There is much to admire in Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East (2013), but I had my problems with it.
What I especially liked about the book was how, at various points in the narrative, Anderson would step back and explain or put into perspective something that other authors tended to just take as a given. Or were too lazy to look into
A good example is his description of how it feels to ride a camel. I’m not sure how many books about World War I hero Thomas Edward Lawrence or about the Middle East in general ever get around to doing this, but I’d bet it’s few, if any.
In the midst of recounting Lawrence’s return to the Arabian desert and to camel-riding after two years behind a desk, Anderson mentions “the grinding physical discomfort” that the British officer had to endure. And then he elaborates:
Since its pronounced and narrow spine lies just below the skin, riding a camel is a wholly different experience from riding a horse, more akin to sitting atop a swaying metal rod. Even the best Bedouin saddle – little more than a wood-and-leather frame covered in blankets — can only slightly dull the pain for the green rider. Most such riders can rarely withstand the suffering for more than two or three hours without a break, but Lawrence was to have no such luxury on this journey; instead, what lay before him was an ordeal of some thirty hours in the saddle broken by only two short breaks.
Anderson provides this sort of wonderfully helpful insight for readers often in his 505 pages of text, and I’ll give some other examples later in this review. But they aren’t enough to overcome a structural problem that I think is at the heart of the book.
A fresh way to tell Lawrence’s story?
Someone somewhere, I’m sure, has developed a list of all the books that have been written about T. E. Lawrence and his role in the Arab Revolt during World War I and his (witting and unwitting) influence on the deadly, tension-filled Middle East we know today. It’s got to be in the hundreds. And, then, of course, there was David Lean’s 1962 movie Lawrence of Arabia, winner of seven Academy Awards including Best Picture.
Lawrence’s story is well-known. So a major obstacle that Anderson faced was how to find a fresh way to tell a story that has been told so many times already. In other words, why another book about Lawrence?
His answer was to frame his book so that it wasn’t solely about Lawrence. Instead, he would tell the stories of Lawrence and three other young men whose lives and work in the region intersected and/or paralleled his: German diplomat Curt Prufer, renowned Jewish agronomist Aaron Aaronsohn and American William Yale, a representative of Standard Oil Company of New York (Socony).
Prufer, Aaronsohn and Yale were all spies during some if not all of this period — Prufer for Germany, Zionist Aaronsohn for Great Britain (in hopes of helping Jews gain a foothold in Palestine) and Yale for the U.S. (and his former employers at Socony).
The idea of putting Lawrence’s activities in the context of what Germans, Jews and Americans were doing in the region is a good one. Anderson’s framework, however, hims him in.
For one thing, he’s limited in what he can say about the Germans, Jews and Americans to only that stuff that fits in well with telling the individual stories of Prufer, Aaronsohn and Yale.
These three guys are interesting, but, really, they were small-potatoes in the war. How much other better material was left out because of Anderson’s focus on these three? I don’t know, but I constantly had the feeling, while reading the book’s sections on these three, that many other people not in Anderson’s text had had a much more significant impact on Lawrence’s endeavors and on the war in general in the Middle East, from the German, Jewish and American perspective.
And, another thing, Prufer, Aaronsohn and Yale aren’t all that interesting. Yet, given his framework, Anderson is forced to devote a fair amount of space to the stories of each of the three men — not as much as he gives to Lawrence, but at least a third, if not half, of the book.
He intersperses the activities of Prufer, Aaronsohn and Yale in with Lawrence’s. Throughout any given chapter, he tells what Lawrence is doing and then, say, Prufer, and then Aaronsohn, and then Yale — something roughly like that.
I kept finding myself irritated when, after rolling along relating some aspect of the Lawrence story, Anderson would stop and go to one or more of the other three. It gave the book a herky-jerky action that wasn’t all that pleasant.
Yet, at bottom, my problem wasn’t that the book was harder to read than it needed to be. It was that I was often left with the feeling that I was missing nuances in the Lawrence story because of these frequent interruptions. The history of the Middle East is complex and confusing enough, but Anderson’s approach, it seems to me, added a large amount of unnecessary complexity and confusion.
Ah, but then I’d come across one of Anderson’s clear-eyed and insightful explanatory paragraphs, and it would almost make up for all the complexity and confusion I was enduring on other pages. Almost, but not quite.
Here are some examples:
On why the First World War happened
By the early 1910s, with all the European powers perpetually jockeying for advantage, all the of them constantly manufacturing crises in hopes of winning some small claim against their rivals, a unique kind of “fog of war” was setting in, one composed of a thousand petty slights and disputes and misunderstandings. It wasn’t just the British foreign secretary whose time was taken up dealing with such things, but the foreign ministers — and in many cases, the prime ministers and presidents and kinds — of all powers…Amid this din of complain and trivial offense, how to know what really mattered, how to identify the true crisis when it came along?
On the idea of an independent Arabia
There was also a matter of semantics, of how one defined “independence.” While today the word’s meaning seems obvious and universal, that was not at all the case in 1916. For many Europeans, steeped in the condescension of the late imperial age, independence didn’t mean letting native peoples actually govern themselves, but something far more paternalistic; a new round of “the white man’s burden,” the tutoring — and, of course, the exploiting — of native peoples until they might sufficiently grasp the ways of modern civilization to stand on their own at some indeterminate point in the future.
On claiming territory
In 1917, the European powers still held to the imperial mid-set that one’s claim to primacy to a place was directly linked to the expenditure of blood and treasure in taking it, that legitimacy was established by quite literally planting one’s flag in the soil.
On the reasons for Lawrence’s identification with the Arab cause rather than with British goals
Another part of it may have stemmed from the rekindling of boyhood fantasies…Here in Arabia was suddenly the chance to be the knight-errant of his childhood readings, the liberator of an enslaved and broken people, and with this came a sense of purpose far stronger than any appeal to petty nationalism or to an empire that every day was further proving its unworthiness and obsolescence.
On Lawrence’s book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom
While publicly denigrating his work as a trifle, Lawrence confided to a friend the secret hope that his memoir might join the canon of the very best of English literature. In this, he was to be disappointed. In truth, Seven Pillars is a fabulously uneven book, its occasional soaring lyricism and startling psychological insights all too often subsumed by long disquisitions on topography and a riot of local place names and fleeting characters likely to leave the reader struggling.
Patrick T. Reardon