Blog

To Begin the World Over Again: Lawrence of Arabia from Damascus to Baghdad

If you’ve been following the blog for a while, you’re doubtless aware I have a bit of a fascination with Lawrence of Arabia. After watching the movie in 2015, I set off to read Seven Pillars of Wisdom and anything else by or about the guy I could find. Which, as it turns out, is quite a lot. Five years later, I’m still on this journey and not bored yet, a testimony to the depth of his personality and the talent of various writers.

To Begin the World Over Again (2009) is more of a history lesson than a biography. True, it maps out his life from childhood to early death, referencing the character traits and events found in the movie and in other biographies. However, Hulsman glosses over many points of T. E. Lawrence’s life—such as his capture and torture by the Turks—in favor of his main theme. The gist of the book is discovering what lessons modern-day leaders such as Obama (whom the author calls out by name) can learn from the successes and failures of Lawrence and other WWI figures.

Without recapping the whole book, I want to mention a couple things that jumped out to me.

First, the failures of the post-war “nation building,” at least as relate to the Middle East, had their roots in much earlier problems. At the very beginning of the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turkish Emipire, Hussein bin Ali—King of Hejaz and the father of Prince Feisal—had been trying to find a path between a rock and a hard place: that is, the Turks and the Entente. Meanwhile, the British had taken huge hits in Gallipoli, Kut, and other battles. As Hulsman describes it, the coming together of the British and Arab sides was as much about self-preservation than anything else. It put both parties in a mutual dependency that was particularly disadvantageous to Hussein (p. 43).

Second, the power of interpersonal relationships on the world stage can’t be overstated. This is something I’ve sensed from every Lawrence biography I’ve read, but it’s especially visible here. Lawrence, famously, was a charismatic man who could win over allies on both sides of the political spectrum, such as Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw. Likewise, the brothers-in-arms friendship Lawrence developed with Prince Feisal, coupled with an emphasis on personal honor, was crucial to his motivation for joining the political scene in Versailles and supporting Feisal throughout the negotiations.

Hulsman’s theme is that this charisma and genuine connection with people was Lawrence’s double-edged sword. As a strength, it meant Lawrence stood by Feisal even against the British authorities (p. 141). As a weakness, it led Lawrence to forsake his own socio-political principles—evident in his Twenty-Seven Articles—to place his personal duty to Feisal over a greater duty to the people living in what became Iraq (p. 180). Hulsman posits that the construct of Iraq created by figures such as Churchill, Lawrence, and Gertrude Bell resulted in an illegitimate government (p. 182) which ended in tragedy and long-term affects such as the rise of Saddam Hussein (p. 206).

Much of this information can also be found in the Korda and Mack biographies, but I felt like Hulsman’s book was more laser focused on the Versailles era, successfully so. Parts of the book seemed a bit repetitive—he tends to say the same things multiple times in only slightly different ways. Overall, though, this is a worthy read for those interested in Lawrence. Hulsman neither idolizes nor villainizes him, leaving you at times inspired and other times disturbed by what transpired. Other biographers seem to focus on Lawrence’s state of mind during this era, which is no less important, but I appreciated this focused look at the inconsistencies in his political ideals and actions (doubtless influenced by his likely PTSD).

Standard

10 thoughts on “To Begin the World Over Again: Lawrence of Arabia from Damascus to Baghdad

  1. Cyberkitten says:

    I share your interest in Lawrence – a true fascinating individual. I have at least one (unread) biog and ‘7 Pillars’ in a pile of Middle East related books I’m hoping to start digging into next year. I’ll add this book to my Wish List. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sharon Wilfong says:

    This sounds exactly like the sort of book I would like tor read. I’m fascinated with world history, how nations came to be and the cultures that arose in them. I have a biography of Lawrence of Arabia that has been waiting patiently on my shelf. I’m not sure when I’ll get to it. Eventually.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I was impressed by the intricacies this author highlighted. It’s always more complex than what happens on the surface. One thing I didn’t mention in my review was the rivalry between Britain and France but also within the British government itself – different segments of the colonial administration wanted different outcomes in the M.E. and almost came to fighting each other (literally). Crazy stuff.

      Like

  3. Mudpuddle says:

    i’ve been remembering 7 pillars; as i recall, L was greatly disappointed in the last part of the book, wherein he felt that he had basically betrayed the indigenous peoples of the area… his feelings of guilt over that complex situation may, so i read somewhere, have contributed to his demise… what do you think?

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s hard to say… I do think riding his motorbike at speed was a source of mental/emotional relief for him. At least that was my sense from reading his 2nd memoir The Mint (where he dedicates a whole chapter to his bike). His accident happened when he swerved to avoid two children on the road; it’s not known if he was distracted or speeding at the time, but it’s possible.

      Like

  4. I’ve yet to really consider Lawrence’s life beyond a cursory (“This guy-did-that’) summation of it. From your review this sounds more…thoughtful and penetrating than something like Lawrence in Arabia. Which would be better for someone who’s never read about Lawrence, or is there a better option out there?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hmm I haven’t read Lawrence in Arabia yet (the Scott Anderson book?) – my guess is this one covers similar ground in fewer pages. In some ways, Lawrence’s own Seven Pillars of Wisdom is the best introduction (or its abridged version, Revolt in the Desert). He ends up telling a lot about himself as you read between the lines. Of the biographies, though, my favorite so far is A Prince of Our Disorder by John E. Mack.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s