January 16, 2010


Wanted: a new Lawrence of Arabia: Rory Stewart, our leading commentator on Iraq, explains in a BBC documentary why he admires TE Lawrence. (Rory Stewart, 1/15/10, Daily Telegraph)

As a child, I had an image of Lawrence as a quiet Oxford school-boy who ran away to live wild in the desert, discovered lost cities, galloped across the sand-dunes, out-riding and out-shooting the Beduin, while making jokes in ancient Greek: a mixture of Mowgli from The Jungle Book, Indiana Jones and James Bond.

As an adult, I read books which described him as a masochistic fantasist, a liar, a repressed homosexual and a brutal imperial stooge. But when I was working in Iraq and Afghanistan and read his secret reports to the war office, I discovered a very different Lawrence.

His writings showed me the astonishing resources that existed in places like Iraq and Afghanistan; that we should trust Iraqis and Afghans more; that they were much more competent than we acknowledged. It was a lesson in humility, which I felt we had still not learned and which had revolutionary implications for our interventions in both countries.

Lawrence was a 26-year-old archaeologist when Ottoman Turkey allied itself with Germany at the start of the First World War and declared a jihad against the British Empire. In making the documentary, I learned how Lawrence was given the task of planning secret operations against Ottoman Turkey; how he went to live with a demoralised group of Arab tribesmen and, promising them independence, forged them into a guerrilla force; how he out-fought a vast Ottoman army, and ultimately freed Arabia from Turkish rule.

When he returned to London, aged 30 in 1918, he was a global celebrity – on a par with Charlie Chaplin. More than a million watched a performance of his life in Covent Garden during 1919. He was sent to the Versailles Peace Conference, appointed as Churchill’s Middle East advisor and wrote his masterpiece, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Travelling from Syria through Israel and Jordan and from Oxford to Iraq, I found I could show things in a documentary which I could never record in writing. I had read Lawrence’s description of crawling through the desert to inspect a station before an attack and seeing a match briefly illuminate the pale face of a young Turkish officer. Only a camera, however, could catch the drama of finding that station still half-buried in the sand, with a jagged hole in the wall where a firing position had been hacked out by a desperate defender and a pale line of bullets marked the defenders’ deaths. Only a camera could fully catch the way a Bedu chief raised his chin when describing his father fighting alongside Lawrence.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 16, 2010 9:37 AM
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