Lawrence and the Arab revolt: 100 years later
London - One hundred years after the Arab revolt, the Middle East remains in turmoil and T.E. Lawrence — Lawrence of Arabia — is still making headlines.
Lawrence is the subject of two forthcoming books, a play and a major archaeological exhibition, and then there is the furore surrounding the British government’s attempts to prevent Lawrence’s iconic robe and dagger — a gift from a Bedouin chieftain — from being sold outside of the country.
The spate of Lawrence-mania comes ahead of the 100th anniversary of the start of the Arab revolt, in which Lawrence played a central part. But this pan-Arab nationalist movement — perhaps the first but certainly not the last of its kind — ended in failure following the implementation of the secret Sykes- Picot agreement that carved up the Middle East in favour of the Western powers.
Many analysts have linked the historic turmoil in the Middle East, including conflicts playing out in the region today, to the secret agreement between the British and French imperial powers. Despite this, Lawrence remains a figure of fascination in the West as well as across the Middle East as he has ever since his exploits after World War I.
“Lawrence of Arabia can be endlessly reconfigured as a celebrity and legend. In a sense, there are lots of different Lawrences, each created by different biographers, film-makers, documentary-makers and artists,” said Professor Neil Faulkner, the author of a forthcoming book about Lawrence.
“I think that Lawrence is able to play that kind of role because he is such a complex character, such a maverick, so enigmatic and mysterious and therefore very much open to this endless reconfiguration… Lawrence changes in keeping with changing attitudes.”
Faulkner’s book, Lawrence of Arabia’s War, is based on fieldwork carried out over ten years in southern Jordan deserts by an international team, including archaeologists from the University of Bristol, and looks to “rewrite the history of T.E. Lawrence”.
“Obviously he was very neurotic. Psychologically he was quite a vulnerable individual,” Faulkner said. “I think he retreated into a kind of romantic orientalism and that was an escape from things in his own life and society and relationships inside his family…
“I think he dealt with all this by retreating into a romantic orientalistic fantasy world and cast himself as a hero within it. I think he had a hero complex but, unlike the vast majority of people who have that romanticism, he actually had the opportunity to act his out.”.
Another forthcoming book, based on the same research, was written by Bristol University Professor Nicholas Saunders and will carry out an archaeological-anthropological investigation of World War I and particularly the Arab revolt. Saunders’ book Desert Insurgency: Archaeology, T.E. Lawrence, and the Great Arab Revolt is the first academic investigation into vast conflicts associated with the defence of the Hejaz Railway, including some unknown except to Bedouins.
“Britain is again at war in the Middle East. As the region unravels, attention refocuses on the conflicts, treaties and carve-ups that gave the Middle East its current form a century ago. In popular imagination, that history is inextricably associated with Lawrence of Arabia,” Saunders said.
“A misfit and maverick, a romantic and orientalist, an archaeologist and wartime intelligence officer, he was a most unlikely war hero… Is the legend a myth? Was Lawrence, as some claim, a liar and a charlatan? Or does the legend reflect reality?” Saunders asked.
Many Arab analysts and historians have sought to downplay the role that Lawrence played in the Arab revolt, criticising his lasting fame as being part of a colonialist fantasy, arguing that Lawrence ultimately served, albeit unwillingly, Britain’s colonial objectives.
Lawrence, a relatively junior officer in the British Army, saw Arab attempts to unify and gain independence in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman empire fail, with Britain and France taking over as colonial masters in the region. Still, few doubt that Lawrence truly identified with the Arabs.
“He was a very interesting character with a real significant level of identification with the Arab cause,” Faulkner said. “He seems to be somebody who was, in some sense, on the right side, or people have a feeling that he was on the right side, and I think there is a strong measure of truth in that.”
“I don’t buy the argument that Lawrence was very much a second-or third-division thinker in the Arab revolt. I don’t think that’s convincing. Lawrence played a very big role in developing a theory of modern guerrilla warfare. He does this in collaboration with Arab leaders but he probably had the clearest view of it in terms of military theory,” Faulkner added.
One hundred years after the start of the Arab revolt, and with the Middle East arguably as divided as it has ever been, many are looking back to the example of Lawrence of Arabia and the dream of the Arab revolt, as a way to combat the Islamic State and other major problems facing the region.