Seven Pillars of Wisdom – 1: The Discovery of Feisal

Previously: Introduction

Left to right: Rustum Haidar, Nuri as-Said, Prince Faisal (front), Captain Pisani (rear), T. E. Lawrence,
Faisal’s slave (name unknown), Captain Hassan Khadri

I had believed these misfortunes of the Revolt to be due mainly to faulty leadership, or rather to the lack of leadership, Arab and English.  So I went down to Arabia to see and consider its great men.

Unlike his film counterpart, who comes across as a little awkward and almost passive, T. E. Lawrence had specific goals in mind when he undertook his investigation of the “Arab affair” – that is, the struggling Arab Revolt.  On this journey, he must gain months’ worth of information in the matter of weeks, make connections on behalf of the British military, and, in any way he can, put his best talents to the cause of planning the Arabs’ freedom from the Turks.  He also experiences his first heavy camel rides through the desert and meets two of the sons of Hussein bin Ali – one of these sons is Feisal.  This meeting proves to be the turning point in Lawrence’s early efforts.

This was a slow, yet intricate group of chapters.  It summarized a lot of the themes I saw in the movie, meaning that, at least from Lawrence’s perspective, those aspects of the story were real.  I won’t go through all of them, but I’ll try to hit the highlights.

For example, according to his observations, the Arabs were not interested in a religious war, nor, necessarily, in creating an Arab state. Rather, their objective was to regain independence of their tribes – “They were fighting to get rid of Empire, not to win it” (p. 100). 

Was Britain considering becoming that second, replacement empire?  The idea, even at this point, was not unknown to Lawrence.  When he joins Feisal at his camp, Lawrence’s probing form of discussion is returned to him by the shrewd, young leader, who already holds the expectation that the British will eventually settle in their lands, and not leave:

They [the British] hunger for desolate lands, to build them up…  Your good and my good, perhaps they are different, and either forced good or forced evil will make a people cry with pain.  Does the ore admire the flame which transforms it?   There is no reason for offence, but a people too weak are clamant over their little own. (p. 100)

Earlier Lawrence describes Britain’s foreign involvement as “vicarious policemanship” (p. 92), which shows something of his own thoughts.  I’ll be interested to watch where this theme goes throughout the rest of the book.

Lawrence based a great deal of his strategy on psychology, both of the situations he was faced with and of the men he was trying to mobilize.  He felt the terrain and a use of stealth would be their best assets against the Turks, but to their minds, it was the Turks’ modern artillery they must best, and it increased their morale to have that kind of weaponry.  He understood, too, that the men of the desert tribes fought best on their own, defensively and independently, while Arab officers, formerly of the Turkish military, could lead the “towns-folk” recruits under more of a traditional militia setting.

He evaluated Feisal, too, from a psychological standpoint.  Feisal impressed Lawrence as having leadership qualities – not simply in terms of hierarchy (he had an older brother, whom Lawrence also met), but by merit of his charisma, the admiration his followers had for him, and his commitment to the Revolt.  He was the key figure who gave Lawrence confidence that the Revolt might succeed.  I do think there is something to that – any great movement in history is signified by an individual, even if it involved thousands or millions of followers (or victims).

Something that is fascinating to me about this book is how he writes as if the things just happened – in the sense that you barely get the impression (if at all) that subsequent events or experiences changed his perceptions as they were at the time.  He lost most of the first draft to the book, so it is even more impressive that he could go back, write it again, and still write with that fresh, almost first perspective.  Just amazing… 

By the way, the photo above is from the end of the war, but I thought it was an interesting picture (a preview, if you will).

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

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