Seven Pillars of Wisdom, A Triumph
I recently had an intense discussion with an Arab friend of mine about the attitude in the Middle East toward the West. I suggested that the Arabs should trust the West and western motives, and laid blame for the instability in the region at the feet of paranoid extremists. My friend sat quietly for a minute, then looked me square in the eye and asked if I really knew what the hell I was talking about?
He asked if I knew anything about Arab history, or had any idea of West's poor track record in the Middle East? I replied that I knew about as much as most Americans. Not much emphasis was placed on Arab history where I went to school. My friend said that I should learn more of the truth of the matter before making judgments about trusting or NOT trusting.
He suggested that if I wanted to know more of the facts I could start with a book called Seven Pillars of Wisdom, A Triumph by Thomas Edward (T.E.) Lawrence. Seven Pillars is the true story of Lawrence of Arabia by the Lawrence himself. He said the book told an exciting story, and contained a great deal of information about the roots of the current socio-political situation in the Middle East. I agreed to read the book, and we dropped the subject.
A week or so later I was exploring the shelves of my favorite used bookstore and found an old paperback edition of Seven Pillars. I had a little trouble getting into the book at first. Some of the syntax was difficult to understand, and some references lost on a modern reader. However, any difficulty with syntax was soon compensated for by the unfolding adventure story.
The Foundations of the Arab Revolt
Seven Pillars begins with an overview of Arab history, starting with a short description of the Moslem conquest in the seventh century, and outlining events through the Arab's eventual overthrown by the Turks in the eleventh century. The Turkish empire were still overlords in Arabia during the First World War, and allied with the Germans against Britain and France. In 1916 Sherif Hussein of Mecca, (leader of the Arabs) declared a rebellion against the Turks.
Lawrence Goes To Mecca
Lawrence was sent to Mecca by the British military command in Cairo to conduct a fact-finding mission. The quality of his reports and the strong relationships he formed with the Arab leaders led to his ultimate assignment as British liaison officer, serving with forces of Emir Feisal, one of Hussein's four sons. Lawrence describes Feisal as the only Arab leader with the "necessary fire" to successfully lead the revolt.
The Arab Revolt
Lawrence chronicles the Arab revolt starting with his 1916 mission to Mecca. He describes his efforts to help Feisal unify the feuding Arab tribes against the Turks. He recounts missions of up to 1000 miles a month on camel back, traversing the harshest desert terrain through extremes of cold and heat. He describes several successful guerrilla campaigns against the Turkish railroad that played a key role in the ultimate victory.
Lawrence profiles British leaders including General Sir Edmund Allenby, the brilliant Commander-in-Chief of British forces in Egypt and Palestine in 1917 and 18. He compares the British "regulars," disciplined professional soldiers fighting for duty and empire, and the Arab "irregulars," undisciplined amateur soldiers fighting for freedom and the spoils of war. Seven Pillars ends with the Arab army's victorious capture of Damascus, but that's not the end of the story.
During his years in Arabia Lawrence rode the razors edge between his duty to the British empire, and his moral duty to Feisal and the cause of Arab independence. The British military leadership believed an Arab uprising against the Turks would aid their war with Turkey's ally, Germany. Arab leaders were lead to believe the British were sincere in their desire to free the Arab people from the Turkish yoke. Unfortunately for the Arabs, the British agenda was governed by the politics of empire, not the aspirations of the Arab people. Several times in Seven Pillars Lawrence expresses his shame at dealing with the Arabs under false pretenses.
Immediately after the fall of Damascus Lawrence returned to England. In 1919 he served in the British Delegation at the Paris Peace Conference, working closely with the Feisal to secure Arab independence. The Arabs had helped the Allies win their war with Germany, but now it was time for England and France to get back to empire building. The French were determined to rule Syria, while the British had similar ambitions in Palestine and Iraq. In the ultimate betrayal, Syria, Palestine and Iraq were given over to France and Britain as mandated territories - colonies in all but name. Feisal, who ruled in Damascus after the war, was ousted by the French in 1920.
Exhausted and disappointed after the Paris Peace Conference, Lawrence returned to England. He had begun work on his chronicle of the Arab revolt while in Paris. He published the first edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, A Triumph in December of 1926.
To Trust or Not to Trust
As I reflect on my conversation with my Arab friend I understand his frustration. Trusting motives is one thing when trust has been earned, and something else entirely when it has not. Should we be surprised at the Arab world's attitude toward the West. Probably not. Should we endeavor to understand Arab culture and history and earn their trust. The obvious answer is yes, and reading Seven Pillars is a good place to start.