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Bookends: Where the mess in the Middle East came from February 18, 2015

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Bookends: Where the mess in the Middle East came from

By Dan DavidsonLawrence in Arabia

October 15, 2014

– 900 words –

 

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

By Scott Anderson

Signal

624 pages

$15.88

 

The state of the Middle East today is the price we are all paying for several generations of Great Power meddling in the affairs of people whose culture and motives were scarcely comprehensible to those who thought they could mould them. Further, the people of European background held the cultures of the Middle East, as they did those of indigenous people everywhere they wielded influence, in low regard and part of what Kipling encapsulated in his telling phrase, “the White Man’s Burden”.

While this had been going on for a long, long time prior to 1914, the First World War, that petty family squabble (the rulers were all related after all) that managed to engulf much of the world due to the interlocking mature of the various empires and alliances, brought the problem to a boil rather rapidly and left us with the seeds of such poisonous plants as ISIS (ISIL), alQaeda and the Taliban.

Lawrence in Arabia, which focuses its attention on the events from 1914-18 with a briefer glance at what came out of the Treaty of Versailles (for more on that read Paris 1919 by Margaret McMillan) gives the reader a good foundation for gaining some understanding of how Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Israel (after World War II) came into being as tangential results of the so-called Great War.

Thomas Edward Lawrence seems an odd choice to become one of the key players in the Middle Eastern theatre of the war. We are conditioned to think of him in a certain way by that David Lean movie, which somewhat burnished the image he cast himself in when he wrote Seven Pillars of Wisdom. This young man was a budding archeologist who, by the age of thirty had, with no practical military background whatsoever, risen to the rank of Colonel and had performed such sterling service for King and country that he was summoned to Buckingham Palace to be knighted.

This is also the man who astounded the royal court by appearing before the King and Queen in order to politely but firmly refuse the honour, so distressed was he over the way his nation had betrayed the tribes and peoples that it had been his duty – and great success – to persuade to fight for the allies in the Triple Entente (particularly the British) against the Ottoman Turk Empire that was aligned with the Triple Alliance.

It appears that one of the reasons parts of Lawrence’s memoirs about his time among the Arabs are so murky is that if he had been entirely honest in his narrative, it would have been obvious that he spent a good portion of his time and energy trying – unsuccessfully in the end – to undo some of the plans that the British high command had for the eventual reorganization of the region, dividing it up between themselves and the French.

Lawrence admired and had a lot of time for the locals he was tasked to influence and seems to have sincerely tried to manipulate policies in their favour. What the region might be like today had he succeeded is not a certain thing, but it does seem clear that present day Saudi Arabia, dominated by the fundamentalist Wahhabi version of Islam, would not have achieved the powerful position it has today. And without Wahhabism the extreme Islamists who form the core of ISIL and other jihadi sects might not exist.

Anderson doesn’t seem to be subscribing to the “great man” theory of history in this book. Indeed, it is not all about T.E. Lawrence. Oddly though, most of the other keys players seem to be people who were outside the established circles of power.

The German, Curt Pruffer, was a lower level academic who became a spymaster and key player in the region –almost Lawrence’s opposite number.

William Yale was an American employee of Standard Oil of New York. The scion of the financially crippled Yale family he originally spied in the region for his corporate masters, and later donned a military rank to do the same work, but always kept his first allegiance in mind.

Aaron Aaronsohn was a Jewish agronomist from Turkey who established a Jewish spy ring to work against the Turks and became a leader in the Zionist movement, in which he clashed with Russian born Chaim Azriel Weizmann, whose views eventually triumphed and led to the establishment of Israel, where he became its first Prime Minister.

With Lawrence’s story as the main focus, the major pattern in the tapestry, Anderson weaves in the stories of these other characters. This allows him to give us a whole series of cliff-hangers, flashbacks and cold openings that make the book a very dynamic read.

The subtitle, “War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East”, is an excellent one-line summary of the intrigue that is chronicled in the book.

Anderson is a veteran war correspondent who has reported from Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Northern Ireland, Chechnya, Sudan, Bosnia, El Salvador and many other strife-torn countries. He has a very good sense of the types of places he is writing about and an engaging style.

 

-30-

 

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