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T. E. Lawrence and the Character of the Arabs

ISSUE:  Fall 2004


In a letter of December 1910, the young T. E. Lawrence defined civilization as “the power of appreciating the character and achievements of peoples in a different stage than ourselves.” No Englishman had a greater understanding of the past glory of Arab civilization and the modern contrast between nomads and city folk; of the desert tribes and customs; of homosexuality and asceticism, fanaticism and religion; of the Bedouin methods of warfare, their blood feuds, bribery, plunder, and massacres; of the heights and depths of the Arab character. The character of Arabs and their traditional way of life, always baffling to the West and now so horrifying, were endlessly fascinating and attractive to Lawrence.

To a large degree events of today have their origin in the convergence of this remarkable scholar and warrior, the servant of an imperial power, with a tribal people’s struggle to free itself from Ottoman rule. Lawrence promised self-government to the Bedouin tribal leaders who led the Arab Revolt and helped defeat the Turks in the Middle East. This goal came into conflict not only with British and French plans for their postwar empires, but more importantly, with the capacity of the Arabs themselves to go from that “different stage” of an almost medieval society to a modern state with a developed economy and political structure. As soldier and diplomat Lawrence’s insights into the Arab character were invaluable, but as propagandist for their cause he led the West into permanent conflict with Arab countries. He sowed the desert wind, and we have reaped the whirlwind.

Lawrence had read Classics and archeology at Oxford. Between 1909 (when he was twenty-one) and the outbreak of the war in 1914, he studied Arabic and crusader castles in Syria, walked through Mesopotamia (now modern Iraq), and worked on excavations in Egypt and in Carchemish (also in Iraq). Though his studies were genuine, they were a perfect cover for espionage, and under the guise of archeology he completed a military survey of the Sinai peninsula. For centuries the decaying and overextended Ottoman Empire had controlled the whole Middle East. With the advent of World War I, the Turks became allies of the Germans. Lawrence’s extensive experience in the Middle East as traveler, linguist, and archeologist put him in exactly the right place to become an intelligence officer, diplomat, and spy. Soon after the war broke out he joined the Arab Bureau under his friend and mentor, the Oxford archeologist David Hogarth, and worked in this center of British military intelligence in Cairo until December 1916. During these years he was entrusted with several important secret missions. According to his biographer, the poet Robert Graves, Lawrence traveled to the Senussi desert in Libya “to discover the whereabouts of British prisoners captured by the hostile Arabs there… . He was also sent to Athens to get contact with the Levant group of the British Secret Service, whose agent in Egypt he was.”

Lawrence had several dealings with the Turks, as both spy and emissary. Early in 1916, through the War Office and the British military attaché in Russia, he put the Grand Duke Nicholas in touch with certain disaffected Arab officers serving in the Ottoman army in the Turkish city of Erzerum, and helped the Russians to capture it. The War Office hoped Lawrence could perform a similar service in Mesopotamia, where the 10,000-man British garrison under General Charles Townshend at Kut was besieged by the Turks and threatened with annihilation. In April 1916 Lawrence was authorized to offer the Turkish commander two million pounds to free the garrison. The offer was disdainfully refused, and Townshend was forced to surrender unconditionally on April 29th.

The Arab Revolt against Turkish rule, led by Hejazi fighters and incited by the British, began with a rising in Mecca, in the Arabian peninsula, on June 10, 1916. The Arabs soon captured Mecca, the port of Jiddah, and the summer capital, Taif. This success in the Eastern theater of the war was especially welcome to the British after the slaughter of the allies at Gallipoli in the fall of 1915. But after these initial triumphs and the capture of 6,000 Turkish prisoners, the revolt became stagnant, and the Arabs were unable to take Medina, where the Turkish garrison was quartered. At this moment Lawrence, archeologist and anthropologist, student and spy, became the leader of several thousand tribal fighters. He acted as liaison between British and Arab forces, supplied military intelligence, and developed the strategy and tactics for the revolt. Knowing that modern wars with large armies and long-range weapons, like those on the Western front, were not suited to the historic desert battlefields, Lawrence exploited the disparate tribal armies who knew the desert and were skilled at raiding. He used his knowledge of Arabs and their customs to create a mobile army and weld the Hejazi nomads into a cohesive fighting force. He invented a new kind of guerrilla warfare—with sudden strikes and unexpected detonations—that avoided high Arab casualties but inflicted carnage on the static Turks, and transformed a series of separate incidents into an effective military operation.

Instead of pointlessly attacking the heavily fortified Medina, Lawrence left the 14,000-man Turkish garrison stranded in the vast desert and forced it into passive defense. This plan tied down a large number of Turkish troops for the duration of the war and forced the enemy to maintain the thousand-mile Hejaz railway from Damascus to Medina (completed by the Turks in 1909 to transport soldiers as well as pilgrims to the holy cities of Arabia). Lawrence earned the Arabs’ respect as a commander by risking his life in the dramatic manner of a desert hero. His affinity with them, his intellect, courage, endurance, his rare ability to live and fight like a Bedouin warrior, allowed him to lead the 1916–18 campaign in Arabia and become a kingmaker after the war was won.


In a letter of July 1918 Lawrence reflected on the austere yet poetic qualities of a race that had reached its cultural apex in the Middle Ages yet still maintained, in its opposition to the materialism of the West, an alluring simplicity: “the Arab appealed to my imagination. It is the old, old civilisation, which has refined itself clear of the household gods, and half the trappings which ours hastens to assume. The gospel of bareness in materials is a good one, and it involves apparently a sort of moral bareness too.” When writing about the Arabs, Lawrence consistently transformed their negative qualities into positive ones: “They think for the moment, and endeavour to slip through life without turning corners or climbing hills. In part it is a mental and moral fatigue, a race trained out, and to avoid difficulties they have to jettison so much that we think honourable and grave.” Lawrence’s description of how his hero Charles Doughty, author of Travels in Arabia Deserta (1888), embodied two cultures applies equally to himself: “His seeing is altogether English: yet at the same time his externals, his manners, his dress, and his speech were Arabic, and nomad Arab, of the desert.”

Lawrence had learned to admire the Arabs during the tranquil archeological digs before the outbreak of war. He was fascinated to discover, alive in their culture, chivalric traditions that he had merely studied before and that he thought were inherently noble, ascetic, and pure. A lonely person from an austere background, he was delighted by their tribal brotherhood. Their colorful embroidered garments satisfied his theatrical narcissism, their delicious intimacy appealed to his homosexuality. He was even more attracted to their darker side: their compulsion to deny the body that matched his own hatred of the physical, their renunciation of comfort that suited his Spartan ways, their inhuman endurance that matched his own need for self-punishment.

Despite this instinctive attraction to the Arabs, Lawrence always drew a sharp distinction between the artistic, intellectual, and military achievements of the caliphs who had ruled Damascus in the 7th century and Egypt (under Saladin) in the 12th century, and the Arabs of his own time, whom he considered degenerate and spineless, living on their dreams of past glories. Yet he could play on these heroic images of past history when it suited him, both to rally the Arabs and to confront their enemies. At the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, Lawrence interpreted for the Emir Feisal and often spoke for him. When a pompous French statesman, Stephen Pichon, asserted France’s claim to Syria during the Crusades, Feisal (speaking through Lawrence) replied: “But, pardon me, which of us won the Crusades?” Yet in his 1921 introduction to Doughty’s Arabia Deserta, Lawrence wrote of contemporary Arabs: “They are a limited narrow-minded people whose inert intellects lie incuriously fallow. Their imaginations are keen but not creative. There is so little Arab art to-day in Asia that they can nearly be said to have no art… . They show no longing for great industry, no organisations of mind or body anywhere. They invent no systems of philosophy or mythologies.”

Lawrence also made a clear contrast between the debased Arabs of the city and the primitive tribesmen of the desert. As early as June 1911, while digging at Carchemish, he exclaimed: “The perfectly hopeless vulgarity of the half-Europeanised Arab is appalling. Better a thousand times the Arab untouched.” Writing from Cairo the following year, he lamented that “the Egyptian people are horribly ugly, very dirty, dull, low-spirited, without any of the vigour or the self-confident independence of our [Carchemish] men. Besides, the [religious] fanaticism of the country is deplorable, and the treatment of the women most un European”—though it’s hard to see how the Bedouins’ treatment of their women, hidden from view and bound to domestic slavery, was more enlightened. By contrast, the young Lawrence—inevitably condescending on his first trip to the Middle East—found the Syrian villagers “pleasant: very childish & simple of course, & startlingly ignorant, but so far quite honest.” He always preferred the collective responsibility and group brotherhood of the tribal life in the desert to the individual isolation and competitive living of the crowded cities. He had no sympathy for rural people who might aspire to be city dwellers.

In his introduction to Doughty, Lawrence exalted the “air and winds, sun and light, open spaces and great emptiness” of the infinite desert. It maintained, even fossilized, the narrow-minded, fanatical religion that permeated every aspect of the tribesman’s existence: “He lives his own life in a hard selfishness. His desert is made a spiritual ice-house, in which is preserved intact but unimproved for all ages an idea of the unity of God… . Their conviction of the truth of their faith, and its share in every act and thought and principle of their daily life is so intimate and intense as to be unconscious.” Like the explorer Wilfred Thesiger, whose book on the Iraqi Marsh Arabs shares many of Lawrence’s views, Lawrence romantically idealized these primitive people, whom he thought noble precisely because they were savage. To the hyperintelligent and hypersensitive Lawrence, the idea of an intense unconsciousness had great appeal.

In his perceptive “Twenty-Seven Articles” on how to command the Arabs, written for British officers attached to Arab units and published in the Arab Bulletin of August 20, 1917, Lawrence advised them to “learn all you can about your Ashraf and Bedu. Get to know their families, clans and tribes, friends and enemies, wells, hills and roads… . If you succeed, you will have hundreds of miles of country and thousands of men under your orders.” For him, desert warfare was an aesthetic experience. He dressed himself in striking white robes and noted with pleasure how the colorful warriors enhanced the attractive landscape: “It was pretty to look at the neat, brown men in the sunlit sandy valley, with the turquoise pool of salt water in the midst to set off the crimson banners, which two standard-bearers carried in the van.”

Lawrence was also drawn to the Arabs’ uninhibited homosexuality, a physical release that acted on the powerful desires that he found difficult to express. In Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926) he idealized homsexuality as the biblical love of David and Jonathan, the Greek love of Achilles and Patroclus. Male passion had to be satisfied in the desert, sometimes through bestiality with the flocks of sheep or with the raddled meat of prostitutes. In his very first chapter, Lawrence boldly challenges conventional morality and writes of “friends quivering together in the yielding sand with intimate hot limbs in supreme embrace.” This homosexual union in an exclusively male society, represented in Seven Pillars by his devoted servants and followers Daud and Farraj, Lawrence considered a more honest, innocent, and spiritual union than heterosexual love: “They were an instance of the eastern boy and boy affection which the segregation of women made inevitable. Such friendships often led to manly loves of a depth and force beyond our flesh-steeped conceit. When innocent they were hot and unashamed. If sexuality entered, they passed into a give and take, unspiritual relation, like marriage.” Lawrence considered sex between his men clean and healthy, a useful bond that provided political as well as sexual unity.

Paradoxically, in the context of the harsh desert landscape, the Arabs’ self-indulgent homosexuality is somehow compatible with extreme, self-punishing asceticism, which transforms the hedonists into masochists—like Lawrence himself:

      Had the circumstances of their lives given them opportunity they would have been sheer sensualists. Their strength was the strength of men geographically beyond temptation: the poverty of Arabia made them simple, continent, enduring… .

      Their profound reaction against matter leads them to preach barrenness, renun-ciation, poverty: and this atmosphere stifles the minds of the desert pitilessly… .

    [The Arab’s] sterile experience robbed him of compassion and perverted his human kindness to the image of the waste in which he hid. Accordingly, he hurt himself, not merely to be free, but to please himself. There followed a delight in pain, a cruelty which was more to him than goods. The desert Arab found no joy like the joy of voluntarily holding back. He found luxury in abnegation, renunciation, self restraint.

In one of the most lyrical moments of Seven Pillars, Lawrence describes a prewar ride over the rolling plains of northern Syria with Dahoum, a beautiful Arab boy whom he fell in love with at Carchemish and whose early death in 1918 supposedly inspired his great book. When they reach a Roman ruin whose clay had been kneaded with essential oils of flowers as a desert palace for an exotic queen, the Arabs lead him from perfumed room to room:

    But at last Dahoum drew me: “Come and smell the sweetest scent of all,” and we went into the main lodging, to the gaping window sockets of its eastern face, and there drank with open mouths of the effortless, empty, eddyless wind of the desert, throbbing past. That slow breath had been born somewhere beyond the distant Euphrates and had dragged its way across many days and nights of dead grass, to its first obstacle, the man-made walls of our broken palace. About them it seemed to fret and linger, murmuring in baby-speech. “This,” they told me, “is the best: it has no taste.” My Arabs were turning their backs on perfumes and luxuries to choose the things in which mankind had had no share or part.

This brief apologue illustrates the inherent conflict in the noble simplicity of Bedouin life, which combines, in the ruins of another culture, perfume with mud, luxury with austerity. Lawrence creates a mood of tender intimacy and associates Dahoum with purity, throbbing sensuality, and Arab freedom. “Distant Euphrates” and “first obstacle” suggest the spaciousness of the desert and convey the nostalgic mood and the theme of mutability.

Lawrence understood the Arabs’ need to despise luxury and pursue self-abnegation, even suicidal self-sacrifice. “Arab processes were clear,” he wrote, “Arab minds moved logically as our own, with nothing radically incomprehensible or different except the premiss: there was no excuse or reason, except our laziness and ignorance, whereby we could call them inscrutable or Oriental, or leave them misunderstood.” He then used this understanding to harness their fanaticism and lead them to victory against the Turks: “Arabs could be swung on an idea as on a cord; for the unpledged allegiance of their minds made them obedient servants… . They were incorrigibly children of the idea, feckless and colour-blind, to whom body and spirit were for ever and inevitably opposed. Their mind was strange and dark, full of depressions and exaltations, lacking in rule, but with more of ardour and more fertile of belief than any other in the world.”

Like many traditional societies, where the concept of honor was bound up with the idea of retribution, the Arab tribes were constantly torn by interminable blood feuds. In one notable case Lawrence—a foreigner and outsider—was forced to execute a murderer to avoid a blood feud that would have undermined their ability to fight the Turks. His ranks, nevertheless, contained hundreds of deadly enemies whose feuds, temporarily suspended during the war, always threatened to break out. The advance on Wedj, when tribalism had evolved into a kind of nationalism, was, Lawrence wrote in Seven Pillars, “the first time in memory that the manhood of a tribe, with transport, arms, and food for two hundred miles, had left its district and marched into another’s territory without the hope of plunder or stimulus of blood feud.”

Nevertheless, they loved plunder and would not go into battle without being paid. Apart from their inherent divisiveness and mutual hostility, the tribesmen had to be bribed to keep fighting. They drifted away when they tired of battle, plundered the enemy and, unable or unwilling to deal with captives, massacred both civilians and prisoners of war. The heroic fighter Auda took bribes from Lawrence knowing, if the English failed to pay, that he could always get money from the Turks. The Arabs fought well under familiar conditions, but strange events—artillery shells or bombs from a plane—caused panic. Frustrated by the tendency of his fighters to disappear into the desert, even—or especially—at critical moments, Lawrence lamented: “A family would own a rifle, and the sons serve in turn for a few days each. Married men alternated between camp and wife, and sometimes a whole clan would become bored and take a rest… . Each [tribe] might be, usually was, whole-hearted against the Turk, but perhaps not quite to the point of failing to work off a family grudge upon a family enemy in the field.”

The tribes went to war to gain honor and wealth. The most highly prized spoils were weapons, camels, and clothes—which they incongruously added to their own attire: “To an Arab an essential part of the triumph of victory was to wear the clothes of an enemy: and next day we saw our force transformed (as to the upper half) into a Turkish force, each man in a soldier’s tunic.” The indiscriminate and often destructive plunder sometimes turned them into wild beasts who disemboweled the railway carriages they had blown up and derailed: “The Arabs, gone raving mad, were rushing about at top speed bareheaded and half-naked, screaming, shooting into the air, clawing one another nail and fist, while they burst open trucks and staggered back and forward with immense bales, which they ripped by the rail-side, and tossed through, smashing what they did not want.”

The effect, as they trundled their useless trophies into the desert, was degrading, absurd—and ultimately pointless: “Victory always undid an Arab force, so we were no longer a raiding party, but a stumbling baggage caravan, loaded to the breaking point with enough household goods to make rich an Arab tribe for years… . The restless, noisy, aching mob up the valley, quarreling over the plunder, boasting of their speed and strength to endure God knew how many toils and pains of this sort; with death, whether we won or lost, waiting to end the history.”

Lawrence sometimes encouraged the unremitting massacres, the most repulsive aspect of the desert war, as revenge for Turkish slaughter of the Arabs, as well as to satisfy his own lust for blood. In two vivid letters of July and September 1917, he contrasted the glorious appearance of his followers with their ignoble method of fighting: “My bodyguard of fifty Arab tribesmen, picked riders from the young men of the deserts, are more splendid than a tulip garden, and we ride like lunatics and with our Bedouins pounce on unsuspecting Turks and destroy them in heaps: and it is all very gory and nasty after we close grips… . This killing and killing of Turks is horrible. When you charge in at the finish and find them all over the place in bits, and still alive many of them, and know that you have done hundreds in the same way before and must do hundreds more if you can.”

Lawrence wrote two versions of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his account of the Arab Revolt and his part in it. The first, unpublished version—only eight copies of which were printed in double-column linotype at the Oxford Times in 1922—was 50,000 words longer than the published book. Lawrence’s initial portrayal of the Arabs—”one of the shallowest and least patient races of mankind”—is much harsher in this version than his idealized depiction for political and propagandistic purposes in the privately printed edition of 1926 and (with the same text but less lavish format) the posthumous trade edition of 1935. In the Oxford text he criticizes the Arabs for their failures, their excesses, their waste, and their unreliability; for firing millions of shots in the air; for their wild extravagance with English money. Though Lawrence shares the Arabs’ masochistic desire to prove their strength and achieve self-knowledge through intense suffering, this cruel wish for pain finally becomes abhorrent to him: “I saw something bestial in their deliberate search after abnormality, their breeding for it. After wrongdoing they would expect, almost claim, their punishment, as an honour due, welcoming it as a means of self-knowledge, by which to explore themselves, to learn how far beyond the bounds of daily fortitude their bodies could endure.” Lawrence himself often had to administer this severe punishment.

Lawrence’s unflattering generalizations about the character of the Arabs echoed Doughty’s famous description of their polarized extremes of exaltation and depravity—from the excremental to the divine. Lawrence wrote that “his picture of the Semites, sitting to the eyes in a cloaca, but with their brows touching Heaven, sums up in full measure their strength and weakness.” Toward the end of his own agonizing epic Lawrence confessed: “I was tired to death of these Arabs; petty incarnate Semites who attained heights and depths beyond our reach though not beyond our sight. They realized our absolute in their unrestrained capacity for good and evil.” Though disgusted by the pillaging, petty revenge, and pointless killings, Lawrence continued to harness the Arab taste for blood to achieve the main prize: to capture Damascus and win the war for the British. Later, full of self-disgust at his own complicity in their betrayal, he was burned out by the experience and horrified by what he had done.


In Seven Pillars Lawrence substantiated his general comments about the Arab tribesmen by precise characterization of their leaders: Husein, Sherif of Mecca; his sons Emir Abdullah and Emir Feisal; the primitivistic, larger-than-life hero Auda; and the self-sacrificial fighter Tallal. Lawrence at first liked the unworldly Husein, though he realized all too clearly that he would be unqualified to rule when the Ottoman Empire collapsed at the end of the war. Sherif Husein, he said, was “a very simple straightforward old man, clever enough too, but knowing so little. Upon us as a people is the responsibility of having made him a ruling power, and he is pitifully unfit for the rough and tumble of forming a new administration out of the ruins of the Turkish system.”

Lawrence was consciously looking for an ideal leader to stir and command these disparate tribal warriors. At the same time he sought a romantic hero, and Emir Abdullah seems a promising candidate. The emir makes a theatrical appearance, but his faults are manifest: “Abdullah on a white mare, came to us softly with a bevy of richly-armed slaves on foot about him… . Though only thirty-five, he was putting on flesh… . [He lacked] the flame of enthusiasm that would set the desert on fire… . Abdullah was too balanced, too cool, too humorous to be a prophet: especially the armed prophet who, if history be true, succeeded in revolutions.” When Lawrence first meets Feisal, after rejecting his three brothers as potential leaders, he immediately realizes that he’s found the ideal warrior. He passes a slave with a silver-hilted sword in hand and sees the white-clad emir “very tall and pillar-like … framed between the uprights of a black doorway… . His hands were crossed in front of him on his dagger.” When Lawrence tells Feisal that they are far from their final goal of Damascus, “the word [falls] like a sword in their midst” and seems to promise that both will take up the bloody sword and conquer the city.

But his intelligence reports at the time are far more incisive and hard-headed. In an early dispatch to the Arab Bureau in Cairo, a few days after first meeting Feisal in October 1916, Lawrence writes, more critically than in Seven Pillars, that Feisal “possesses far more personal magnetism and life than his brothers, but less prudence. Obviously very clever, perhaps not over scrupulous. Rather narrow-minded, and rash when he acts on impulse.” He concludes with a description of the emir that is remarkably close to his own character: “A popular idol, and ambitious; full of dreams, and the capacity to realize them, with keen personal insight.”

His personal accounts, in contrast, reveal how emotionally Lawrence identified with Feisal. In a letter of January 1917, just before the capture of Wejh, when “the initiative had passed to the Arabs [and] I was so joyous that for a moment I forgot my self-control, and said exultingly that in a year we would be tapping on the gates of Damascus,” Lawrence writes about Feisal with keen enthusiasm. In rather boyish language that applies to himself as well as to the emir, the twenty-eight-year-old Lawrence closely identifies with the Arab leader and his cause. Lawrence seemed proud of their friendship and praised the suave Feisal for his sensual attractiveness as well as for his military and political prowess: “Sherif Feisal (3rd Son of Sherif of Mecca), to whom I am attached, is about 31, tall, slight, lively, well-educated. He is charming towards me, and we get on perfectly together. He has a tremendous reputation in the Arab world as a leader of men, and a diplomat. His strong point is handling tribes: he has the manner that gets on perfectly with tribesmen, and they all love him. At present he is governing a patch of country about as large as Wales, and doing it efficiently.”

Though Lawrence had become intensely critical of Feisal by the end of the war, he nevertheless repeated these sentiments in his anonymous article in the Times, written to advance the Arab cause, in August 1920. Glorifying Feisal’s romantic image and calling him a modern Saladin, Lawrence writes that the emir, a direct descendant of Mohammed, “had in him something of the prophetic fire, and his eloquence, enthusiasm, and knowledge soon gave him a personal ascendancy over all the tribes in contact with him.” At about the same time, writing more severely of Feisal in a passage omitted from Seven Pillars, Lawrence says that the emir is indifferent to detail and leads a Syrian staff that never grasps the nature of their Bedouin troops. In the Oxford text Lawrence states that “in accord with my year-old principle, Feisal would be kept in the background, in reserve, to be risked as a last card only if the situation was overtaxing our strengths, or if we were certainly victors.” Despite Feisal’s faults, Lawrence values him as a national leader and wants to make certain that he survives the war, which explains Feisal’s eclipse by the more colorful Auda and his disappearance from the latter part of the book. In the more negative Oxford text Lawrence, revealing a fatal flaw, admits that “Feisal was less than weak—he was empty, only a great pipe waiting for a wind,” and that he manipulated Feisal for political purposes: “I was not great, for I could feel contempt, a thin motive of effect, and yet chance made me his player.”

Lawrence gave his final and most damaging estimate of Feisal in a conversation of 1933 with another biographer, the military historian B. H. Liddell-Hart: “Feisal, a timid man, hated running into danger, yet would do anything for Arab freedom—his one passion, purely unselfish. Here, as later in Iraq, it made him face things and risks he hated. At original attack on Medina he had nerved himself to put on a bold front, and the effort had shaken him so that he never courted danger in battle again.” Lawrence also told Liddell-Hart that he hid Feisal’s political weaknesss and exaggerated his military prowess in order to persuade his countrymen to back the emir: “As for his statesmanship, his defect was that he always listened to his momentary adviser, despite his own better judgment. All right so long as T.E. was his adviser! I asked T.E. why he portrayed Feisal as such a heroic leader in his reports. He replied it was the only way to get the British to support the Arabs—physical courage is essential demand of typical British officer.”

In Seven Pillars Lawrence idealizes Feisal, especially when he first sees him, as a great and noble commander. He both contrasts him with his father, Husein, now portrayed as a vain, obstinate, and suspicious old man with an uncontrollable lust for power, and compares him to the revered General Edmund Allenby, whom Feisal finally meets as the two victorious armies converge at Damascus. Lawrence first writes that Feisal “was tall, graceful and vigorous, with the most beautiful gait, and a royal dignity of head and shoulders… . Appetite and physical weakness were mated in him, with the spur of courage. His personal charm, his imprudence, the pathetic hint of frailty as the sole reserve of this proud character made him the idol of his followers.” Lawrence also praises Feisal as a judge and diplomat, and for his ability to attract and unite the tribal armies, which he raised for a particular campaign as he passed through their territory and then left behind as he advanced northward. By the time the heterogeneous tribes reached Damascus, only a few hundred Hejazis remained in the army, and they had in their ranks “hundreds of deadly enemies, their feuds barely suspended by Feisal’s peace.”

Privately, however, Lawrence’s views were negative. Lawrence’s secret wartime dispatches, his letters, his postwar journalism, the suppressed passages from the Oxford edition, and his correspondence with his biographers reveal that despite his first impressions, as the war progressed and Feisal’s weaknesses became obvious, Lawrence became intensely disillusioned and critical. Lawrence’s varied portrayals of Feisal served different purposes: pragmatic, personal, literary, and propagandistic. They revealed his own changing and contradictory views of Feisal and the Arabs in general.

In contrast to the sophisticated Feisal, Lawrence portrays the naïve and recklessly courageous Auda (brilliantly played by Anthony Quinn in David Lean’s film) as the embodiment of epic and heroic virtues. Auda is associated with the Homeric catalogues of names and presents, grandiose boasting, furious races, and two monstrous feasts of sheep. Lawrence transforms this contemporary warrior into a legendary figure and exalts the primitive ideal; makes him embody the spirit of a nation and glorifies his way of life at the same time that he records its disappearance: “He had married twenty-eight times, had been wounded thirteen times; whilst the battles he provoked had seen all his tribesmen hurt and most of his relations killed. He himself had slain seventy-five men, Arabs, with his own hand in battle… . He saw life as a saga. All the events in it were significant: all personages in contact with him heroic. His mind was stored with poems of old raids and epic tales of fights, and he overflowed with them on the nearest listener.” Auda tolerates, even enjoys, Lawrence’s parody of his epic life: “I mimicked also his wave of the hand, his round voice, the rising and dropping tone which emphasized the points, or what he thought were points, of his pointless stories.”

Auda fights valiantly and seems immune to injury: “Auda himself (in front, of course) had a narrow escape, since two bullets smashed his field glasses, one pierced his revolver holster, three struck his sheathed sword, and his horse was killed under him. He was wildly pleased with the whole affair.” Though the “thought-riddled” Lawrence could not identify with the intuitive Auda as he did with Feisal, he saw in the knight-errant the tradition of chivalric romance that had always fascinated him. For Auda too, “the world is greater as we go back,” but he has a direct and personal connection with that glorious world and recreates it in himself. Finally, however, Auda’s heroism is compromised by his bloodthirsty brutality: “in the empty land was Auda; and in that night of his last battle the old man killed and killed, plundered and captured, till dawn showed him in the end.”

During the final advance on Damascus, when the Arab army has been regularized and joined to the English under General Edmund Allenby, modern artillery and airplanes dominate the battles, and warfare is no longer a chivalric crusade. The noble death of Tallal—who “had been a tower of strength to us from the beginning, and who was one of the coolest and boldest horsemen I have ever met”—provides a striking contrast to the massacres of the vengeful Auda and marks a dark change of mood at the end of Seven Pillars. As Tallal and his tribesmen enter Tafas, they are horrified by the murder and mutilation of the women and children. Tallal, seeing this terrible slaughter in his own village, cannot bear to live with it. Moaning like a wounded animal, he

      galloped headlong, bending low and swaying in the saddle, right at the main body of the enemy. It was a long ride down a gentle slope and across a hollow. We sat there like stone while he rushed forward, the drumming of his hoofs, unnaturally loud in our ears, for we had stopped shooting, and the Turks had stopped. Both armies waited for him; and he rocked on in the hushed evening till only a few lengths from the enemy. Then he sat up in the saddle and cried his war-cry, “Tallal, Tallal” twice in a tremendous shout. Instantly their rifles and machine-guns crashed out, and he and his mare, riddled through and through with bullets, fell dead among the lance points.

          Auda looked very cold and grim. “God give him mercy; we will take his price.”

The long sloping ride, dramatic spell of eerie silence, and powerful rhythm of this magnificent passage (a high point in the drama of the war), the futile and desperate war cry, and the brutal contrast of the machine guns and lance points, intensify the demise of nobility and honor, unchanged since the Middle Ages. Tallal dies, sacrificially but loyal to Bedouin values. His death, amid atrocities and automatic weapons, finally extinguishes Lawrence’s youthful idealism and exemplifies his great theme of a self-destructive triumph. In revenge, Lawrence orders the Arabs to take no prisoners, and they massacre the police battalion from Deraa (where Lawrence himself had been tortured and raped) as if only Turkish “death and running blood could slake our agony.” At Tafas, Lawrence—degraded by war—takes bloody retribution for himself as well as for the death of Tallal.


In 1918 Lawrence’s forces, with the British and Australian armies, finally captured Damascus, “the lode-star to which Arabs were naturally drawn.” The liberation from Turkish rule, prophesied by Lawrence in his first meeting with Feisal, raised the pressing problem of who would govern the city and the disintegrating Ottoman Empire. By Lawrence’s account, the occupation of Damascus was disastrous. As a young lieutenant in the British army, Alec Kirkbride had to shoot a number of Arabs to restore order (“not that many,” he once told me). Self-seeking and anarchistic, the Arabs achieved a military triumph that proved hollow, ruined in Lawrence’s eyes by nightmare sights: by the carnage and sickening stench of the Turkish hospital, where rats “gnawed wet red galleries” into the corpses, and by the political chaos of the competing factions—Arabian, Syrian, and Algerian. The tribesmen knew how to fight, but not how to make peace. They lacked a national identity and could not unite to govern themselves effectively. “Such carnival as the town had not held for six hundred years” was celebrated in the “streets paved with corpses, the gutters running blood.” As Lawrence bitterly and clear-sightedly told Liddell-Hart: “Arab unity is a madman’s notion—for this century or next.”

Lawrence supported the Hashemite claims to rule the Arabian peninsula, but after the war they were unable to maintain their power. In May 1919, after the resurgence of tribal hostility between Sherif Husein’s Hashemites and Ibn Saud’s puritanical Wahabis, Ibn Saud wiped out Abdullah’s army, and the peninsula became the modern Saudi Arabia. As Winston Churchill’s adviser, Lawrence helped “settle” the Middle East at the Cairo Conference in 1922. But the Hashemite leaders whom he placed in power did not, as the chaos of Damascus suggested, fare well and were completely driven out of Arabia in December 1925. Husein, forced to abdicate, died in exile in 1931. Feisal, king of Syria, was ousted by the French, ruled Iraq from 1921, and died of a heart attack in Switzerland (aged forty-eight) in 1933. Emir Ali, who succeeded Husein as king of the Hejaz, was also defeated and died in exile in 1935. Jaafar Pasha, who fought alongside Lawrence and became prime minister of Iraq, was murdered in 1936. Emir Abdullah, king of Jordan, was murdered in 1951. Ali’s son, another Abdullah, became regent of Iraq, and Lawrence’s comrade-in-arms Nouri Said later became prime minister of that country. Both were murdered in 1958. The present king of Jordan is the only surviving link to the Hashemite rule that Lawrence sought to impose.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom described a culture and a society that was destroyed by the Great War. The invasion of Arabia by the modern world, with its technology and communications, and the Western discovery and production of oil transformed life in Arabia after the war and virtually extinguished the independent life of the Bedouin. Oil gave the Arab rulers unprecedented power and influence in the Middle East and throughout the world, without a corresponding sense of responsibility. Since Lawrence’s day the region has undergone radical changes. The harsh beauty of the desert has been polluted by oil, and Lawrence’s romantic vision of nomadic tribesmen has been replaced by repellent images of greedy, exploitative sheiks and their rapacious and ever-extending families, living in vulgar palaces in the ugly cities of modern Arabia. The ideal nobility of Saladin has been wiped out by the corruption of an Arafat or a Saddam Hussein, by the ruthless cruelty of Osama bin Laden and his fellow terrorists. In the light of recent history it is difficult to sympathize with Lawrence’s infatuation with the Arabs, his glorification of Feisal and his encouragement of Arab nationalism, which has had such a tragic impact on the entire world. To fulfill his promises and assuage his conscience, he helped establish conservative Arab kings who, though loyal to Britain, were unable to govern. By fulfilling their dynastic ambitions, he helped to create a time bomb in the Middle East. His political legacy, sustained by brilliantly effective propaganda, in Seven Pillars of Wisdom and elsewhere, has been catastrophic.

Though their traditional way of life has almost disappeared and the Bedouin no longer have political power, their austere values remain an important part of the Arab mentality and myth. Many of the qualities that Lawrence noted in the Arab character still survive but look quite different when the exotic veneer is stripped away. Their past glory is even fainter now than it was in Feisal’s time. Arab politics is still dominated by bribery and corruption; by factionalism and internecine warfare; by extremism and religious fanaticism; by blood lust and self-sacrifice; and especially by the disregard of human life—their enemies’ as well as their own—and the massacre of innocent victims. Lawrence’s experience reveals that the Western powers cannot impose alien rule in the Middle East, which is still corrupt and torn by religious and tribal conflicts. The Arabs, in the six thousand years since Babylon, have never had a democratic government. Our current enterprise in Iraq will inevitably fail, and the country will revert, like Afghanistan, to civil war, bloody chaos, and oppressive dictators.


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