Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, Reviewed by Anna Hutchinson

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In November 1914 Thomas Edward Lawrence was chosen to join a new military intelligence unit in Cairo at the headquarters of the British war effort in the Near East. Over the course of the next four years the young history major from Oxford would find himself in a position to make decisions that would influence the outcome of the Great War on the Middle Eastern front. While Lawrence has occupied a central role in history, there were several other lesser-known actors who had a hand in shaping the history of the war and the modern Middle East. Among these men were Aaron Aaronsohn, a Zionist agriculturist working for the Ottoman Empire and subsequently operating a British spy ring in Palestine; Curt Prüfer, a German military intelligence officer; and William Yale, a fallen American aristocrat employed by Standard Oil to work for American oil and political interests during the war. All of these men were largely untrained in military matters yet were able to simultaneously promote their own interests and create conditions on the ground that would produce the outcomes of World War I and the socio-political context of the post-war Middle East.

Thomas Edward Lawrence’s life and achievements are fraught with competing narratives and historical accounts. Was Lawrence a defender of the Jewish people or was he anti-Semitic? Did he work to promote Britain’s interests during the war or did he betray his country? These competing narratives are exacerbated by Lawrence’s own contradictory accounts in his memoirs, diaries, and notes. Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia uses primary source documents and secondary literature in order to chronicle the life and achievements of T.E. Lawrence, while weaving his narrative with those of the other influential actors on the ground. Rather than focus on Lawrence’s motivations, convictions and ideology, Anderson focuses on discovering how a shy archaeologist with no military background was able to become the “battlefield commander of a foreign revolutionary army”[1] By aiming to discover the how rather than the why Anderson attempts to create an honest chronology of the events that transpired during WWI on the Middle Eastern front from a Western perspective.

While writing a history centered on the Middle East war theatre from a Euro-centric and imperialist perspective can be seen as controversial, this may have been Anderson’s intention given the political context of the region at the time of the book’s publication. Written shortly after the Arab Spring, the book comments on the implication of Western foreign policy in the Middle East and its lasting effects by focusing on agreements such as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence, and the British-initiated Arab Revolt. Among the key actors involved in Anderson’s narrative are the Ottoman military leader, Djemal Pasha and Faisal ibn Hussein, the Emir of Arabia and son of Sheikh Hussein. While first hand accounts were inaccessible to Anderson due to language constraints, second hand accounts from these men shed some light on the involvement of local military leaders in the region.

Writing through a western lens leads to questions and controversy about the production of imperial knowledge. To what extent can the history of the modern Middle East be separated from the decisions of Western colonial powers over the course of the early twentieth century? Anderson does not engage with this discussion in his work yet he clarifies the way that Lawrence and other key actors perceived British and American imperialism, which was often with disgust. The most troubling aspect of his imperialist focus is the lack of agency given to the key Arab and Turkish actors on the ground. Faisal ibn Hussein, in particular, is presented as wholly reliant on Lawrence’s direction and advice during the Arab Revolt, while the merits of his leadership are only extolled through writings by Lawrence himself. This is further troubling when the book’s acclaim as a work of popular fiction is taken into account. Western audiences reading this book as a primer to Middle Eastern politics and history could very well deduce that Arab and Turkish actors were merely shadow puppets compelled to carry out the interests of the imperial powers in the region.

Another important consideration when reading Lawrence in Arabia is the question of sources. While Anderson devotes some ten pages to his bibliography, detailing books, articles, and archives, he does not discuss the ways that his list of sources and information might be lacking. As previously mentioned there are no first hand accounts from local military and political leaders, yet there are several accounts from personal papers written by influential British, American, German, and Zionist actors. Engaging with archival information is problematic when using it in order to create an honest narrative. The Aaronsohn House – NILI Museum and Archives holds the official collective of Aaron Aaronsohn’s personal papers from his work with the Ottoman Empire and his involvement in a British spy ring. The museum’s website claims to be one of the first established in Israel in 1956. While, the overview on the website goes into great detail about Aaronsohn’s work for the British spy ring, there is no explicit mention of his employment with the Ottoman Empire, which fought on the side of Germany during the war. Anderson also uses national archives from the US and the UK, which may omit or privilege certain types of information based on how each country wants to be seen in history. Archival projects can produce silences just as they can create dominant narratives. While Anderson’s work draws from a wide range of sources, there are unaddressed issues in the way he uses them.

Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia provides a compelling and valuable narrative about the influence of Western powers in the Middle East during and following World War I. By following the lives of four influential actors on the ground, the book provides readers with a look at how certain events transpired, while refusing to simplify history. Written from a Western perspective, the book creates a narrative that depicts British, French, German, American, and Zionist intentions and goals in the region yet silences the perspective of local Arab and Turkish actors. While the book admits to a Western focus, the exclusion of local narrative becomes problematic when the book is read as an overview to Middle East history. Intended as a comment on Western meddling, the depiction of Arab and Turkish leaders blinding following the will of their Western counterparts becomes an example of imperial knowledge production.  The book’s use of sources is broad yet does not account for what it is missing, particularly in terms of the politics behind archival information collection. Despite it’s flaws Lawrence in Arabia provides an interesting and honest look at the way history unfolded in the Middle East during the Great War.

Works Cited

Anderson, Scott. Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East. New York: Random House, 2013

N.I.L.I Museum. “Nili Museum – Beit Aaronsohn”. Accessed March 18, 2014.

http://www.nili-museum


[1] Scott Anderson, Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East. (New York: Random House, 2013): 3

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