Justin Marozzi

The tragedy of Arabia

Lawrence’s vision was betrayed in a shabby colonial carve-up — and the Middle East has been paying the price ever since, according to Neil Faulkner’s biography

The tragedy of Arabia
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Lawrence of Arabia’s War: The Arabs, the British and the Remaking of the Middle East in WWI

Neil Faulkner

Yale, pp. 552, £

Is there anything new to be said about T.E. Lawrence? I mean, really. In the century since his stirring exploits in the Arabian desert we have had all manner of biographies, from simpering hagiography to heartless hatchet job. We have had Lawrence the colonial hero and faithful imperial servant; Lawrence the linguist, explorer and spy, pioneer of guerrilla warfare; Lawrence the Machiavellian betrayer of the Arabs; Lawrence the preening, self-mythologising sado-masochist. Each generation projects its own prejudices and visions, fears and fantasies upon this unusual man.

Even now, 80 years after his death, the torrent of biographies shows little sign of abating. In recent years we have had studies by Lawrence James (2008), John Hulsman (2009), Michael Korda (2010), Scott Anderson (2013), Anthony Sattin (2014), Andrew Norman (2014) and Bruce Leigh (2014). We now know so much about his life that its many waypoints have become well-churned quagmires of debate.

Was he buggered at Deraa by Turkish forces, for example, as he famously claimed? Lawrence put the rape charge more delicately, writing that he had irrevocably lost the ‘citadel of my integrity’. It may never have happened. Possibly it was a later invention to discredit the Arab militants who had shopped him to the Turks. Maybe it was suggested to explain the scars accrued from sado-masochistic beatings. Perhaps we shall never know, and do we really care?

Neil Faulkner is an archaeologist and historian who has been part of the anti-war and anti-imperialist movement of recent years (I don’t know what that means either). One might expect the left-leaning author of a Marxist history of the world to be less taken by Lawrence than other scholars. In fact this is not the case. One of the most interesting findings of his archaeological Great Arab Revolt Project of 2006–2014, mostly carried out in southern Jordan, was that the Turks had military posts covering every single yard of the Hijaz railway, implying that Lawrence and the train-wrecking Arab guerrilla fighters were rather more of a military menace than has often been supposed and that ‘detractors who have portrayed him as a liar, a charlatan and a self-promoter are wrong’. Seven Pillars of Wisdom is reaffirmed as ‘one of history’s great war memoirs’, a conclusion from which few Spectator readers might demur. As for that old canard about the Middle East being a ‘sideshow’ of the Great War — some sideshow! One in ten of the region’s population lost their lives from the fighting and millions more were terribly wounded.

Faulkner’s admirable empathy with the common soldier, be he British, Arab or Turk, runs through these pages in what is a rich and highly readable interdisciplinary study that draws together the Great Arab Revolt and the Palestine campaigns into a larger whole. One senses the affinity for Lawrence’s evolving view of war less as Boys’ Own jolly jape than nerve-shredding nightmare. Likewise one feels the bond between biographer and his subject at its closest in his analysis of the transformation from Lawrence as youthful romantic, burning with visions of ‘freedom for the [Arab] race’ to Lawrence, the shame-shattered war veteran mugged by the shabby realpolitik of the statesmen.

Faulkner’s Lawrence is ‘the metaphor for the imperialism, violence and betrayals’ in the Middle East during the first world war, an approach at once psychologically compelling but inherently dangerous. On the one hand it offers a fascinating insight into Lawrence’s ‘psychic implosion’ during the course of the conflict and its aftermath. Its obvious shortcoming is in transforming Lawrence into a defenceless donkey onto which the biographer can pin his ideological tail.

For Faulkner, one of the tragedies of the Great War in the Middle East is that the Arabs failed to emulate the heroic achievements of Russia’s ‘Reds’, who were at that time socking it to the foreign-backed, counter-revolutionary ‘Whites’. They were doomed by the ‘conservative timidity’ and ‘pusillanimity’ of their Hashemite leaders. Possibly, but then we might suggest they were never imbued with the Marxist ideals of the Russian worker and peasant. And if the Turks went one better with their own revolution, kicking out the ancien regime ‘reactionaries’, not to mention the Greeks and the British, and establishing a ‘modernising, reforming republic’ after the war, it is not clear a century later that the secular state is capable of withstanding the concerted assault of contemporary Islamism.

It is difficult to dispute Faulkner’s observation that ‘the region has been, and remains today, riven by sectarianism, violence, intractable conflict and untold human suffering’. It is another thing to attribute this entirely to the colonially imposed carve-up of 1916–1921, however attractive that thesis might be to those who subscribe to a Marxist understanding of history. Why is it that much of Africa, Asia and Latin America has moved on so convincingly from the colonial era while the Arab world has slid backwards? Western powers undoubtedly bear a heavy responsibility for today’s tragic mess, but so too do generations of Arab leaders who have proven woefully unable or unwilling to provide decent governance for their people. We should not let them off the hook so easily.

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