Seven Pillars of Wisdom – 2: Opening the Arab Offensive

Previously: Introduction, Book I

Soldiers in the Arab Army during the Arab Revolt of 1916-1918, carrying the Arab Flag of the Arab
Revolt and pictured in the Arabian Desert.

Against his adamant protests and self-doubt, Lawrence is sent back to Arabia by his superior officer, General Clayton, who believes the bookish journalist-cartographer will be an excellent substitute until the professional military advisors arrive. “I was unlike a soldier: hated soldiering” writes Lawrence point-blank (p. 114).  Having no alternative, he surrenders to necessity and returns to Feisal’s base, finding the Arab leader no less resolute for suffering early betrayals and mixed successes.  Together, and with the aid of diverse allies, they endeavor to unify the contentious Arabic tribes into an anti-Turkish force, with the immediate objective of taking Wejh, a port city in the north under control of the Turks.  Lawrence is impressed with Feisal’s ability to gain a following, learns more of the psychology of the Arab people, and becomes increasingly wary of the maneuverings of some of their European, military “supporters.”

There was a lot packed into this part, even though, plot-wise, it mostly covered their trip to Wejh.  I think what I took from it was the human element: all the striking details, changing behaviors, and cultural mores.

For instance, early on, Lawrence was asked to adopt the Arab attire instead of his British uniform; this was both to facilitate desert travel and also to prevent his khaki from being mistook for Turkish.  Feisal happened to have brand-new, white-and-gold clothes sent to him by his great-aunt; it was actually a wedding outfit he had never needed to wear.  So he gave it to Lawrence, who at that time – little did he know – was being drawn in, “wedded” if you will, to the Arab Revolt.  I thought it was strangely appropriate (and would have been an interesting point to make in the movie).

Another recurring human theme is, a little surprisingly, slavery.  On the one hand, it was culturally expected to treat slaves fairly “decently,” to the point some even lived in a kind of community.  On the other, they were still slaves, and fared probably the worst of anyone on a camel trip.  Lawrence writes about these things matter-of-factly, in more or less journalistic style.  At this time, he appeared to adopt the practice of accepting the Arab culture as-was and did not attempt to intervene, except in cases where the bickering of various tribes would weaken their fighting strength as a whole.

This “whole,” was, indeed, composed of men from many tribes.  The effect was greatly a psychological one: Lawrence did not anticipate heavy fighting at Wejh; the point was, rather, to gain popular support for Feisal as a unifying figure, as well as to send a formidable message to the Turkish opponents.  Once again, Lawrence’s self-professed lack of “soldiering” seems to have been his strength.  He had the gift of empathy, and through it, his tactical vision acquired a clarity and creativity that other outsiders could not quite achieve.  

“In sum…the Arab Movement would not justify its creation if the enthusiasm of it did not carry the Arabs into Damascus” (p. 131).  There were some in the Allies’ military leadership who were not eager for a definitive, serious force of Arab nationalists.  Part of this attitude was genuine doubt, and part of it was political self-interest.  It was still early in the Revolt, but Lawrence looked forward to seeing the Arabs reach Damascus, disproving the misgivings of both enemies and allies.

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

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.

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.