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Originally published Friday, February 29, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

James Barr's "Desert" probes Lawrence of Arabia's claims

James Barr's new book, "Setting the Desert on Fire," helps to put Lawrence of Arabia's story back into context, partly by establishing the history of the Ottoman Empire and its prewar relations with France, England, Russia and Germany, and partly by retracing Lawrence's steps and questioning some of his claims and assumptions.

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Coming up "Lawrence of Arabia": A rare 70 mm print of the movie will be screened at noon March 16 and March 23, and at 8 p.m. March 18 and March 25, at Seattle's Cinerama (206-441-3653 or www.cinerama.com).

"Setting the Desert on Fire: T.E. Lawrence and Britain's Secret War in Arabia, 1916-1918"

by James Barr

W.W. Norton,

382 pp., $27.95

When you think of World War I, you're more likely to visualize trenches rather than sand dunes, European royalty rather than Arab tribesmen and pyrrhic victories rather than desert heroics.

You don't immediately think of the Great War in connection with David Lean's epic movie "Lawrence of Arabia," or of the autobiographical book that inspired it: Thomas Edward Lawrence's "Seven Pillars of Wisdom." The romance of the desert seems far away from the meat-grinding folly of the first World War.

James Barr's new book, "Setting the Desert on Fire," helps to put Lawrence's story back into context, partly by establishing the history of the Ottoman Empire and its prewar relations with France, England, Russia and Germany, and partly by retracing Lawrence's steps and questioning some of his claims and assumptions.

In 2004-05, Barr visited the locations of Lawrence's 1916-18 military adventures, finding train wrecks and bullet holes that have been mostly undisturbed since Lawrence left. The attitudes of Arabs, who still feel exploited by Westerners 90 years later, haven't changed much, either.

As Barr sees it, this tale of an Englishman who led an Arab revolt is an illustration of "the dangers of war by proxy." As the subtitle, "T.E. Lawrence and Britain's Secret War in Arabia," suggests, the conflict is an early version of "Charlie Wilson's War."

At the same time, Barr is fascinated by Lawrence's strategic genius on the battlefield and his relationships with Arab leaders. He calls him the perfect British hero: "an eccentric amateur whose unorthodox methods brought victory with an economy and fluidity that had been absent from the western front."

Many of the incidents Barr recalls are familiar from "Seven Pillars" and Lean's movie, but they're seen from a different, sometimes illuminating perspective.

Contrary to Lawrence's claims that his Arab followers were motivated primarily by ideological commitment, Barr maintains that many of them were escaping a deadly famine in Syria and lining up for free food.

"Lawrence had a track record of changing the facts when it suited him," Barr writes as he pokes holes in the story of Lawrence's torture by a gay Turkish bully. Barr finds no independent corroboration of Lawrence's story; he concludes that this was "an opportunity to reveal his secret predilections."

But Lawrence's fictions could also be complicated and generous. After an infamous episode in which Lawrence's enraged Arab army lost control and slaughtered dozens of Turks, Lawrence took the blame by claiming that he had ordered "no prisoners." Barr thinks he was covering up for a gang that had given in to mob rule.

There's a streak of sadism that comes through loud and clear in any Lawrence biography, and it's most noticeable here in the accounts of Lawrence recklessly blowing up trains and using unnecessarily large quantities of explosions. As one of his British companions put it: "We could indulge in a love of destruction which had lain latent in us since we were small boys."

But perhaps the most shocking quote in the book comes from Lawrence's friend and ally, Feisal ibn Hussein, who became the king of Iraq in 1921.

Shortly before he died in 1933, he claimed that there is "no Iraqi people but unimaginable masses of human beings, devoid of any patriotic idea, imbued with religious traditions and absurdities connected by no common tie, giving ear to evil, prone to anarchy and perpetually ready to rise against any government whatever."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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