It is not without significance that many of the myths of a united Arab nationalism have as their foundation the romantic hallucinations of a British homosexual, T. E. Lawrence, better known as “Lawrence of Arabia.” One of the most pervasive of these myths is that the decadence of Iraq and the other Arab countries can be blamed on nefarious Western imperialism after World War I.
In one of his homoerotic narratives, Lawrence hints at having been captured and sexually assaulted by the Turks in Deraa, circa 1917. Historians are convinced that this rape, like so much of Lawrence’s Arabian Nights inspired oeuvre, was invented. The same can be said of the so-called Great Arab Revolt against the crumbling Ottoman Caliphate, reputedly coordinated by Lawrence in his capacity as a liaison officer of the British Army.
Indeed, Lawrence’s memoir of the “Revolt” – “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” – is a veritable mirage of lies. In the words of the late, anti-imperialist scholar Elie Kedourie, it “induced in its readers – by means of falsehoods – feelings of admiration, pity, indignation and guilt, in respect of events which in reality do not possess that tragic quality.”
By transforming the mediocre and the shady into noble and exalted beings, the book is not only corrupt but also corrupting – corrupting in a manner particularly familiar to the modern age.
And corrupting in a manner typical of the mind ravaged by the rot of romanticism. As the great classical liberal Ludwig von Mises wrote, “Romanticism is man’s revolt against reason.” Lawrence’s whimsical writings have captivated so many precisely because they are so afflicted. In the postmodernist era, the rebellion against reason and reality, if anything, has gathered steam. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s noble savage is never far from the hearts of those incurable dreamers who see history as the discourse of the oppressed and the excluded.
For Lawrence, a keen flagellant, the West held the whip, under which the (delectable) Arab whipping boy buckled. Lawrence’s personal habits were not mere peccadilloes, as the personal and the political were one to him. His bizarre psychosexual identification with the Arabs was the root of his political beliefs. “Seven Pillars” begins with an erotic “dedicatory poem”:
I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands and wrote my will across the sky.
Lawrence’s identification with the Arab archetype went well beyond gallivanting about in white and gold Bedouin getup. As Kedourie points out in the “Real T. E. Lawrence,” “[His] actions in war and politics were motivated by a [declared] desire to pleasure the loved one” (in all likelihood a donkey boy named Dahoum, at first, and then an imagined ideal Arab).
“Seven Pillars of Wisdom” spawned a cult that flourishes to this day. Its adherents, Arab and Western scholars both, continue to blame Western imperialist intervention in the 19th and 20th centuries for “sowing the seeds for the endemic malaise plaguing the Middle East to date.” Efraim and Inari Karsh describe the legend thus:
European powers … used the Turks’ entry into the First World War to fall upon the carcass and carve the defunct Muslim Empire into artificial entities, in accordance with their imperial interests and in complete disregard of the indigenous peoples’ yearning for political unity.
In “Empires of the Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East 1789-1923,” the Karshes marshal prodigious scholarship to prove false the received wisdom that the Arabs were (and remain) hapless and helpless victims of the West:
Twentieth-century Middle Eastern history is essentially the culmination of long-standing indigenous trends, passions, and patterns of behavior rather than an externally imposed dictate.
Propelling these events was the Ottoman leadership’s decision to fight alongside Germany in World War I, a choice that reflected “a straightforward imperialist policy of territorial aggrandizement and status acquisition,” the Karshes argue. The war provided the opportunity for various ambitious Arabs to become “active participants in the restructuring of the region.” Sharif Hussein of Mecca, who headed the “Revolt,” was one such player. Hussein was certainly no Arab nationalist, but rather a regional empire builder who vied for power – and for millions in British gold – with rival potentates.
Once Lawrence’s fata morgana is de-romanticized, his battalions of Hijaz Bedouin can be seen in their true light. As Kedourie puts it, they were simply “nomads who lived, whenever they could, by exaction and plunder.” Lawrence himself noted the absence of a “national feeling” among his proteges, and complained that “plundering occupied all the energies of our Bedouins.”
Sharif’s ragamuffin troops aroused deep suspicions. Most Arabs remained loyal to – and fought alongside – the Turks, who were (though not Arabs) fellow Muslims, unlike the British and French. Hijaz, the center of the “Revolt,” was a remote region not terribly strategic to the Ottoman Sultan. The damage wreaked to its railways by the Sharifians was minimal. Their military contribution to the campaign was almost entirely symbolic.
Gen. Allenby, the British commander in chief, usually cleared the battlefields first. Then, as a gesture of good will, Allenby would allow them to enter the already conquered hamlets and cities and claim victories that were really his. Lawrence’s account of the fall of Damascus was one of his most brazen fantasies, and it is still repeated today by assorted dissembling Arabists. It is a matter of historical record that the ancient city was captured by the Australians, not by the Arabs.
Of late, Lawrenthian mythologists have taken to applying his simplistic sentimental spin to the situation in Iraq. One doesn’t need Lawrence’s lies to know Bush’s war was a travesty driven by a corrupt White House. Equally, one doesn’t need Lawrence’s brand of deceit to recognize that the decadence of the Arab world has not changed since his time.
Lawrence of Arabia had his Sharif; George W. Bush has his Ahmed Chalabi, who conveniently helped conjure the fantastical “weapons of mass destruction” that served as the pretext for America’s disastrous invasion of Iraq. Indeed romanticism dies hard, and Western leaders have never ceased to proclaim Arab hustlers as would-be heroes.
Clearly, one doesn’t need Lawrence to understand that the squabbling sects of Iraq will continue to shape life on the banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates long after the last effigy of Bush has been burned in Baghdad.