But first a word of warning: since Arabs are Muslim, and alcohol is forbidden under the Muslim religion, I am writing this review completely sober…a distinct challenge for me, and perhaps for the first time in this whole sordid sorry excuse for a blog. I’m not sure if the results will be less typos, and more well-reasoned arguments, or just more boring and banal comments that anyone could make without the thought-inducing power of fine American whiskey. You be the judge. Dammit, I need a drink.
So I started reading this book thinking it would be awesome and exciting and hella fast-paced, since I saw the great David Lean movie “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962), starring Peter O’Toole as Lawrence (a controversial casting by the way, since Lawrence was a little short guy of 5’4” and O’Toole was well over 6’ tall). But I was wrong. The book starts out slow, and contains a riot of weird Arabic place names and a plethora of Arab men with confusing names (which reminded me of “Anna Karenina” and how long it took to sort out those long Russian names in that book), some of whom appear once and then are never heard from again in the book, which makes it hard to keep track of everything, whether you’re drinking whiskey or not. Plus, I opened the book already knowing that Lawrence was in the Middle East during World War I, working to rally the Arabs to fight the Turks, whose Ottoman Empire was allied with Germany, but I didn’t know much more than that. Who was Lawrence, and how did this smart, well-educated English badass learn Arabic and know how to ride a camel? As I read through the initial chapters I realized that not knowing any more background than that was hindering my enjoyment of the book, and as a result, I would read a page or two and then my mind would wander and start to muse about how much more delicious a good American single-barrel bourbon is compared to Scotch whiskey, and just what was the appeal of Justin Bieber anyway, and maybe I need to take a break from reading and go watch that episode of “The Walking Dead” that’s on my DVR. In other words, it wasn’t going well.
To remedy this, I put aside “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” and picked up another book called “Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East” by Scott Anderson. This book came out last year (2013) and gives a history of Lawrence and the Middle East in the years running up to and including World War I. It was invaluable. While it delayed my reading of Lawrence’s book, it vastly enriched what I got out of it, since I could learn the story behind Lawrence’s story. The book is very well written, in a fun and accessible style, and weaves a fascinating tale. It gave me the background I needed to appreciate Lawrence’s book. And it had maps! How the hell else would I know where Deraa and Hejaz and Akaba and Aleppo are? I was definitely not in Kansas any more. I also learned that Lawrence isn’t so straightforward in many parts of his own book – he leaves things out, and glosses over other things, and often doesn’t give the full story – and this book filled me in. It made me realize he’s a much more complicated man than the one you’d imagine him to be from just reading “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” alone.
What’s not in “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” is that T.E. Lawrence started out as an archaeology student from Oxford who studied Middle Eastern medieval warfare, traveled extensively in the Middle East, and went on archaeological digs in Syria and Egypt. When World War I broke out he was the perfect person for Britain to use as a Middle East intelligence expert. He knew the area, he knew the history, he knew the people, he spoke Arabic, and most importantly he knew how to ride a camel. When “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” opens, he is sent by British intelligence to organize a revolt of the Arab peoples against the Turks, who controlled the Middle East as part of their Ottoman Empire. As I said before, the Ottoman Empire was allied with Germany during the war, and were considered a weak link in the alliance, so Britain wanted to try to take them out. But since Britain was preoccupied with sending an entire generation of young men to die miserably in the trenches in Europe, they wanted the Arabs to do some of the heavy lifting against the Turks. So they sent out Lawrence to help move things along. Lawrence hangs out with the Arabs, seeking someone with the talent and charisma and power to lead such a revolt, and finally settles on the Arabian sheik Faisal bin Hussein bin Ali al-Hashimi, son of Hussein bin Ali, the Sharif of Mecca. Together the two of them work to put together a coalition of Arab forces, which is no easy task because the Arabians consist of a bunch of tribes, many nomadic, and who seem to have all fought with one another. I was reminded of Herodotus’s description of the coalition of Greek city states that had to unite together to defeat the Persians, instead of fighting among themselves as they were used to doing (and to which they resumed after the Persians were defeated). Not only that but Lawrence has to coordinate the Arabs with the English as well. While England did not send troops, until near the end of the war, they did send supplies to help Lawrence and the Arabs.
Times were so very different then, and Lawrence brings this home in his writing. For much of the war he rode around with the Arabs on camels. It was indeed like medieval warfare, except with machine guns and explosives. Lawrence’s writing really describes the day-to-day life of what it was like to fight what we would call today a guerilla war. Strike forces of Arabs rode out to blow up railroad tracks, bridges, and trains that carried Turkish troops and supplies. Sometimes this went well, sometimes it didn’t. Lawrence gets shot and injured a number of times, but fortunately never severely. Lawrence describes all of this in beautiful, often wonderful writing. He’s very descriptive, very literate, very poetic. Yet sometimes, often in fact, he goes on a little too long describing the desert landscapes, and the details of riding from here to there (I think he was almost constantly riding around on a camel for four years). This makes it a beautiful but flawed book…he could have used an editor to help tighten it up, I think. Yet it’s a fascinating look at a way of life, and a way of warfare, that have vanished. Towards the end of the book, the Turkish and English forces start to use airplanes to drop bombs or to do reconnaissance, and Lawrence starts to get the use of armored Rolls Royces to tool around the desert in (note: I want one), so things do get a little more modern.
There are many fascinating episodes. One, which was famously depicted in the movie (although that depiction differs in many ways from what actually happened), was that Lawrence plans a mission to capture Akaba, a small port city of great strategic importance (now part of Jordan). The obvious way to try to take Akaba would be from the sea, but Lawrence attacks it from the land side, which is unexpected because it’s so remote. Lawrence’s successful capture of Akaba is considered one of the great strategic triumphs of World War I, and allowed the English bring in supplies for the Arab forces from Egypt, and also prevented the Turks from threatening the Suez Canal. In another episode, this one brutal and disturbing, Lawrence goes undercover into the town of Deraa, to scout out the railroad station, which they want to capture or blow up. Lawrence is taken prisoner by the Turks, and subsequently raped and tortured by the Turkish governor there. He escapes, but he clearly was damaged by this incident. From reading about his behavior later in life, it sounds like he had PTSD, and it wouldn’t be surprising if this incident helped engender that (being shot at and wounded a number of times probably didn’t help either). There are also descriptions of the brutal behavior by the Turks, and how Lawrence and the Arabs became more brutal in their own behavior towards the Turk soldiers as a response to this. While sometimes it seems like Lawrence leaves graphic details out that might have been included if this book were written today, he also includes details that are shocking to the modern reader, and were probably more shocking when the book came out 90 years ago.
One thing that Lawrence glosses over to a large extent, or tends to mention but only tangentially, is that during the war the British made a deal with the French known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement. This agreement said that if the allies won the war, the French would get to control Syria. Lawrence had been able to rally the Arabs to work with the British by promising them that they would get to control Syria as an Arab homeland after the war. At some point during the war, Lawrence finds out about the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and realizes the British are lying to the Arabs. In other words, everything he has promised them, and everything they are fighting for, is a lie. This understandably tortures Lawrence’s conscience. He does tell Feisal about the agreement (which was probably a treasonous act) so Faisal knows about it, and they continue to fight, hoping that things will work out. But of course they don’t. Eventually the Arabs under Faisal and Lawrence capture Damascus, and the Turks leave Syria. The British forces then enter Damascus and inform Faisal that they are giving Syria to the French, and that the Arabs won’t have control. At this point Lawrence is so disgusted that he asks the head British general to dismiss him, and he does. It is here that “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” ends.
Lawrence returns to England broken and discouraged. He becomes famous for his exploits, which he doesn’t feel comfortable with. He goes on to serve under assumed names and at lowly ranks (by choice) in the British air force and tank force. It’s like he wants to hide from his fame and escape into a dull routine military life. He published “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, and went on to write another book “The Mint” about his experiences and day-to-day life in the air force. Eventually his true identity is uncovered and he is forced to leave the military. He retired to the countryside, where shortly afterwards (in 1935) he is killed in a motorcycle accident at the age of 46. His later years were clearly unhappy and troubled…a man who was seemingly broken by his experiences of the Great War.
Lawrence was a charismatic and brilliant figure, and “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” was fascinating to read. But if you want to tackle this book, I strongly recommend Scott Anderson’s book as an introduction. As I said, if I hadn’t read that alongside Lawrence’s book, I wouldn’t have really known what was going on, and what the significance was. But this history shouldn’t be forgotten like so many things from 100 years ago have been. The Middle East has changed a lot since Lawrence’s time, and is still screwed up in many ways, and this book tells some of the history of where it was and how it got where it is today. That’s another thing we had 100 years ago that is still around today…the ability of the great powers to screw up the Middle East, despite their intentions, and despite the presence of smart, fascinating badass dudes like T.E. Lawrence.