By Heidi Simmons
Lawrence in Arabia
By Scott Anderson
How did the world find itself in such a quagmire in the Middle East? The problems there today seem to be overwhelming and unsolvable. With no specific plan to battle ISIS, there is little hope to bring about peace for the region and the planet. In Scott Anderson’s, Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, (Doubleday, 592 pages) a detailed history comes alive with the men who shaped it and then lost it.
With a title like Lawrence in Arabia, it is certain to evoke the great David Lean cinematic masterpiece, “Lawrence of Arabia.” And although we do get a similar historical view of T. E. Lawrence, not unlike the big screen version so exquisitely played by the late Peter O’Toole, the reader gets a much grander picture of not only Lawrence, but also three other major players in Arabia.
Thomas Edward Lawrence was born in 1888 in Wales. His father gave up his aristocratic heritage, money and title, to marry the governess with whom he fathered five boys having abandoned his first family.
Young Lawrence was often punished by his mother. She would beat him harder than any of her other children, and Lawrence did not cry. He steeled himself and would just take it, only infuriating his mother further. This early torture perhaps impacting his future endeavors more than anything else.
History, architecture and archaeology are the subjects that most fascinated Lawrence. As a teen he travel with his chums to Syria and France. He studied at Oxford and graduated with honors. When he was asked to go to the Negev Desert, he did not hesitate. He took an officer’s training course and took work as a cartographer or mapmaker.
The setting is 1909 through 1915. Controlling Middle East principals were Great Britain and France. Germany wanted a part of it and Turkey was a jealous and volatile player. The Ottoman Empire was falling apart, and the First World War was looming on the horizon.
Lawrence in Arabia is extremely dense and rich with detail. And all of it is interesting. The places, players, the adventure, the stakes, the cultures and personalities are so fascinating and incredible, it reads like epic fiction. There are twists and turns that couldn’t be made up. In fact it’s shocking that it is all real and true.
The main cast of characters include: T. E. Lawrence, Curt Prüfer, Aaron Aaronsohn and William Yale.
Curt Prüfer was a scholar and playboy. He spied for Germany. Prüfer wore Arab robes and tried to start an Islamic jihad against outsiders. He wanted to undermine the power and influence of Britain in Egypt and France in Syria.
There was a law, which Britain had negotiated with the Ottoman Empire. Christians could practice their religion and move about freely without harm. As tensions rose, and the war approached, the law was repealed. Christians could now be stoned for their faith.
Aaron Arronsohn was a Jewish Romanian immigrant living in Palestine. As an agricultural scientist and agronomist, he wanted to restore the arid land to fertile green pastures. He succeeded and filled fields with crops and trees. He was a Zionist and his primary objective was to carve out a swath of Palestine from the Ottoman Empire to reconstitute a Jewish homeland. Remember, this is 1911.
In the Middle East, it was equally difficult to be Jewish. Jews were banned from Syria and the surrounding country.
When the Jewish exodus began, Aaronsohn refused to go. Palestine had become his home. He saw the Turks destroy all the fields and irrigation systems. Wheat spoiled and sugar disintegrated in the rain.
One of Prüfer’s spies was Fanny Weizmann. In a strange twist of fate, with the help of Aaronsohn, Fanny’s older brother became the first president of Israel – Chaim Weizmann.
The American in this group of unlikely characters was William Yale. His uncle founded Yale University. When William’s father lost his fortune, the young William had to work and pay for his own education. He became an oilman. He found himself in the Middle East searching central Judea, trying to find oil that might become valuable if a war was truly imminent in Europe.
Around this time, America’s biggest export was Singer sewing machines, second was kerosene. Britain was about to give up coal and fuel their ships with oil.
Other than Yale and President Woodrow Wilson intervening at the end of the war, America’s place in the chaos was rather minimal. In fact, after the dust settled, the Arabs wanted to join the Americans. Quite a difference from today.
The amazing thing about Lawrence and these other gentleman, is they went to the region with certain responsibilities, but without direct guidance. Up for a challenge, these low-level men each got involved and made decisions that would influence the outcome of how the Middle East would be divided. Their handlers and commanding officers were too naïve, too far away and too caught up with the European part of the war to pay to close attention.
All four men made alliances and forged valuable relationship through mutual trust and respect. But at the end of the war, hope for a united Arabia or sustainable peace would fail. European imperialism would win out.
This book requires some concentration to read. Not because it is difficult, but because there is so much going on. The author knows that history is in the details. One little thing can lead to another, until a war breaks out. It is not overwritten nor is it underwritten.
The subject is important to understand and it helps to know just how we did get to where we are now in the Middle East. Anderson is a veteran war correspondent who has reported in the very region Lawrence rode camels, dined with sheiks and fought Turks. I was amazed by the history.
Scott Anderson will be speaking at the Rancho Mirage Writers Festival in January.