Too Glorious for Words

Bernard Porter

  • Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson
    Atlantic, 592 pp, £25.00, March 2014, ISBN 978 1 78239 199 9

T.E. Lawrence was one of history’s winners and one of its great losers. He was a winner in terms of the mythology that surrounded his reputation both in his own day and afterwards, as reflected in the 1962 David Lean biopic, presenting him as the romantic hero – tall, blue-eyed, in flowing robes – he always wanted to be. His failures are familiar to anyone who has taken any serious interest in him, and were only too painfully known to himself. He either led or assisted (according to your point of view) the revolt of the Arabs against their Ottoman overlords that broke out in 1916, and which was a significant help to the Entente powers in their war against the Turks’ ally, Germany. But helping the Allies hadn’t been his main aim. What he had wanted was for the Arabs to take the opportunity of the war to seize power for themselves, in a great pan-Arab federation if possible. He persuaded himself that he had at least Britain’s agreement to this. When the time came to ‘settle’ the Middle East after the war, however, all that ‘turned to ashes in a single five-minute conversation between the prime ministers of Britain and France’ at the Paris peace talks. The Middle East (or most of it) was parcelled out among the victorious powers – the ‘Great Loot’, as it was called at the time. Lawrence’s Arab friends thought he had betrayed them. He felt he had too. He never recovered from the sense of guilt.

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