Review: Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson
Title: Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East
Author: Anderson, Scott
Length: 577 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, Politics, History
Publisher / Year: Signal / 2013
In this book Anderson takes the reader on a sweeping historical journey following Lawrence and three other individuals in the Middle East just prior to and throughout the course of World War I. During this epic tale we also get a look into significant events in the lives of many others who helped to shape the destiny of the region, either by working with or against the intentions and wishes of the main characters. Although the cast of characters is rather vast, and the story line jumps from one area to another to follow each of the main four, the characters are all interesting and different enough to remain fairly easy to follow.
The main characters, other than Thomas Edward Lawrence of “Lawrence of Arabia” fame: are William Yale, a fallen American aristocrat who both acted as a spy for the US and as an employee of Standard Oil of New York; Dr. Curt Prüfer, a German scholar and spy, later a Nazi official; and Aaron Aaronsohn, a Jewish scientist who created an anti-Ottoman spy ring in Palestine and worked for the Zionist cause of a Jewish homeland. Each of these characters led interesting lives worthy of being discussed in a book such as this, and their stories added to that of Lawrence’s in highlighting the actions going on in the region and in helping to shape what was to come. At the same time, however, the stories fit together only in that sense – in that way the book is somewhat less about Lawrence himself then it is about the entire Middle Eastern theatre during World War I.
Lawrence’s life has proved to be one full of contradictions, as any life is. His past biographers, according to Anderson, have mostly skewed facts to fit their preferred narrative. In this book, instead, Anderson uses the historical sources to tell the story much more broadly and thus giving a fuller picture of the whole conflict and facts with which Lawrence was dealing. In this way he comes off as neither a hero nor a villain, though his best and worst moments are brought to light. Instead he comes across as a complex individual who was trying in many ways to live by a certain code of honour, while still being pulled into the cruelties and horrors of war.
Altogether this was a compelling and intriguing story that delves into the historical facts of World War I that are often overlooked – that of its Syrian front. Recommended reading for anyone who enjoys history, and anyone interested in the history of the current situations in the Middle East.
Referenced in the epilogue is another great read – Paris 1919 Six Months that Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan- which delves in detail into the peace conference and how the various decisions were made. In this work, the story continues and highlights the after-effects of the actions in this book. Give it a read to get more insight into what happened next, as it is only discussed in very brief overview in Anderson’s epilogue.
Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Advisor to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia by Janet Wallach is another great read from the same period in history. I read this one back in 2009, and I’m fairly certain, based on limited recollections, that there are certainly discrepancies in the stories – in fact the book jacket for this one claims “Too long eclipsed by Lawrence, Gertrude Bell emerges at last in her own right as a vital player on the stage of modern history”. Anderson’s work makes little mention of her, so we can only wonder if Anderson’s historical sources didn’t mention her, if he instead ignored her (only one women is shown as having any agency and ability in Anderson’s work, and figures in Anderson’s book also feature in Wallach’s), or if Wallach made her story into more than it truly was. Nevertheless, both are incredibly interesting reads.