Seven Pillars of Wisdom – 4: Extending to Akaba

Previously: Introduction, Book I, Book II, Book III

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La forteresse d’Aqaba by Jean Housen [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons


This name, uttered by Peter O’Toole as a sleepless T. E. Lawrence, rings out as a revelation, the password to a quandary that only he can see.  In the fit of inspiration, he prevails upon his frenemy, Sherif Ali, to help him lead an attack on the Port of Akaba, without orders or consultation with his British superiors.  The script is not far from the truth – as soon as he decided to take Akaba, the real-life Lawrence was on his way, leaving his commander with a note and relying chiefly on the strength of Feisal’s men and his other Arab followers.

The Arabs needed Akaba: firstly, to extend their front, which was their tactical principle; and, secondly, to link up with the British.  If they took it the act gave them Sinai, and made positive junction between them and Sir Archibald Murray.  Thus having become really useful, they would obtain material help.  The human frailty of Murray’s Staff was such that nothing but physical contact with our success would persuade them of our importance.  (p. 281)

Akaba had guns facing the sea, but was more or less open on the land side, from which Lawrence proposed to attack.  First, before any chance of victory, they faced a long and dreary toil of a march.

It was in this part of the book that the dual nature of T. E. Lawrence really started to emerge.  He became, at once, both hero and anti-hero, and torn between the two he settles into a very real, human character.  The interesting thing is that this humanness is just as troubling as the film portrayal, yet in different ways.

In the movie, Lawrence turns back during the march to search for Gasim, whose empty camel saddle showed the man had gone missing.  Lawrence writes of his outright reluctance, “I looked weakly at my trudging men, and wondered for a moment if I could change with one, sending him back on my camel to the rescue” (p. 261).    When he does ride back, he feels angry with Gasim, who, as hinted in the movie, was apparently a troublesome character.

Lawrence is self-deprecating in this passage, but his actions aren’t devoid of heroism.  No one else in his party was particularly concerned about the missing man.  Lawrence went of his own initiative, with one compass, which was no small risk on a terrain that, so often windswept, left few camel tracks.  The rescue of Gasim is also contrasted by another disappearance, a slave who was later found dead of dehydration and heat.  Gasim would have lost his life in the same way if Lawrence had not gone back.

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Auda abu Tayi, leader of the Howeitat tribe

Another theme that shows itself in Book IV is Lawrence’s self-consciousness of his differences, which oftentimes he considers to be weaknesses.  In the snake-riddled land of Sirhan, he is honest when he says he had “a shuddering horror of all reptiles” (p. 277).  When he joins up with the Howeitat tribe, led by Auda abu Tayi, Lawrence is pushed far out of his comfort zone, as honor from the Bedouins comes to him in the form of enormous, greasy, communal meals of lamb and rice, for days on end.  He lives in a strange, yet truly realistic struggle, feeling both his foreignness and his hybrid identity: an Englishman who treats the Arabs like equals, speaks their language, and lives much like a Sheikh.  He earns their trust and respect.

This trust haunts Lawrence, for he is still torn.  He is British by birth, serving the British government during wartime.  He draws on connections, rhetoric, resources, and his own blood to lead the Arab Revolt.  Already, however, he feels like a traitor, using the Arabs to aid the British against the Turks (and, thereby, also Germany).

So the Arabs…asked me, as a free agent, to endorse the promises of the British Government.  I had had no previous or inner knowledge of the McMahon pledges and the Sykes-Picot treaty, which were both framed by war-time branches of the Foreign Office.  But, not being a perfect fool, I could see that if we won the war the promises to the Arabs were dead paper. (p. 282283)

Lawrence was one of the mouths that spoke those dead promises, and it began to torment him.  He could see not only Arab independence on the line, but the lives of the ordinary Arab people whom he was rousing to fight beside him. 

In revenge I vowed to make the Arab Revolt the engine of its own success…vowed to lead it so madly in the final victory that expediency should counsel to the Powers a fair settlement of the Arabs’ moral claims. (p. 283)

Was Lawrence a born leader, or too “unlike a soldier”…would he accomplish anything more for the Arabs than another British “advisor” might have done?

It remains to be seen.  But he, Auda, and the others of his force did succeed in capturing Akaba, and he still held his ideal of a free Arab nation.

Aqaba Beaches by Wolljuergen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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