Seven Pillars of Wisdom – The Foundations of Arab Revolt

Lawrence of Arabia's map, presented to the Eastern Committee of the War Cabinet in November 1918
map by T. E. Lawrence

What draws you into Lawrence’s narrative from the start is its setting.  As Westerners, we often view history in a binary perspective.  There is the past – epitomized frequently in our culture by the World Wars, and the still living generations who remember them – and there is the present, the de facto global war with terrorism, physical and psychological.  Though the terrorism of today operates on an international battlefield, we associate its geography with the origins of its ideology (and the ideologies of its opponents), and that location, generically speaking, is the Middle East.   T. E. Lawrence‘s account originates in a familiar setting, blurring the border between notions of past and present.

Sharif Husayn
Hussein bin Ali

Whether we are thinking of the legacy of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, or the aggression of ISIS today, the spirit of sadism and violence requires no effort to remember.  In his introductory part, “The Foundations of Arab Revolt,” Lawrence writes of the oppression by the Turks over the Arabic peoples, and of the Turks’ failed attempt to persuade Hussein bin Ali, the Sharif of Mecca, to join them in “their ‘Jehad’, the Holy War of all Moslems against Christianity” (p. 50).  From Hussein’s perspective, this was both illogical and intolerable; he was under the impression that Imperial Germany, the Turks’ own ally, was a Christian nation.  Furthermore, the Jihad he believed in was “doctrinally incompatible with an aggressive war” (p. 50).  The practical meaning of this term is, today, still a controversy among Muslims and non-Muslims, and the totalitarianism of the extremist interpretation has not decreased with time.

Lawrence only touches briefly upon his own doings during the pre-Revolt period, instead focusing on the political climate and the Arabs’ attempts to organize themselves under the heavy watch of the Turks.  He best describes the atmosphere under Djemal Pasha, one-third ruler of the Ottoman Empire, by a reference to the Armenian Genocide:

Ahmed Djemal at desk, 1915
Djemal Pasha

[the Arab nationalists’] deportations, exiles and executions . . . taught the Arabs of the Fetah [society of freedom] that if they did not profit by their lesson, the fate of the Armenians would be upon them.  The Armenians had been well armed and organized; but their leaders had failed them.  They had been disarmed and destroyed piecemeal, the men by massacre, the women and children by being driven and overdriven along the wintry roads into the desert, naked and hungry, the common prey of any passer-by, until death took them . . . Jemal Pasha united all classes, conditions, and creeds in Syria, under pressure of common misery and peril, and so made a concerted revolt possible. (p. 48)

The introductory part ends with a description of the Brits’ ongoing military efforts, disappointed in many ways, and analyses of the situation, as well as Lawrence maneuvering to get himself assigned to the Arab Bureau (intelligence group).  He leaves Cairo with Ronald Storrs, “Oriental Secretary of the Residency,” for Arabia.  In the next part, he will meet Feisal, a promising leader and the son of Hussein bin Ali – this is about where the film Lawrence of Arabia begins.

So far, the book is very interesting, and Lawrence is an incredible writer.  He has the gift of intertwining the objective and the subjective, the impersonal and the personal, with just a touch of wry humor; this makes for the best possible primary source reading.  I felt it was helpful to know something already about World War I and Middle East history and ethnic groups (thanks to my college professor).  Watching the film first also gave me good bearings on the British side of things, though I feel this book, in spite of the hints of forthcoming cynicism, already shows the key British figures to be more human, and less two-dimensional, than their film counterparts.

Quotations are from the 1935 edition, published by Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., Garden City, NY.

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