Was Lawrence of Arabia Good for the Arab World?
By: John Mason/Contributing Writer
Watching a scene in the film, Lawrence of Arabia, I saw a mysterious figure loping onto the screen on camelback, seeming to float on the Desert—and into my life. It was 1962 when the film opened and the desert epic that depicted something of the life of T.E. Lawrence, so artfully produced by David Lean, part fact, part fiction, infused my consciousness. However, much lore surrounds Lawrence’s part in unifying the Arabs. Some is true, some is not. How much do you know about the man and his legacy.
T.E. Lawrence was a Brit.
Lawrence started his career as an archaeologist and, then, to take an active role in World War I (1914-1918), he became a military officer. He is most famous for his part in the Arab Revolt. He was later lionized in the film. His absorption of Arab culture came to him in stages. He learned Arab ways of living and, over time, to speak Arabic fluently. In so doing he understood the essence of Arab culture. And, finally, he acted on his deep cultural and historical knowledge and intuition.
Lawrence had developed a trust with the Arabian tribes based on that knowledge and on his intuition.
Lawrence of Arabia, the film, treats the man Lawrence in an exotic, almost romantic way. We have to recall the reality, however, which is that he was in the service of the British Empire, whose motive in the Middle East was imperial. I especially agreed with Arab criticism of the film—since it portrayed Arabs as vicious and brutal. Some critics noted that the West’s hero-worship of Lawrence at the time had obscured the critical achievements of the Arabian tribes themselves. Furthermore, Lawrence of Arabia had only one major Arab actor, Omar Sharif, and it didn’t include a single woman credited with a speaking role.
Lawrence believed that Damascus would become the capital of one, united Arab state.
Lawrence helped establish the provisional Arab government under Prince Faisal in newly-liberated DamascusArab rule under King Faisal was ended by French forces in 1920, thus undermining Lawrence’s dream of an independent Arabia.
Lawrence suspected all along that the colonial powers of Britain and France would not let the Arabs have their own, independent state.
Meanwhile, in 1916, the British and French wrote a secret agreement, called Sykes-Picot, which would divide and conquer the Arabs. The result would be several countries carved out along unnatural lines and dominated as colonies by the ruling powers. Lawrence never shared this secret pact with then Prince Faisal. Thus he deceived the Arabs into continuing to follow him into battle against the Ottomans and then moving onto Damascus. During the waning years of World War I, Lawrence tried unsuccessfully to get his superiors to reverse the decision to reject Arab independence.
Had the Arabs been awarded the independent state they won as combatants in war, the political situation of today’s Arab World might be quite different.
The dictatorships and inter-ethnic and inter-religious strife might today have otherwise been relics of the past. While Lawrence tried to help the Arabs create a better world for themselves, he ultimately deceived them and perhaps even himself.
Adapted from Mason’s LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017.