He even enjoys a secondment to the German air force — and ‘enjoy’ is the right word. Anderson describes Prüfer ordering a plane to fly low over Jerusalem so as to drop a note, wrapped in the German flag, at the door of his hotel. It was an order for a good dinner to be prepared for his arrival that night.
By October 1916, however, a choleric and tubercular Prüfer was back in Berlin. His role in the story thereafter is to haplessly promote a pro-German candidate as khedive of Egypt — an enterprise that involved, in Prüfer’s own words, ‘boozing, dancing and flirting, hectic room parties and the like’. Anderson describes Prüfer, at this point, as living in a parallel diplomatic universe; it is certainly distant from the other characters in the book.
William Yale’s meanderings seem not so much distant as inconsequential, although he does introduce a sinister, oily undercurrent to the book’s anti-imperialist theme. Yale does a spot of prewar prospecting in the desert for Standard Oil, plays a lot of bridge in Jerusalem (with an Armenian doctor, a retired Turkish colonel and the Greek bishop, rather wonderfully), duplicitously secures a quarter of a million acres of oil concessions in central Palestine from Djemal Pasha, the Ottoman governor of Syria, and eventually becomes the sole representative of American intelligence in the Middle East — which actually says more about US isolationism than about Yale.
If anything unites Anderson’s protagonists — and they never come together in the grand dénouement you feel is promised — it is their focus on what would happen after the war. It feels like an Arabian version of Kipling’s Great Game, with the difference that the players become increasingly sour and disillusioned, like children who have been playing Monopoly for too long. Contemporaries called the break-up of the Ottoman empire ‘the Great Loot’, after all.
Lawrence, as is well known, fought not so much for British victory as for Arab independence, and felt corrupted and dishonoured by what he judged was his own and his country’s betrayal of its allies. Anderson’s own anti-imperialism is no less bitter. He castigates perfidious Albion all over again, notably for the ‘toxic seed’ planted at the end of the first world war. (It is dangerously unclear whether he means Israel itself, here, or Arab hostility to Israel and the West.) It is disappointing that he doesn’t practise as a writer what he preaches as a polemicist. There are only minor roles for the locals, and the book takes almost no account of Arab sources.
I’ve saved Lawrence till last because this book will stand or fall not by its politics but by how well it retells that story. And the answer is very well indeed. It is stirring, scholarly and remarkably sensitive — both to Lawrence’s personal complexities and the geopolitical context. It’s so good on Lawrence, in fact, that whenever Anderson cuts away from him, which is every few pages, you feel a rising impatience.
That, and a mounting irritation. Why must every segue be gussied up with a portentous cliff-hanger or piece of Pulitzeresque prose? Sometimes you get both:
But something else awaited the unprepossessing 26-year-old at the German embassy: a mentor, one of the most colourful — and in the eyes of the British one of the most dangerous — personalities ever to stalk the Middle East.
The effect is weighty, breathless and faintly alarming, like a broken-winded old boxer in drag. And this book is far more attractive than that, and more worthy of respect.