The Real 'Lawrence of Arabia'

Putting the Man and His Myth Into Historical Context

Pencil sketch of T.E. Lawrence

hide captionPencil sketch of T.E. Lawrence

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From 'Seven Pillars of Wisdom, The Complete 1922 Text,' Castle Hill Press, 1997
Emir Feisal

hide captionEmir Feisal

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From 'Seven Pillars of Wisdom, The Complete 1922 Text,' Castle Hill Press, 1997

There have been many references to the fabled Lawrence of Arabia in the press lately — "Wolfowitz of Arabia" was a recent New York Times headline, in reference to Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz' role in determining the future of Iraq and nation-building in the Middle East. Even President George W. Bush was recently depicted on one magazine cover wearing Lawrence's Arab headdress.

Thomas Edward Lawrence was the dashing, romanticized British officer credited with leading the Arab revolt against the Turks during World War I — a feat depicted in the epic film Lawrence of Arabia. But his true story and legacy is still a subject of debate among historians — everything from his sexuality, to his Arab style of dress, to whether he ever really reached the Syrian capital of Damascus at all. For Weekend Edition Saturday, NPR's Jacki Lyden reports on the man and the myth.

"Let us visit the man who created his own myth," Lyden says. "It's Cairo, 1919. T.E. Lawrence hunches over a lantern in an Ottoman-style house, penning his historic re-creation, Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph. This is Lawrence's recounting of his 1916-1918 Arab campaign. Turkey had allied itself with Germany, and Britain need a proxy force to defend its flank — a precursor to the 'Coalition of the Willing.'"

"Seven Pillars has exquisite Victorian phrasing, derring-do, raids and counter raids and men astride horseback and camel — everything, says noted historian David Fromkin, except facts.

Fromkin is the author of A Peace to End all Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, a definitive account of how the victors of World War I divided the Middle East among themselves, putting in power governments that would do their bidding — and in many ways, setting the region up for the current state of instability.

Fromkin says he likes to read Seven Pillars as a novel, with some historical facts: "It has an air of romance and strangeness," he tells Lyden. "It's the story of another world, and besides, I find Lawrence a curiously attractive character.

"On the minus side, he never could make up his mind what story he wanted to tell — and that means that he contradicted himself several ways. It also means you never know what the plot is, because there are three or four, and they're quite different," Fromkin says.

But Jeremy Wilson, author of T.E. Lawrence: The Authorized Biography and a past president of the T.E. Lawrence Society, calls the book "extremely accurate, historically, and anybody who says it's a novel needs to do their homework."

"What it isn't, is complete," Wilson says. Lawrence did indeed have a talent for self-invention, Wilson admits, but calls the book "true in essence, perhaps wrong on a few details." Wilson says Lawrence wanted to write a book worthy of Melville's Moby Dick or Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov.

Like Lawrence, Seven Pillars has its own mythology of creation and re-creation. Lawrence almost completed a first draft in 1919, lost it in a London train station, rewrote it hurriedly in 1920 and gave a manuscript to Oxford in 1922. Lawrence's friend George Bernard Shaw called this version "a masterpiece."

But Lawrence suffered a breakdown soon after and the private subscription text which came out in 1926 was an abridged version, which some of his friends thought was not as good as the original. It was a beautiful book, superbly illustrated with specially commissioned portraits by leading artists, costing three times the purchase price of the book.

Lawrence fled the spotlight and served in the Royal Air Force under an assumed name for a decade — only to be killed in a motorcycle accident after his enlistment ended. Within weeks of his death, tens of thousands of copies of Seven Pillars were on the shelves. Within a decade, the book had been translated into 16 languages and was considered a modern classic — a tale of a bookish Oxford intellectual transformed by war into a man of action.

Lawrence himself made tribal leader Sharif Hussein and his sons, Abdullah and Faisal, into the real stars of his epic tale. It was Faisal, Fromkin says, who thought of taking the key port of Akaba in Jordan by land, storming the Turks with an army riding camels. "But it was typical of Lawrence to play down and be modest about the things that he actually did — while telling whoppers, lies of all sorts, about things he claimed he had done," Fromkin says.

"Lawrence did not change the map of the Middle East — the spheres of influence had been drawn up secretly between Britain and France in 1916," Lyden says. "But it may be that the best way to regard T.E. Lawrence is to consider what would have happened in the Middle East without him.

"By 1922, he was advisor to Winston Churchill, and it was then Britain installed the adroit Faisal as King in Iraq," Lyden says, "And later, when it was already a fact on the ground, Abdullah as Emir in Jordan." Of all the other British officers in the Middle East, Lawrence was one of the few urging independence and self-rule for the Arabs.

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