There isn’t a work of fiction that can rival this incredible true story; it’s as if most works of fiction strive to achieve what happened for these two years in the deserts of Arabia through the eyes of a single, odd Englishman during World War I.
Of course Lawrence has the mind of an author, his ability to stand apart from the men and world around him and take in all the details and grains of life and then turn all that into a coherent story with vivid characters is a skill very few people truly possess. And there were times when I really did wonder if everything here really happened or if it was invented. Any other author I would be much more skeptical of, but Lawrence was an unusual person who actively hated himself, hated his own body even, who never could figure out how to fit in, who would rather long for a desire rather than grasp the reward, who spent the best part of his life living as another person. That pedigree, that inability of him to ever take credit for anything other than cleaning up a hospital of dead, liquefied Turks, made me trust his account, even the dreamy bits.
There were parts of the books I struggled with – mostly the names and places. Maps are helpful, but maps lead to outright historical documents to me laid next to the book for quick consulting and then I’m not even reading the book proper anymore – so I dispensed with any hope of knowing who all the people were and focused on those that mattered, namely Faisal, Auda, and the brief moments of Allenby. The language of the Arabs is very foreign sounding so it got a little confusing keeping everyone straight in my head and I was grateful when he resorted to generalizations such as calling a group ‘The Australians’.
Other parts weren’t clear because so much time has passed since the events here (nearly 100 years) that people and events who were probably quite well known when the book was first published have faded into history or have been too confused with David Lean’s masterful film “Lawrence of Arabia”.
However, this did not hinder my enjoyment of the book and aside from an already decent understanding of the events of WWI, and the overarching political structures, I was able to proceed into the desert without much difficulty. Though it would be fun to really sit down with this book and research every last person and event.
The one part of the book I had been told would be tedious was the part I found not only the most fascinating, but also the most crucial : the landscape. But Lawrence wrote so much of the landscape because that is what the Arabs were fighting for and Lawrence wanted to give every grain of sand in Arabia its due glory. And only then after we’ve turned over every stone, every burning lava field and slate, every murky well, the supreme glory of Rumm, only after seeing all of this country do we see why they fought the Turks. The cruelty of the Turks in that village, that little girl … Tallal became the Arab conflict and this is what Lawrence was trying to tell us the entire time. It took that many words, that much detail to get the point across as to why they fought and why they actually came together as a people who normally hated each other to defeat a common foe.
And the fact that Fiasal was able to get these tribes to stop killing each other for just long enough to take Damascus and win the war is the most remarkable thing here. Lawrence’s story was incredible for sure, but what Fiasal did is unmatched and only Ghengis Khan can surpass such political ability (however Fiasal actually didn’t even have to resort to Mongol brutality either). Yet that’s the sad thing here too since that corporation lasted for such a short time and has never been seen again. Even now in a post Arab Spring world, there is not much hope of a unified middle east – Saudi Arabia is rich but not trusted (though must be respected because of Mecca). Syria is still reeling and probably always will, and the West Bank and Palestine is in even worse shape.
For that brief moment there was hope but it started to fall apart the very hours after the taking of Damascus as the men immediately fought over political control. Maybe that’s why Lawrence added the bit about shoveling up the jellied remains of the Turk soldiers an poured those stinking remains into the grave because he knew how vile the whole business of humanity was, how terrible (yet glorious) war was, how petty, how temporal and fleeting life is, how in the shadow of Rumm all of us are utterly insignificant.
And he knew it wouldn’t last. “Fantasies, these will seem, to such as are able to call them my beginning an ordinary effort”.
He tried, he gloried, yet couldn’t enjoy it, and could never shake that it was all vanity in the end. But what a tale!