Flesh in the desert: A book of compelling relevance renews interest in T. E. Lawrence

One hundred years ago today – on July 28, 1914 – the First World War began.

Scott Anderson’s “Lawrence in Arabia” weaves together the stories of four non-Arab men who from 1912-1919 acted to advance their own interests, and the goals of their respective nations, in the Arabian region.

The Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire provides a framework for Anderson’s book. 

While that conflict was — in European eyes and as Lawrence memorably wrote — “a sideshow of a sideshow,” its consequences have moved to stage center.

That includes the conflict over Hamas’ use of the Gaza Strip to launch missiles into Israel, and the Jewish nation’s military response. As Oklahomans see that conflict’s contending interpretations brought home in activism from competing groups, the past is indeed prologue.

In the long run, however, consequences of that sideshow have moved to stage center, including in the conflict over Hamas’ use of the Gaza Strip to launch missiles into Israel, and the Jewish nation’s military response. As Oklahomans see that conflict’s contending interpretations brought home in activism from competing groups, the past is indeed prologue.

The principal characters of Anderson’s book:

* T.E. Lawrence of England, known as Lawrence of Arabia, the hero or anti-hero of many previous books and an unforgettable motion picture by David Lean. In the course of a decade, Lawrenece transformed from a careful and respected archeologist into one of the central men of action in the late European imperial era.

* Curt Prufer of Germany, an ambitious and self-centered nascent Nazi who passionately loved a Jewish woman (“Fanny” Weizmann) while wreaking havoc in diplomatic circles of the early modern “Middle East.”

* Aaron Aaronsohn of late Ottoman-era Palestine, Romanian-born but resident most of his life of what would become the British protectorate, ultimately modern Israel.

* William Yale of America, child of the elite, student at the university that bore his family name, and Oklahoma oil field worker for Standard Oil who evolved into a U.S. operative in the eastern Mediterranean.

This is one of the best non-fiction works of recent years. Now in soft-cover, it is worth every penny: $17.95, 577 pages with index (New York: Anchor Books, a division of Random House). Despite criticisms, I will keep this as a ready reference.

Anderson offers a compelling and detailed chronological narrative capturing, as the sub-title puts it, “War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East.”

One deficiency: Not enough about the leading Arab characters, men who in varying degrees trusted the scholarly Lawrence. In seemingly miraculous ways Lawrence was for a long season both diplomat and warrior. However, telling their story might have stretched Anderson’s book to 1,000 pages.

While in Arabia, Lawrence became of Arabia. As his own writings hint and as Anderson’s evidence makes clear, he was an advocate for the aspirations of the region’s diverse Arab and other Muslim tribes. He worked above- and below-board to give them a chance to pursue their destinies.

After his nation betrayed the Arab Revolt waged from 1916-18, Lawrence refused honors a grateful monarch wanted to bestow upon him in London.

In some ways traditional history, this book tells a story from well-intentioned (for Lawrence) start to ignominious finish (for many of the characters).

In other ways, the book is thorough modern, laced with opinion and conjecture. Methodical and un-opinionated many pages at a time, Anderson’s narrative is periodically infused with personal opinions, clearly stated.

Anderson seems antagonistic or at least highly dubious toward the aspirations of Zionists. That is fully consistent with the disdain he applies to each contending nation or interest. 

Call him an informed skeptic, if not a cynic, in all or most things.

Anderson documents that the deaths of millions in a long war resolved little and planted what he considers the seeds of modern political dysfunction. He is so inclusive in covering the era’s diplomatic and military developments, that readers can reach conclusions opposite from his own.

My ultimate tribute: Read his work, and decide for yourself what it means.

Familiar is Anderson’s critique of the Zionist (restoration of Israel in a modern state) impulse that bore fruit in the last century, but that criticism is not laced with anti-Semitism.

Without reference to moral authority or to Holy Scripture, modern Israel was a logical outcome of the post-colonial era, an attempt to fashion something noble from chaos. In a way, that is the story after this story.

We cannot ignore the narrative Anderson presents in his book.

Modern lines on the map, marks in the soil drawn after the First World War, and then recast after the Second, are artificial.

Indeed, every line between one nation and another can be viewed as limiting the aspirations of some, perhaps many. Maps are human creations, advancing causes noble or ignoble.

As may now be seen in our own porous Rio Grande area, the alternative to lines, without enforcement, can border on chaos.

Without a modern Jewish homeland, incorporating Jewish enclaves and leaving lots of nearby real estate for Arabs and others to fashion their own dreams, what would have happened after the Holocaust of the 1930s and 1940s? If not a Jewish homeland – in the midst of Arab homelands — then what?

Sadness comes from studying one possibility. In 1919, as England and France prepared to betray allies in the Arab Revolt, British Zionist Chaim Weizmann (with Aaronsohn as reluctant eyes and ears) collaborated with King Faisal ibn Hussein to seek an Arab-Jewish state, more or less including what is now Israel and Lebanon.

What if Jewish leaders and King Hussein, who explicitly referenced their shared ancient ancestral roots, had managed to fashion such a compromise?

The Great Powers kept the possibility from ever taking on flesh in the desert.

Lawrence, likely suffering from depression and post-traumatic stress after the war, slipped into anonymity, assuming two separate identities to avoid the public eye, even as his “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” became a best-selling book. Anderson is so brilliant that one longs for his treatment of those “hidden years” before Lawrence’s death in a motorcycle accident.

Winston Churchill, as complex a man as Lawrence, mourned the death, calling him “one of the greatest beings of our time.”

Of the other three principal characters of this book, each slipped quietly out of journalistic scrutiny.

Aaronsohn reluctantly served British interests at the Paris peace conference, before dying in a plane crash in 1919.

Yale alternately decried both Arabic and Jewish aspirations. He labored at sporadically worthy projects, teaching in higher education before dying in 1975.

Prufer evaded Nazi hunters, emerging first in Brazil before posing as an anti-fascist lecturer in Egypt, then return to Germany to die in 1959. Prufer’s only son did not share his father’s bigotry; he immigrated to America and became … an archeologist.

Complete with photographs and compelling relevance, this book is recommended.

NOTE: Portions of this essay will also appear in the forthcoming (July 31) edition of The City Sentinel, a weekly newspaper in Oklahoma City.