The Stranger in a Strange Land

By Fouad Ajami

The passing of Peter O'Toole, some fifty years after the release of "Lawrence of Arabia," hardly merited a notice in the Arabic media. Perhaps it could have been titled "Lawrence in Arabia," or reading his sublime Seven Pillars of Wisdom, there is absolutely room for "Lawrence on Arabia." But the more celebrated formulation, denoting a relationship between a man and place, was always a Western projection.

Arabs never claimed T.E. Lawrence or his entire revolt in the desert. The Hashemites had done well by that revolt-they had come out of the Great War with thrones in Iraq and Jordan. (They would lose the reign in Baghdad, in a gruesome case of regicide in the summer of 1958.) But even the court historians of the Hashemites had their own reasons for belittling Lawrence and for depicting the Arab revolt as an affair of the Arabs. When Arab writers and historians addressed the topic of T.E. Lawrence, they tended to repay the hostility he had shown the Arabs of the coastal lands and the cities.

Lawrence and his peers had thought of the Arab towns as bastardized and false; what glory they attributed to the Arabs, they attributed to the desert, the repository of all that was noble and "uncluttered" (the word recurs in the travel writing and the colonial dispatches). When the late Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said wrote in 1989 that "Lawrence was a British imperial agent, not an innocent enthusiast for Arab independence," he caught the consensus of the intellectual class.

The Anglo-Arab encounter, it was believed, had been the stuff of deceit and unequal power; it had begotten no indigenous liberalism. It had begun in double-dealing. The Arabs had believed that the end of Ottoman rule would issue in independence, only to discover that their homelands were partitioned and divided by a pact between Britain and France. The French had come into the diplomacy convinced that the sacrifices France made in the European war had to be redeemed in the Levant. The French came into this enterprise after colonial experience in North Africa. They were old fashioned masters, they came without guilt or second thoughts.

The big swath of Arab territory up for grabs in the aftermath of the war had never been united. What unity it possessed was the gift given it by Ottoman rule. But a new Arab historiography was born-it emphasized the unity of the Arabs. It saw these new states that emerged after the Great War as illegitimate and contrived. A schism was born between the practice of states and the ways of emirs and rulers on the one hand, and the history of victimization transmitted to politically impressionable young people on the other.

David Lean's film was released in 1962. By then, Lawrence was long gone. He had died in a motorcycle accident in 1935. So was Emir Feisal, the Hashemite prince who had bewitched Lawrence. Abdullah, who had ended up the unhappy claimant of the wilderness of Transjordan, had been struck down by a Palestinian assassin in 1951.

If anything, Lean was true to Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The rhythm and cadence of the book are the rhythm of the film. The early narrative leads up to Lawrence's arrival at Feisal's camp in Wadi Safra. Lean didn't have to do much with Lawrence's depiction. A slave led him to an inner court, "on whose further side, framed between the uprights of a black doorway, stood a white figure, waiting tensely for me. I felt at first glance that this was the man I had come to Arabia to seek-the leader who would bring the Arab revolt to full glory. Feisal looked very tall, and pillar-like, and very slender in his white silk robes and his brown head-cloth bound with a brilliant scarlet and gold cord. His eyelids were drooped; and his black beard and colorless face were like a mask against the strange, still watchfulness of his body. His hands were crossed in front of him on his dagger."

The British had wearied of Feisal's father, the Sharif of Mecca. They thought he was a stubborn old man. The Sharif had declared himself "King of the Arabs." He thought of himself and his sons as the inheritors of the Arab domains of the Ottoman Empire. With a big war on their hands, the British indulged the Sharif. They needed the cover of the Sharif's participation in the war on their side to keep the Muslims of India at peace with British rule. The Ottoman sultan had declared that his campaign was a holy war, and Britain had to be on guard against a Muslim uprising within its ranks.

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Fouad Ajami is the Herbert and Jane Dwight Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the cochair of the Herbert and Jane Dwight Working Group on Islamism and the International Order.

Originally published by the Hoover Institution.

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