The tale of Lawrence of Arabia

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The tale of Lawrence of Arabia

Dubai - A rethink on importance of T.E. Lawrence on his 81st death anniversary

By Sherouk Zakaria

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Published: Thu 19 May 2016, 9:36 AM

Last updated: Mon 23 May 2016, 6:25 PM

Much ink has been spilled over the legacy of Thomas Edward Lawrence (or Lawrence of Arabia). Depictions of him in different works of art seem to reflect only subjective views of his character while serving the goal each medium owes to its audiences.
Truth is the British archaeologist and military officer was renowned for his liaison role during the 1916 Arab revolt against Ottomans, but how significant was his presence?  
Love for Arab culture
While the British might have had a 'heroic' image of him, Lawrence was viewed as a "peculiar character" among Arabs back in the days."He was a Brit who came to the region, adopted Arabic customs. He spoke Arabic fluently, maybe even different dialects and seemed to be working on people's behalf," said Dr Tylor Brand, associate professor of History at the American University of Sharjah.
His affinity for Arab culture was undeniable. Brand said he was the first to have executed archeological reconstructions in different Crusader's sites around Syria and Lebanon. "By the time he got to Arabia, he had lived a big chunk of his life in the Middle East. He was a postgraduate student in Syria, and when the war started he went down to Cairo," said Brand. It was during the time that a number of British scholars developed an interest for the Arab world, but not all of them had the empathy Lawrence had.
With Lawrence's description of events, one has to consider his first-person perspective. While he clearly worked against British policies and had a legitimate desire to exert efforts to establish an Arab kingdom, some parts remain quite exaggerated. Brand referenced the 1917 rail-way bombing against the Turks, stressing that Lawrence did not have proper military training. "Bombs were set up by British people who were actually there just to make it work." But when it comes to his reflections of attitudes and relationships with the Arab and British people, Brand said he believes this part to be an honest telling. "That's the tragedy about history," said Brand. "We put together pieces of a puzzle until it actually makes sense."
His role in the war
Lawrence actively worked against British policies. He did not inform the British up on occupying Aqaba for his awareness that it will be the beginning of the invasion of Syria. Brand said he wanted Faisal to take on these cities to establish a presence of Arab armies in territory, though it didn't work."He attempted to help Emir Faisal arrange an Arab congress and establish a new Syrian kingdom where he becomes the king. He at-tempted to win the British on their side," said Brand.
Generational shift
The attitude of Arabs towards Lawrence has most likely changed to skepticism given the distrust the region generally holds against Western policies. "The general accuse of British colonialism, the idea that Britain and the US were working for their own interests no mater what, the Suez crisis: it all contributed to people's view of Lawrence as part of this machine," said Brand.


Hollywood representation
When asked about the nature of David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia movie representation, Brand commented: "For firsts, Peter O'Toole was 6'3' and Lawrence was 5'5'. The striking figure you see in the movie is probably different than what he had."
He added that to a certain extent, the film was retrofitted for British audience. For Brand, Lawrence was portrayed as the hero who knew more about the region than those "silly people" in Cairo who ruined everything. It delivered the idea that had Lawrence been in charge, everything would have been different.
"But at the end of the day, films are meant to entertain. It's all about the story and exoticism of Arab region to Western audiences. I would not say they strove to be accurate," said Brand.

If Lawrence was alive today
From Brand's point of view, he would have probably been outraged that Faisal's attempt to have a unified Arab nation does not exist.
"He would look for the failure of nationalist movement led by Faisal, the failure to have a Syrian Kingdom," said Brand.
Amidst the current instability and devastation of Syria and Iraq, Lawrence would most likely think his efforts have gone to waste.  - sherouk@khaleejtimes.com

 



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