Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Book Review: Lawrence in Arabia

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

Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and the Making of the Modern Middle East tells the story of T.E. Lawrence, known to most of us from the sweeping classic film, Lawrence of Arabia. The book also provides insight into the Middle East situation during World War I, the various players involved in the machinations of the day, and the imperial ambitions of European countries that helped further undermine any chance the Middle East ever had for peace and normalcy.

T.E. Lawrence certainly was an unlikely person to play the role he did. With no military background or training, he backed into wearing a British uniform. Then, through audacity and a gift for bureaucratic duplicity, he became a key figure in working with Arab leadership as the British pursued their imperial dreams while fighting a war that was unprecedented in its brutality.

It's also fascinating to see the attitudes of the imperial powers--and here, the French are painted in a particularly bad light--towards the Middle Eastern lands. They had no valid claim to any of these lands, and yet they made plans to simply take and keep them, exercising jurisdiction over them as if they had any right to do so.

The actions of these European countries didn't help an already-difficult situation, with different tribes and leaders vying for dominance. The author also notes that whatever chance there might have been for peace between the Arabs and the Jews certainly was severely undermined by these imperial maneuverings. True, lasting peace might have been unlikely, particularly when dealing with groups like Ibn Saud's followers, who were adherents to the Wahhabi sect of Islam. Nevertheless, Britain and France, and the famous Sykes-Picot Agreement served only to pour gasoline on a smoldering fire.

T.E. Lawrence was himself an interesting figure whose prominence is based on a combination of his character, a fair helping of dumb luck and a big budget movie (he was known in Britain, certainly, prior to the film, but the film rocketed his recognition into the stratosphere), but Lawrence in Arabia is more interesting for the overview of all the different players and how what seemed like a sideshow to World War I made a lasting impact, for better or worse, on a region that continues to be of strategic importance to this very day.

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