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Review: Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East

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Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East
Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Given that we’ve begun the centennial of World War I and the ongoing situation in the Middle East, Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson is a timely book. The “in” in the title is not a misprint nor is it a mistake, this book is not about Lawrence of Arabia, it indeed is about Lawrence IN Arabia. The first part of the title doesn’t describe what this book is about as much the second part of the title does. T.E. Lawrence definitely played a large part in the Middle Eastern theater of World War I but the book isn’t as much about Lawrence as it is his place in the war and how World War I molded the modern Middle East and the troubles we have there now. Although I took a Middle Eastern History course in college, I am not well read on World War I in the Middle East and that is one of the reasons I wanted to read this book; it was obviously a pivotal time in the region and it is one that is given precious little space or coverage in many World War I histories.

In World War I, as today, many parties had an interest in the Middle East and in what would remain of the rapidly disintegrating Ottoman Empire. The British, French, Germans, the Turks, the Arabs, the Jews, Oil Companies, and eventually the United States all had designs on what would become of the “Great Loot,” as the remnants of the Ottoman Empire came to be known. To tell this story, Anderson builds “Lawrence in Arabia” concentrates on four historical figures. The first, and primary figure is T.E. Lawrence. The other three are German diplomat Kurt Prufer, Jewish Agronomist and activist Aaron Aaronsohn, and American William Yale who served Socony, the State Department, and as a military attaché during the period. While it is fascinating to read how the stories of these four intertwine, it is the activity of Lawrence and Aaronsohn that prove to be the most interesting and have the most impact upon the region. Through the actions of these men and others such as Sykes, Picot, Weizmann, Balfour, Djemal, Hussein, and Faisal to organize Arab Revolt, split (or prevent the split) of the region between Great Britain and France, and to create a Jewish Homeland in Palestine we learn how the current state of Middle Eastern affairs came to be. War, deceit, and Imperial folly are clearly laid out in detail.

Scott doesn’t treat Lawrence with hero worship or present him in a hagiographic way. He presents the book’s primary personality in a balanced and objective way. T.E. Lawrence achieved great things and they are described and explained, but he also had his flaws and those are explored as well. In a way, Lawrence seems to be a tragic hero. He fought to gain Arab independence as part of the fight against the Ottomans and Germans and while defeating the Ottomans and Germans, he lost the fight for Arab Independence despite what some would argue was committing treasonous acts against his own. He predicted and foreshadowed some of what would result from the conflict between the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence, the Balfour Declaration, and the post war partition of the Middle East. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to watch his predictions come to pass. It’s no wonder he declined a knighthood after the war.

“Part of the enduring fascination with T.E. Lawrence’s story is the series of painful “what if?” questions it raises, a pondering over what the world lost when he lost. What would have happened if, in 1918, the Arabs had been able to create the greater Arab nation that many so desperately sought, and which they believed had been promise to them? How different would the Middle East look today if the early Zionists in postwar Palestine had been able to negotiate with a man like Faisal Hussein, who had talked of “the racial kinship and ancient bonds that existed between Jew and Arab? And what of the Americans? Today, it scarcely seems conceivable that there was a time when the Arab and Muslim worlds were clamoring for American intervention in their lands; what might have happened if the United States had risen to the opportunity presented at the end of World War 1?

In all probability, not quite the golden age some might imagine. As Lawrence himself frequently stated, the notion of a true pan-Arab nation was always something of a mirage, the differences between its radically varied cultures far greater than what united them.”

If you take a balanced look at the Middle East and the decisions made during and after the war, you can’t solely blame the Imperialist powers. There is plenty of blame to apportion on all sides, but Imperialism on the part of the victors most certainly contributed to future wars in the Middle East and the instability and unrest that plague the region to this day. When you look at the history of World War I in the Middle East, you can understand how not just the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and the Balfour Agreement, but the way they were conceived and brought about created the Arab distrust of the West that we still deal with today. In Anderson’s words: “it was then that one particularly toxic seed was planted.

This book was an extraordinary read, I found it hard to put down and frequently lost track of time while reading it. It is a history that almost read like a spy novel. Anderson developed the four major figures in the book and did an excellent job explaining the relationships between all of the various players and how their intrigues impacted the big picture. Unfortunately, I read the Kindle version. Typical of many Kindle books, there were no maps. When dealing with an area that many are not familiar with and particularly when dealing with military campaigns, maps are essential in being able to understand the space and scope of operations. For this reason, I have to give the book four stars instead of five. If the print version has maps which help you understand the relationships and positioning of Arab and Allied forces against Ottoman/German forces and distances and scales of movement of Arab guerrilla style operations, it rates five starts. Even so, I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about World War I or Middle Eastern history.

It is books like this one that help reinforce my belief that we need to move away from teaching a Western Eurocentric view of history in our schools.  We need to look at history from the view of other cultures as well.  In this instance, how did the Arabs view the Middle Eastern theater of World War I? How did it impact their thinking and decision making going forward? Not only do we need to present other viewpoints, we need to quit teaching history as simply a list of events. Instead of looking at history in a vacuum and considering things as isolated events, we should look at how wars, treaties, decisions, and other events are influenced by previous events and how they impact things to come. It is a disservice to ourselves and future generations. Looking at history and explaining events strictly from a Western European viewpoint and in isolation leads to a simplistic and biased view and prevents an objective and balanced appreciation of them. Without that objective and balanced appreciation of events we can’t expect ourselves to be able to find a solution to the complex problems we face as result of those historical events.

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