Lawrence in Arabia - Book Review
I have the feeling that Scott Anderson, a veteran war correspondent (according to the dust jacket of his book), may not have been completely responsible for the title of his historical work Lawrence in Arabia. Because this book is more than just a new biography about T.E. Lawrence, known romantically in history as Lawrence of Arabia. Don’t get me wrong: Lawrence plays a large role in this book; but there are so many other fascinating characters that Anderson brings to our attention in this very readable work. The subtitle of the book tells you much more about the story Anderson is trying to relate to the reader: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East. That is all admittedly a mouthful for a book title. I’m sure the publishers felt that the name Lawrence would sell more books. Either way, it is a worthwhile read, and it teaches us much about the discord and infighting that plagues the region even today.
The four main characters in Anderson’s book are Lawrence, who worked as an archeologist in Syria and Palestine before the war (which is when the book begins); Curt Prüfer a young German diplomat working at their embassy in Cairo; Aaron Aaronsohn, a Zionist living in Syria who worked as an agricultural specialist and gained the trust of the Ottoman authorities; and William Yale, son of the once mighty but now faded Yale family, who worked for Standard Oil in the Middle East, and returned in 1917 during the war as a State Department official. Behind these professional profiles they all worked for their governments behind the scenes to gather intelligence about the situation of a region largely closed to outsiders by the Ottoman authorities. In the case of Prüfer, perhaps the most interesting character of the bunch, he was hoping to foment an Islamic rebellion against British rule in Egypt, which Britain had taken in the late 19th century to ensure control of the vital Suez Canal. In the case of Aaronsohn, he was hoping to gain statehood for a Jewish-run Palestine. To do so he set up a British-supported spy-ring in Ottoman-ruled Palestine. Anderson’s inclusion of Yale seems a stretch, and it is hard to see that he or the United States really had much of an impact in the region at the time.
The book traces the paths of these four young men (all of them in their twenties and thirties at the outbreak of the First World War), and how they set about to accomplish their goals. Of course, Lawrence is the central figure and is the center of this story. Aaronsohn is also a strong figure, whose passion to create a Jewish state is heightened by the tragedy that befalls his sister, also a Zionist spy working at his side. But other characters come alive in this book, and though they are peripheral to Anderson’s narrative centering around the four young men, they come across to the reader as vital and colorful, especially Djemal Pasha, the cruel Turkish governor of Palestine and Emir Faisal, the fierce Hashemite warrior fighting alongside Lawrence. There were times reading the book that it felt the different stories were being forced together, but the language is good and the narrative flows well. If you’ve not read a biography of Lawrence (there are scores of them dating to 1924, including bios written by such acclaimed writers are Robert Graves, Liddell Hart, and Stanley Weintraub) and if you don’t want to get wade into Lawrence’s own account of the revolt in the desert, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, this book is a good start. And it may make you want to tackle longer histories of Lawrence.