Saturday, July 16, 2011

The contemporary relevance of the life and legend of TE Lawrence

Like many others my first knowledge of the life and legend of T.E. Lawrence was from seeing David Lean's epic move Lawrence of Arabia at the Albany Town cinema during the 1960's.

Lean's film was a cinematic masterpiece, winning 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. For many people it is perhaps the finest film ever made.

But Lean's film is neither historically accurate, nor an accurate account of the Arab Revolt against the Turks in the Middle East during WW1.

It is intriguing to read Michael Korda's new book (review here) about the life of T.E. Lawrence and his role in the 1915-18 Arab revolt, against the backdrop of the 2011 Arab spring uprisings that continue to sweep across the contemporary Arab world, most recently in Syria and cities such as Damasacus and Deraa (which in 1918 were liberated by Arab armies led by Lawrence).

It could be argued that the last time that the Arabs revolted in such unison was in 1915-1918  when they rose up, with Lawrence's assistance, to overthrow the 500 year old Ottoman Empire.  In 2011 they are rising up against repressive, merciless corrupt and greedy rulers who have terrorised their citizens under the protection of Western governments, particularly the British, French and American governments.

Korda's mammoth book (all 762 pages) Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia provides a detailed overview of both the life and legend of T.E. Lawrence. It is an overly long book, although its great strength is the detailed description and analysis of Lawrence's role in the 1916-1918 Arabian campaign and his post war involvement on behalf of Arab claims for independence.

What Korda shows is that Lawrence was a fierce advocate for the cause of Arab independence and for the creation of independent Arab states, and he understood the dangers of allowing Britain and France and their Western allies to divide up the Middle East amongst themselves. He foresaw and predicted many of the problems that arose in the Middle East, including the division of Palestine, as a result of the carve up of the Middle East (and the Balkans) by western powers. 

Yet Lawrence was instrumental in crafting a solution to the break up of the Ottoman Empire which simply entrenched and extended the power of the British and the French. Despite his misgivings Lawrence played a critical role in drawing the lines on the map and negotiating the arrangements that created the Arab states that now exist- Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia- as well as the creation of Palestine under British rule. 

Korda suggests that Lawrence was tormented by his failure to convince the British and French Governments  to keep their promises to the Arabs  and the part he played in the betrayal of Arab independence. Korda seems to be of the view that the rest of Lawrence's life was played out in the shadow of this betrayal.

Korda's book shows how ultimately the desire for Arab independence in 1915-18 was constrained and repressed by Western Governments. Despite his enormous achievements, TE Lawrence played a key role in that betrayal.

No comments: