on 16 May 2014
Before commenting on the excellence of this book, I would like to mention my credintials on the subject. Lawrence and I were both conceived i my family home. His father was tenant at the time. As a result I have always taken an interest in him and have read most of the work by and about him. My father served in Mesapotamia in the 1914-18 war (DSO.) and his uncle (General Lionel Dunsterville ) commanded the Dunster force there at that time.
The book is excellent and deserves the praise it has received. There are a few trivial inaccuracies on his early life but are not relevant. He has put Lawrence in the right perspective in that sphere and has made some acute observations about him, plus the rather suspect role of the Standard oil company. Considering what a broad sweep he has taken of that area I am surprised that there is virtually no mention of Harry St John Philby (British spy) and his close association with Ibn Saud. It was he that was mainly responsible for having him elevated from a tribal warrior of the Wahhabi's to being the most powerful influence in the area. He rather than Lawrence got the ear of Churchill in supporting him. It is interesting that Philby's son also was a spy, but for the Russians. This theatre of war has been somewhat overlooked because of the carnage that took place in France. The fact that this book has been written by an American .gives it added weight and should be put on top of the reading list for anyone studying the 1914 - 18 war. Read this and Max Hastings book on the European end of the same war.
Scott Anderson's "Lawrence in Arabia" is a compelling account of T.E. Lawrence (and to a lesser extent his German, American and Zionist counterparts) and the Middle-Eastern world they tried to make during the Great War. Meticulously researched and well-written Anderson takes the reader on a journey that covers much of the Ottoman Empire, the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt, and what is now Syria and Israel. Given the tumultuous history of the region since the Great War, and particularly since the Arab Spring and the complicated turmoil that is now rocking Syria, Anderson's book has contemporary resonances that buttress its examination of a bygone era.
Although the book focuses mostly on Lawrence, Anderson sets out the parallel stories of three other "adventurers" who influenced the events covered in the book. The German Curt Pruffer, was a lower level academic who saw the war (as many did) as an opportunity to rise above the glass ceiling faced by many who were not of the right social caste, took upon himself the role of a shadowy figure who sought to turn native opinion against the British. William Yale was an American executive of Standard Oil of New York. His goal was to use his influence to secure oil concessions from the crumbling Ottoman Empire and try to ensure that those concessions would be viable no matter who ended up controlling the region. There was also Aaron Aaronsohn who, in order to secure promises from the British about Jewish emigration and protection of Jewish emigrants into what is now Israel, created a spy ring that passed on information about Turkish troop movements to the British. And then there was Lawrence. Although only a bit above 5'1" (not the image one may have taken from the move), Lawrence bestrode Arabia like a colossus.
Anderson does an excellent job in creating a narrative arc that takes us from the beginning of the war in the Middle East through to its conclusion. He sets out in rich but clear prose the tribal, ethnic, and political fault lines that were quite complex, Byzantine if you will, and which few understood. Lawrence, a rather lowly officer ill-suited for the military seized the stage because he actually seemed to be one of the only Europeans present in the region prepared to actually get a handle on these complexities. Lawrence, as Anderson points out, was determined to use the war to secure self-determination for the various Arab tribes he encountered. He may in fact have been something of a pan-Arab nationalist decades before the concept actually began to take root in the region. Lawrence failed in this quest and Anderson does an exemplary job in exploring the forces at work that prevented Lawrence from using the conflict to create an Arab nation. However, this book is not a hagiographic treatment of Lawrence or anyone else featured in the book. Anderson does not spare Lawrence from the objective, if severe, eye he casts upon the British, Germans, French (and Hashemites for that matter) generally.
All in all I walked away from Lawrence in Arabia with a newfound understanding of the absolutely cynical, realpolitk may be another word for it, way in which the Empire builders of Europe and all the players created what may be called the foundation of the modern Middle East. When looking for first causes of today's conflicts and strife that continue to plague the Middle East, this period, and Anderson's book seems like an excellent place to start.
on 10 May 2014
I don't read history books, but I couldn't put this one down. I had recently re-watched the classic 'Lawrence Of Arabia' film and simply had to know more about the 'true' story, when I stumbled across this gem. 'Truth', of course, is a rather elusive concept, as any historian will tell you, but this is where Scott Anderson's skills shine: he does a marvellous historian's balancing act, pulling together diverse original (and recently de-classified) sources and making sense of conflicting versions of numerous spine-tingling episodes. He's a great writer, and weaves a jaw-dropping saga of intrigue, daring, heroism, espionage, bloody-mindedness, deceit, cruelty, war, peace, slaughter, pride, statesmanship, loyalty and even a bit of romance for good measure. The book is about a lot more than 'Lawrence', since it follows, to varying degrees, the interlocking strands of four key players in the evolving Middle Eastern campaign of The Great War. Read the other reviews and the press reviews: they give a good account, and you will not be disappointed. Best of all, this book is 100% relevant to the events unfolding today, and all the more astonishing for Anderson's key insights into the foundations of today's turmoil that were (at least partially) established 100 years ago.
on 27 August 2015
In such a crowded field of positively laudatory reviews which to a great extent I subscribe to, why should one feel the urge to make another contribution? It is a remarkably well constructed riveting narrative juxtaposing three other characters with the legendary man to enrich our perspective. Historians will continue to churn out more biographies because Lawrence ,a charismatic and enigmatic figure ,exercises perennial fascination for the Western imagination.
However apart from superficially sketching one non Western character namely Djemal the Turkish military governor of Syria the book is devoid of in depth description of any of the Arab protagonists. As usual those who occupy centre stage are the Westerners ( Brtitish, Americans, Germans, Western Jews) . The Arabs once again in true Hollywood fashion provide the exotic backdrop in this saga which after all had determined their future. Uet there is an array of potentially interesting cast , the likes of Jaafar El Askari or Nuri El Said the Ottoman Iraqi officers in the Arab army , the urban Arab nationalists or some of the colourful tribal chiefs. Lawrence complex and ambivalent relationship with Feisal should have been explored in greater detail. These remarks are not meant to minimise the author's achievement in producing a sympathetic and nuanced highly entertaining biography. It is simply a plea for future researchers to dig out more thoroughly into the non Western literature ( e.g Suleiman Moussa, the Arab historian) to give us a more ecumenical picture.
on 28 August 2014
The title is designed for selling the book. It misleads. The strength of the book is the representation of the conflicting forces – the demise of the Ottoman Empire shored up by the German army, the last throes of the British and the French empires, the horrifying arrogance and stupidity of conventional war strategy of the British, Turks and Germans, the rise of Zionism, the lure of oil in Palestine and the organisation of Arab nationalism. This is not just about Lawrence. Yes it features Lawrence and is sympathetic to his knowledge and understanding of Arab language and life, his independent views and willingness and ability to contravene conventional strategy whilst maintaining his reputation at the highest levels of command, but the message is the War, Deceit and Imperial Folly bit.
The attention is held by the technique of telling the story from the experiences’ of four spies. Lawrence was ostensibly initially in Palestine as an archaeologist in search of biblical ruins – in fact operating a covert British military operation mapping the Ottoman Empire’s southwestern frontier. William Yale posed as a wealthy American playboy on the Holy Land tourist circle – in fact an agent of the Standard Oil Company of New York in Palestine in a secret search for oil. Dr. Curt Prufer, apparently an innocuous German scholar conducting an extended tour of the Upper Nile, in fact was reporting to the German Embassy in Cairo and cultivating alliances with a wide array of Egyptian dissidents seeking an end to British control of their homeland. And Aaron Aaronsohn was a thirty eight year old Jewish émigré from Romania and a preeminent agronomist in the Middle East with a reputation cemented by his1906 discovery of the genetic forebear to wheat. . But Aaronson was also a committed Zionist who as early as 1911 articulated a scheme whereby a vast swath of Palestine might be wrested away from the Ottoman Empire and reconstituted as a Jewish homeland. Seeing Britain as his best allay in this endeavour he established and ran a comprehensive and dangerous spy ring in Turkish occupied Palestine.
Although critical of the military command, Scott Anderson recognises the humanity and courage of Djemal Pasha, the hardheaded and sometimes brutal Turkish governor and he recognises the difficulty British generals faced in the chaos of war with immensely difficult communications. But he firmly ascribes the degree that the British right hand did not know what the left had was doing to a select group of men at the highest reaches of government who went to great lengths to ensure it. Crucial knowledge was withheld from Britain’s wartime allies and even from many of her own senior most diplomats and military commanders. British generals were accused of “giving away in stupidity what they gained in ignorance”. Knowledgeable people like the American Yale, the Jewish Aaronsohn, the German Prufer and Lawrence himself had deep misgivings about the imperialist cause but continued to fight their corner.
Terrible decisions were made at the end of World War 1. No wonder the Middle East is in the mess it is today. Would it have been different if the occupying powers had been more enlightened?
on 11 July 2015
For 5 decades I've promised myself to learn more about this formative period, a pressure ever more apparent in the current turmoil emanating from the Middle east.
But trying to find a clear and readable narrative.... Then I occasioned on this work.
In e book form it is a trial - tiny illegible maps and the usual impossibility of referring to footnotes - enough to encourage me to purchase the paper edition. But otherwise a superb effort. No punches are pulled - this is not a Hagiography of Lawrence - and no party comes out of the sorry mess with credit. Passages of quite dreadful horror, but always a clear attempt to pull the facts out of the morass. I highly recommend this to any one trying to educate him/herself on this period - lots of original research evident here, and, contrary to the opinions of some other reviewers, Anderson generally avoids the American whizz bang style, whilst also avoiding the stuffiness of works of earlier times.
on 1 October 2013
Is there anyone not interested in "the Middle-East situation" in the 21st century, and understanding how it arose out of the post-colonial 20th century? A refreshing read from a current journalistic perspective. Sufficiently free from any debunking agenda, that even through the complex and conflicted motives and actions of the many parties involved a little heroism shines through. That coupled with Scott Anderson's witty delivery, despite the far-reaching seriousness of the subject matter, ensures it nevertheless reads like a good yarn, or rather three intertwined yarns. Stories anyone with an opinion on mid-east politics should know.
on 9 April 2015
Yet another excellent book botched on Kindle. There are maps which appear fleetingly then more or less vanish, and one can't scroll chapter by chapter, only part by part. I'm sorry to give the impression that this is a poor book - anything but - but this is the only way to register my disgust and contempt.
on 9 December 2014
Superb book. Nothing to add to other positive reviewers' comments. I bought the Kindle version and am disappointed it is incomplete compared with the paper version, hence the two stars. The paper version includes pages of photographs from the period showing images of key players and places as they appeared at the time. These images are not included in the Kindle version. Had I known this at the point of purchase I would not have chosen the Kindle version. It would have been helpful if Amazon had made it clear and warned potential purchasers that their Kindle version is an incomplete version of the book.
on 26 July 2014
There have been an ocean of ink spent on Lawrence and the Middle East, this book stands head and shoulders above them. It tells the inter linking stories of four players during the First World War. Lawrence always steals the show but the others are more than bit players and help shape the story and the history of that area.
I have not come across this author before, but I shall look for him in the future. It will only attract those interested in this period of time or the origins of the Middle East, which appear to be reverting to their origins.