Monday, November 03, 2014

Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson (Book Review #102 of 2014)

Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East.
Only 10 of the almost 1000 reviews on Amazon are one-star, and some of those appear to be erroneously awarded. The magic of this book is that Scott Anderson chronicles the tales of multiple characters whose paths occasionally cross, all of whom influenced the outcome of World War I, shaped the lasting imprint of the West on the Middle East, and were party to the establishment of an eventually independent Jewish state in Palestine. While much of the book focuses on T.E. Lawrence as seen through his own memoir, biographers, and contemporaries, Anderson also tells the lesser-known accounts of Aaron Aarohnson, William Yale, Curt Prüfer, Ahmed Djemal Pasha, King Faisal and Mark Sykes. The book is important in retelling the history of the Levant during World War I. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently referenced T.E. Lawrence and the current crisis in Syria as the result of the West's failed policies in the Middle East after WWI, so this book is quite relevant.

Aaron Aaronsohn was a Romanian Jew whose parents emigrated to Palestine to farm. The settlements were usually sponsored by rich Jewish benefactors who dictated how the colony was to be run. It's important to remember that "Zionists" were not a united group-- some just wanted to moderately repopulate Palestine with Jews, some wanted to live under Ottoman rule and not displace the Arab majority, others wanted to live under protection of England and the West, while others wanted an independent Jewish state. When war broke out, many of the Jews in Palestine remained loyal to the Ottomans and could not support the Entente powers which included Russia, from which many of the Jews had fled during decades of of pogroms. Agricultural output of the Jewish colonies was poor, and Aaronsohn was selected and sponsored by a Rothschild to study agronomy in Europe and later returned to Palestine and started revolutionary practices that greatly increased farming output. He became famous worldwide for discovering and re-discovering various species of plants. Operating on his own, Aaronsohn eventually embraced the Zionist cause and developed a network of spies called Nili. After World War I began, he was instrumental in spreading pro-Jewish propaganda through telegrams and travels to the West. When Djemal Pasha evacuated Palestine ahead of battle with the English, Aaronsohn spread exaggerated claims of pogroms and lynchings of Jews, even though history records no such evils occurred. The world was already aware of atrocities committed when the Ottomans deported its Armenian and foreign populations, and atrocities against Jews was seen as a step too far. These telegrams reached influential Americans such as Chief Justice Louis Brandeis and swayed public sentiment toward Palestine. When the spy network was uncovered, Aaronsohn's sister--a leader in the group with wide European connections-- was tortured and executed. The exposure of the network was partly the result of bungling by the British.

William Yale was an American employee of Standard Oil who traveled in the Middle East, under false pretenses, searching for oil and opportunity. Standard Oil was hoping to make money selling oil to both the Turks and the Allies after war broke out. After the U.S. entered the war, Yale's documentation of Middle Eastern geography and political affairs proved valuable to the U.S. State Department who enlisted him as an intelligence agent. Yale was the forerunner of American espionage through its private sector, particularly oil. Yale later published an account of his time in the Middle East that I'd like to read.

Curt Prüfer was a German diplomat stationed in Cairo who shared with many Germans a vision of a pan-Islamic revolt against the Allies supported by Germany. He was an advisor both to the German government and Djemal Pasha. Germany was crucial in building the railways and other infrastructure inside the Ottoman empire, as well as supplying academics to Turkish universities and doing much of the early archaeology on various ancient sites. Kaiser Wilhelm II wanted greater German Eurasian influence, a dream that seems silly in retrospect today. Prüfer developed his own spy ring, putting him in direct competition with Aaronsohn. Obviously, Prüfer was on the losing side so you see him managing both shrinking territory and the increasing disconnect of the German government from reality on the ground.

Djemal Pasha's full biographyis not given by Anderson but he served as the governor of the Syrian region, including over Palestine. He was one of three generals to wrest control of the Ottoman government before the war. After a locust swarm of biblical proportions wiped out crops in the region in 1915, Djemal enlisted the help of the agronomist Aaronsohn, allowing Aaronsohn to gain favor and intelligence as he worked. Anderson writes of conflicting histories regarding Pasha. On the one hand, he oversaw harsh crackdowns on Arabs during the Arab Revolt. He is blamed (and was later assassinated) for many atrocities against Armenians, but Anderson writes that Pasha was intially disgusted by their treatment and disgreed with the powers in Istanbul who initiated the forced deportations. The atrocities were committed after the failed British-led attack on Gallipoli and convinced many Ottoman Jews to flee for fear that they could be next. the pasha's legacy here is mixed; Djemal supposedly forbid harsh treatment or the killing of Armenians but later forbid even photgraphing them, presumably while atrocities were being committed.

Of course, the greatest amount of the book is devoted to T.E. Lawrence. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom (my review) is a prerequisite for Anderson's book along with the classic Lawrence of Arabia film, as Anderson quotes extensively from Lawrence's work while also critiquing it based on accounts by Lawrence's contemporaries, along with letters and journal entries by Lawrence. Lawrence's early endavors and fascination with Ottoman Syria gave him unique insights that served him well. Before fighting there with Arabs, he had hiked thousands of miles in Syria and done archaeological work. He is alleged to have fallen in love with Dahoum aka Salim Ahmed, a young waterboy he hired in Syria, whose well-being supposedly motivated him to push for Syrian Arab independence (Dahoum died of typhus in 1916, much to Lawrence's dismay). Lawrence's path crosses with that of the other characters, including Mark Sykes of the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement that effectively betrayed the Arabs and surprised the British command in Cairo. Lawrence generally disagrees vehemently with the others and remains contemptuous. Interestingly, Lawrence betrays the secret of Sykes-Picot early on to Faisal Ali, who he fought alongside. This was an interesting act of treason by Lawrence that Anderson notes gets overlooked by biographers-- after only 4 months in Arabia, Lawrence was so invested in the Arab cause that he was willing to risk everything in disclosing this secret. Lawrence is particularly glad he did so after the 1917 Balfour Declaration by the British that made it official state policy to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. This monumental move was partly the result of fervor stirred by Aaronsohn and served to enrage many Arabs fighting alongside the West. Had Lawrence not already disclosed Sykes-Picot the dual revelations may have led to a bloody revolt. As a footnote to the history, the Wuhabbist Muslims led by al Saud were most incensed by the declaration and King Faisal's cooperation with the West in allowing it.

Lawrence advised the British commanders to bypass a bloody war for Palestine and invade Syria instead. His commanders ignore him, and 50,000 lives are lost "liberating" Palestine from the Arabs. Lawrence's academic expertise in medieval warfare gave him insights into how the war could be fought with Faisal's camel-mounted troops. The capture of Aqaba as well as the varying accounts of what happened to Lawrence when captured in Daraa are examined pretty thoroughly by the author. The West's promises and reneging to the Arabs, whose help they desperately needed, are also well chronicled by Anderson. Faisal was in position to receive overtures both from the British and the Ottomans, who began to promise more independence to the Arabs in an attempt to wrest them away from the British. The British, in turn made last-minute promises of greater independence upon hearing false rumors of an Arab-Ottoman deal.

Several of these characters attend the peace conference at Versailles, and all of them leave disgusted at the outcomes. How this later played out in world affairs is documented briefly by Anderson at the end. I recommend Paul Ehrlich's recent book Inside Syria (my review) for an abbreviated look at this time period in Syrian history as well. I give this book 5 stars out of 5. Fantastic, very informative, and very entertaining read if you are interested in Middle Eastern or World War I history. It's very relevant to today's battles in Syria and I suspect the book will remain relevant for decades to come.

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