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January Books 8) Seven Pillars of Wisdom

8) Seven Pillars of Wisdom, by T.E. Lawrence

This is the story of how Lawrence helped the Arabs revolt against the Ottoman Empire in 1917-1918. Its greatest stength is its vivid description of the landscapes of Arabia, Syria and Palestine; I've never been to the desert, and apart from one long weekend in Jerusalem I don't know that part of the world at all, so I found this tremendously compelling. I was left a bit more ambivalent about the human side of the story: on the one hand, Lawrence is aiding a subject nation to throw off their oppressor; on the other, his heroism is undermined - according to his own account, it should be said - by the brutality of the campaign, by his awareness that his British masters will certainly break their word to their Arab allies, and by the casual racism he himself displays toward them.

It's a very manly book, for values of "manly" that overlap with "gay". In the very first chapter, we have Arab lads "quivering together in the yielding sand with intimate hot limbs in supreme embrace". It is a constant theme, and manly love merges intriguingly with Lawrence's affection for the landscape. There is I think precisely one woman character of note, an old lady who Lawrence rescues from a train wreck (he blew up the train). Apart from her, there are several other memorable female personalities, but they are all camels.

The book falls rather neatly into two parts, the first half being the desert campaign starting from Mecca going up the coast to eventually capture Akaba (=Aqaba), the second half covering operations more closely linked to Allenby and culminating in the taking of Damascus and consolidation of a new Arab regime. I found it very odd that although Lawrence says he was present at the capture of Jerusalem, he reports almost nothing about this key event apart from an argument between the French diplomat Picot (of Sykes-Picot fame - Sykes too makes an appearance) and the British. Of course, he was not impressed by Jerusalem:
...a squalid town, which every Semitic religion had made holy. Christians and Mohammedans came there on pilgrimage to the shrines of its past, and some Jews looked to it for the political future of their race. These united forces of the past and the future were so strong that the city almost failed to have a present.
My grandfather, who was there about the same time for similar reasons, had a similar reaction; his father, who was there sixty years earlier (and lived to 1916), had been more impressed.

For all its faults (some mentioned above, but I'll add another: it is too long) I found the book also tremendously enlightening in understanding the roots of today's politics in the region. Lawrence himself is very aware of the contradiction between his responsibility to his country and his moral obligation to his Arab friends and allies, and his personal dilemma can be read also as a comment on the wider international situation. The ruling family of Mecca, who Lawrence helps put in charge of Syria, now rule Jordan (having also had a go at Iraq in the interim). The boundaries of states were mostly drawn at the convenience of the Great Powers, possibly even more arbitrarily than in Africa; it's not surprising that they are perceived as having shallow roots.

Anyway, a bit of a slog in places (rather like the campaign it describes), but I'm glad I read it in the end.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 27th, 2008 09:59 pm (UTC)
It's a very manly book, for values of "manly" that overlap with "gay"

Indeed. Far too many passages seem to be Lawrence drooling over Arab boys and/or bits of rough. One does get the feeling that if it wasn't for the homosexual self-loathing he might've got the whole business over with in half the time, but probably wouldn't've enjoyed himself nearly as much.

Some beautiful descriptive writing in it, some very unreliable narration (the intro to the edition I've got points out some of the inconsistencies, which are legion) and it feels rather more like a cross between Bildungsroman and picaresque than military history or meditation on irregular warfare, but it is immensely readable and curiously compelling (despite its length).
Jan. 28th, 2008 01:47 pm (UTC)
Funnily enough, "homosexual self-loathing" is one thing I don't detect in Lawrence - certainly not compared with his contemporary, Proust. Lawrence is pretty up front about what is happening. I think my edition may have the same intro as yours, and I was not totally convinced by its argument that the governor of Deraa, being a notorious womaniser, must therefore have been uninterested in handsome young men - seems to me that the one does not exclude the other! - but the fact that large chunks of the book are only loosely connected to the historical reality is pretty clear.
Jan. 27th, 2008 10:38 pm (UTC)
a bit of a slog in places ... but I'm glad I read it in the end
Yr comment reminds me of Nostromo, who has finally died on page 361, after intermittently appearances in the book's plot.
Jan. 28th, 2008 12:02 am (UTC)
I have my grandfather's first edition. He too was a WW1 survivor though in a less exalted rank than yours.
Jan. 28th, 2008 06:20 am (UTC)
I was really glad that I had read this once I was done. I had the same feeling that it said something really interesting about the roots of conflict.
Jan. 28th, 2008 09:19 am (UTC)
This is the book I have owned longest and never read. I bought an enormous hardcover edition in 1987 (approx), have started it twice and got about 1/3 of the way through it. I'm not quite sure why I've never finished it - I've always found the bits I have read really interesting. I suspect the size of the book is part of the problem.
Jan. 28th, 2008 02:47 pm (UTC)
although Lawrence says he was present at the capture of Jerusalem, he reports almost nothing about this key event apart from an argument

IIRC, there is some doubt as to the veracity of Lawrence's claim. Unfortunately, the book I think I read this in was on loan from the UEL library, so I can't immediately check (it was David Fromkin's excellent A Peace to End All Peace, which I really must read in its entirety when I get a chance - I only had time to read the chapters that were recommended for my course).
Jan. 28th, 2008 08:47 pm (UTC)
I think Lawrence is famous for his fibs. I read a bit of a biography of him where the author discussed the bit where Lawrence was supposedly captured, tortured, and raped by some Turkish soldiers, before escaping in an outlandish manner. The biography argues that he probably made the whole incident up years later. But what would I know.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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