Thursday, April 28, 2022

18. The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence

I got the book from the library
A friend recommended this and his enthusiasm and the title misled me somewhat.  He was blown away by the quality of the writing and I was expecting a book with much more history and philosophy and meditations on Arabic culture.  This book really is a long war journal with small smatterings of those previously mentioned things scattered through out.  The bulk of it is a log of Lawrence meeting up with x tribe of y leaders, journeying for days and sometimes weeks in the desert to find a Turkish-controlled train station or bridge and blowing it up.  I'm still trying to figure out why he is such a big deal in our culture.  I am guessing that his book at the time fit neatly as an adult and more sophisticated and questioning equivalent of a British Boys Own type of colonial adventure.  I don't mean to belittle it, because it's a remarkable story on many levels and far from a celebration of colonialism.  I am just trying to understand why it looms so large culturally, beyond that the film is much loved by film school types of the past.

It is Lawrence's ambivalence or rather disgust with his own role that removes the book from pure colonial adventurism.  He ascribes no ambition or idealism on his part but rather it just seems to flow out of his job working for a branch of British intelligence in Egypt that he heads south to Arabia and starts working with the Beduin.  Once there, he realizes how effective they could be in the fight against the Ottaman Empire. He uses the promise of Arabian independence to motivate and unite the disparate and often conflicting groups of desert people against the Turks and he hates himself for this.

He also underplays his own suffering and toughness. He is a small guy and admits to being at a disadvantage in hand to hand combat, but holy shit does he seem tough and stoic.  The list of things I can't and don't want to do are manifold:  riding for days without sleep on a camel, suffering through intense heat, walking barefoot on skin-cutting muddy ice (and dragging a camel), all kinds of horrible insect bites, riding into machine gun bullets, getting tortured and raped by a Turkish officer and his men.  It is all kind of written about with a matter of fact tone.

I'm not sure I would recommend this book to anyone but a student of the Middle East campaign of the First World War.  I did learn a lot and have a better understanding of the geography, but it was a long sometimes repetitive read, although indeed very well written.

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