The Stranger in a Strange Land

Thursday, December 19, 2013
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The passing of Peter O’Toole, some fifty years after the release of “Lawrence of Arabia,” hardly merited a notice in the Arabic media. Perhaps it could have been titled “Lawrence in Arabia,” or reading his sublime Seven Pillars of Wisdom, there is absolutely room for “Lawrence on Arabia.” But the more celebrated formulation, denoting a relationship between a man and place, was always a Western projection.

Arabs never claimed T.E. Lawrence or his entire revolt in the desert. The Hashemites had done well by that revolt—they had come out of the Great War with thrones in Iraq and Jordan. (They would lose the reign in Baghdad, in a gruesome case of regicide in the summer of 1958.) But even the court historians of the Hashemites had their own reasons for belittling Lawrence and for depicting the Arab revolt as an affair of the Arabs. When Arab writers and historians addressed the topic of T.E. Lawrence, they tended to repay the hostility he had shown the Arabs of the coastal lands and the cities.

  lawrence of arabia  
  Peter O'Toole as T.E. Lawrence, via flickr

Lawrence and his peers had thought of the Arab towns as bastardized and false; what glory they attributed to the Arabs, they attributed to the desert, the repository of all that was noble and “uncluttered” (the word recurs in the travel writing and the colonial dispatches). When the late Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said wrote in 1989 that “Lawrence was a British imperial agent, not an innocent enthusiast for Arab independence,” he caught the consensus of the intellectual class.

The Anglo-Arab encounter, it was believed, had been the stuff of deceit and unequal power; it had begotten no indigenous liberalism. It had begun in double-dealing. The Arabs had believed that the end of Ottoman rule would issue in independence, only to discover that their homelands were partitioned and divided by a pact between Britain and France. The French had come into the diplomacy convinced that the sacrifices France made in the European war had to be redeemed in the Levant. The French came into this enterprise after colonial experience in North Africa. They were old fashioned masters, they came without guilt or second thoughts.

The big swath of Arab territory up for grabs in the aftermath of the war had never been united. What unity it possessed was the gift given it by Ottoman rule. But a new Arab historiography was born—it emphasized the unity of the Arabs. It saw these new states that emerged after the Great War as illegitimate and contrived. A schism was born between the practice of states and the ways of emirs and rulers on the one hand, and the history of victimization transmitted to politically impressionable young people on the other.


David Lean’s film was released in 1962. By then, Lawrence was long gone. He had died in a motorcycle accident in 1935. So was Emir Feisal, the Hashemite prince who had bewitched Lawrence. Abdullah, who had ended up the unhappy claimant of the wilderness of Transjordan, had been struck down by a Palestinian assassin in 1951.

If anything, Lean was true to Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The rhythm and cadence of the book are the rhythm of the film. The early narrative leads up to Lawrence’s arrival at Feisal’s camp in Wadi Safra. Lean didn’t have to do much with Lawrence’s depiction. A slave led him to an inner court, “on whose further side, framed between the uprights of a black doorway, stood a white figure, waiting tensely for me. I felt at first glance that this was the man I had come to Arabia to seek—the leader who would bring the Arab revolt to full glory. Feisal looked very tall, and pillar-like, and very slender in his white silk robes and his brown head-cloth bound with a brilliant scarlet and gold cord. His eyelids were drooped; and his black beard and colorless face were like a mask against the strange, still watchfulness of his body. His hands were crossed in front of him on his dagger.”

The British had wearied of Feisal’s father, the Sharif of Mecca. They thought he was a stubborn old man. The Sharif had declared himself “King of the Arabs.” He thought of himself and his sons as the inheritors of the Arab domains of the Ottoman Empire. With a big war on their hands, the British indulged the Sharif. They needed the cover of the Sharif’s participation in the war on their side to keep the Muslims of India at peace with British rule. The Ottoman sultan had declared that his campaign was a holy war, and Britain had to be on guard against a Muslim uprising within its ranks.

But the campaign in the desert was always a sideshow. The carnage had taken place on the Western Front, a whole generation had been wiped out in the trenches; by contrast, fighting in the “uncluttered desert” was light fare. The Great War begot no heroes. Lawrence was as close to a hero as Britain could get.

Lean had made the desert itself not merely setting and background; he gave it a life and a power all its own. But as Alec Guinness—superbly playing Prince Feisal—reminded the “desert loving Englishman,” Arabs did not love the desert; they longed for gardens and trees and greenery.

The desert couldn’t have cast a spell over Cairenes and Beirutis. Modernity was their lodestar in the early 1960s. Feisal was an agile politician with courtly manners, but this was hardly the culture that appealed to the Arabs at the time. The Hashemites had been brought up to court politics in the late Ottoman age. They didn’t know how to harangue a crowd; they were in need of British guns and money, and the exquisite subtlety of Feisal haggling with General Allenby over what could be gotten from the powerful commander held no appeal to the Arabs. Feisal was a realist, and realism was not in vogue in a highly nationalistic era. Evicted by the French from the throne in Damascus that he truly wanted, he was willing to bide his time, and to settle for what he could get: the throne in Iraq, a country he had never set foot in before.

What glory the Hashemites had once possessed had receded. Modern mass-based nationalism was unkind to their brand of politics. The exquisite manners of Feisal—and Lean must have savored the man and his charm—were out of place in an Araby set to boil over by radical politics. But, then again, Feisal was what British diplomacy had needed at the time—a touch of class and refinement in a world that had seen the tearing asunder of European life.

For Feisal’s manners, there was the coarse desert raider, Auda Abu Tayyi, played by Anthony Quinn. Auda is a braggart, a bandit chieftain, who enters the worldly city of Damascus and then heads back to his familiar world in the desert. Auda is a charming rogue: he is a warrior for hire, in quest of gold and honor. His proclamation, made to the approval of his tribesmen, “I am a river to my people,” is one of the film’s more memorable moments.

Auda is a thief, but he steals for his people, and he steals for his pleasure. His loyalty is to his tribe, the Hiweitat. He has no patience for nationalism and its exalted claims. He sees no Arabs in that world, only warring tribes. Young Arabs of the 1960s, and beyond, are embarrassed by Auda. But they ignore him at their peril. He and his type were authentic embodiments of a genuine sense of belonging.

The one character who catches the ambiguity of a world torn between desert and town, horrified by the tribalism of it all, pained by the duplicity and paternalism of the British, is Sharif Ali, a role that gave Omar Sharif his big break in the movies. For David Lean, this was a blessed choice. Omar Sharif was Egyptian, not yet thirty years of age when Lean found him. He was an Egyptian of a particular breed, born to Lebanese ancestry. His first name was Michael. But he changed it because he wanted a career in Egyptian film.

He had been educated at an elite prep school in Alexandria. (His classmates were the future King Hussein of Jordan and the Palestinian author Edward Said.) He was true to the role he played, a modern Arab in quest for something larger than Cairo. He was the same age as Peter O’Toole; they hit it off, and Omar Sharif introduced him to the gambling casinos of Lebanon and Morocco. There is worldliness in Sharif Ali: he knows his people can not win. And yet despite the worldliness, he shoots dead a man from another tribe who dared break the desert code by drawing water from a well that did not belong to him. He is nothing, he said, about the man he slew, the well is everything.


Ever since the legend of Lawrence took hold—the authors never tire of the man—there has been debunkers aplenty. He was a fantasist, some argued, his Seven Pillars a work of embellished fiction. His Arabic was poor, others claimed, he could not pass himself off as an Arab. He was too short, room was made for him in active service only when Turkey joined the Central Powers and he was sent to Egypt and attached to a military intelligence section. There were Arabs, in particular, who ridiculed his appearance in traditional Arab attire in the streets of Beirut and Cairo, and in the chancelleries of London and Paris.

No one could say with certainty if he loved or loathed the Arabs. It is easy to say that he was drawn to their “nobility,” which in this context meant the backward classes and tribes. Doubtless, Arabia held real attractions for him. He was of illegitimate birth, and Arabia made it possible for him to become “El-Orens,” the man of legend and fame.

The best book by far about Lawrence, A Prince of Our Disorder, by the psychiatrist John Mack, makes a decent and honored place for him in the Arab Revolt. He didn’t make that revolt, but he was an enabler of it. He conceived a notion of reconciling Britain’s needs with the desires of his Arab allies: he thought that the Arab lands could be made into a “brown dominion” of the British Empire. But this was fantasy. No such scheme could be implemented in a world awakening to the call of nationalism.

There was always self-awareness in Lawrence. He was loyal to “Britain and other things.” In Seven Pillars he wrote of that great clash of loyalties at the heart of his work with the Arabs:

A man who gives himself to be a possession of aliens leads a Yahoo life, having bartered his soul to a brute-master. He is not of them. He may stand against them, persuade himself of a mission, barter and twist them into something which they, of their own accord, would not have been. Then he is exploiting his old environment to press them out of theirs. Or, after my model, he may imitate them so well that they spuriously imitate him back again. Then he is giving away his own environment: pretending to theirs; and pretences are hollow, worthless things. In neither case does he do a thing of himself, nor a thing so clean as to be his own (without thought of conversion), letting them take what action or reaction they please from the silent example.

He had tried to live in the dress of the Arabs, and to “imitate their mental foundation.” There was his English self, and there was the Arab affectation. “Sometimes these selves would converse in the void; and then madness was very near, as I believe it would be near the man who could see things through the veils at once of two customs, two educations, two environments.”

British rule came late into the Arab domains—this was not India where the Raj cohabitated with the world it had conquered. (Lawrence himself didn’t think much of what England had brought forth in India; the experiment had lasted too long and was issuing in failure, he wrote in a letter to his mother, in 1925.) Britain was exhausted and broke and couldn’t give much of itself to the Arabs at the receiving end of its power. It cut corners; it used air power to subdue the rebellions; it spoke of constitutional principles as it bought off tribal chieftains not so unlike Auda Abu Tayyi.

Lawrence was part of this compromise, the fantasist and amateur student of Crusader castles turned guerilla leader, and destroyer of railroad trains. He knew the bargain he made with the men of empire who sent him to Arabia, and with the Arabs who took him in as they distrusted him all the same.