Seven Pillars of Wisdom - 2: Opening the Arab Offensive

9.19.2015

Previously: Introduction, Book I
030Arab
Soldiers in the Arab Army during the Arab Revolt of 1916-1918, carrying the Arab Flag of the Arab
Revolt and pictured in the Arabian Desert.
Against his adamant protests and self-doubt, Lawrence is sent back to Arabia by his superior officer, General Clayton, who believes the bookish journalist-cartographer will be an excellent substitute until the professional military advisors arrive. "I was unlike a soldier: hated soldiering" writes Lawrence point-blank (p. 114).  Having no alternative, he surrenders to necessity and returns to Feisal's base, finding the Arab leader no less resolute for suffering early betrayals and mixed successes.  Together, and with the aid of diverse allies, they endeavor to unify the contentious Arabic tribes into an anti-Turkish force, with the immediate objective of taking Wejh, a port city in the north under control of the Turks.  Lawrence is impressed with Feisal's ability to gain a following, learns more of the psychology of the Arab people, and becomes increasingly wary of the maneuverings of some of their European, military "supporters."

There was a lot packed into this part, even though, plot-wise, it mostly covered their trip to Wejh.  I think what I took from it was the human element: all the striking details, changing behaviors, and cultural mores.

For instance, early on, Lawrence was asked to adopt the Arab attire instead of his British uniform; this was both to facilitate desert travel and also to prevent his khaki from being mistook for Turkish.  Feisal happened to have brand-new, white-and-gold clothes sent to him by his great-aunt; it was actually a wedding outfit he had never needed to wear.  So he gave it to Lawrence, who at that time - little did he know - was being drawn in, "wedded" if you will, to the Arab Revolt.  I thought it was strangely appropriate (and would have been an interesting point to make in the movie).

Another recurring human theme is, a little surprisingly, slavery.  On the one hand, it was culturally expected to treat slaves fairly "decently," to the point some even lived in a kind of community.  On the other, they were still slaves, and fared probably the worst of anyone on a camel trip.  Lawrence writes about these things matter-of-factly, in more or less journalistic style.  At this time, he appeared to adopt the practice of accepting the Arab culture as-was and did not attempt to intervene, except in cases where the bickering of various tribes would weaken their fighting strength as a whole.

This "whole," was, indeed, composed of men from many tribes.  The effect was greatly a psychological one: Lawrence did not anticipate heavy fighting at Wejh; the point was, rather, to gain popular support for Feisal as a unifying figure, as well as to send a formidable message to the Turkish opponents.  Once again, Lawrence's self-professed lack of "soldiering" seems to have been his strength.  He had the gift of empathy, and through it, his tactical vision acquired a clarity and creativity that other outsiders could not quite achieve.  

"In sum...the Arab Movement would not justify its creation if the enthusiasm of it did not carry the Arabs into Damascus" (p. 131).  There were some in the Allies' military leadership who were not eager for a definitive, serious force of Arab nationalists.  Part of this attitude was genuine doubt, and part of it was political self-interest.  It was still early in the Revolt, but Lawrence looked forward to seeing the Arabs reach Damascus, disproving the misgivings of both enemies and allies.

Quotations are from the 1935 edition, published by Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., Garden City, NY.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom - 1: The Discovery of Feisal

9.04.2015

Previously: Introduction

FeisalPartyAtVersaillesCopy
Left to right: Rustum Haidar, Nuri as-Said, Prince Faisal (front), Captain Pisani (rear), T. E. Lawrence,
Faisal's slave (name unknown), Captain Hassan Khadri

I had believed these misfortunes of the Revolt to be due mainly to faulty leadership, or rather to the lack of leadership, Arab and English.  So I went down to Arabia to see and consider its great men.
Unlike his film counterpart, who comes across as a little awkward and almost passive, T. E. Lawrence had specific goals in mind when he undertook his investigation of the "Arab affair" - that is, the struggling Arab Revolt.  On this journey, he must gain months' worth of information in the matter of weeks, make connections on behalf of the British military, and, in any way he can, put his best talents to the cause of planning the Arabs' freedom from the Turks.  He also experiences his first heavy camel rides through the desert and meets two of the sons of Hussein bin Ali - one of these sons is Feisal.  This meeting proves to be the turning point in Lawrence's early efforts.

This was a slow, yet intricate group of chapters.  It summarized a lot of the themes I saw in the movie, meaning that, at least from Lawrence's perspective, those aspects of the story were real.  I won't go through all of them, but I'll try to hit the highlights.

For example, according to his observations, the Arabs were not interested in a religious war, nor, necessarily, in creating an Arab state. Rather, their objective was to regain independence of their tribes - "They were fighting to get rid of Empire, not to win it" (p. 100). 

Was Britain considering becoming that second, replacement empire?  The idea, even at this point, was not unknown to Lawrence.  When he joins Feisal at his camp, Lawrence's probing form of discussion is returned to him by the shrewd, young leader, who already holds the expectation that the British will eventually settle in their lands, and not leave:
They [the British] hunger for desolate lands, to build them up...  Your good and my good, perhaps they are different, and either forced good or forced evil will make a people cry with pain.  Does the ore admire the flame which transforms it?   There is no reason for offence, but a people too weak are clamant over their little own. (p. 100)
Earlier Lawrence describes Britain's foreign involvement as "vicarious policemanship" (p. 92), which shows something of his own thoughts.  I'll be interested to watch where this theme goes throughout the rest of the book.

Lawrence based a great deal of his strategy on psychology, both of the situations he was faced with and of the men he was trying to mobilize.  He felt the terrain and a use of stealth would be their best assets against the Turks, but to their minds, it was the Turks' modern artillery they must best, and it increased their morale to have that kind of weaponry.  He understood, too, that the men of the desert tribes fought best on their own, defensively and independently, while Arab officers, formerly of the Turkish military, could lead the "towns-folk" recruits under more of a traditional militia setting.

He evaluated Feisal, too, from a psychological standpoint.  Feisal impressed Lawrence as having leadership qualities - not simply in terms of hierarchy (he had an older brother, whom Lawrence also met), but by merit of his charisma, the admiration his followers had for him, and his commitment to the Revolt.  He was the key figure who gave Lawrence confidence that the Revolt might succeed.  I do think there is something to that - any great movement in history is signified by an individual, even if it involved thousands or millions of followers (or victims).

Something that is fascinating to me about this book is how he writes as if the things just happened - in the sense that you barely get the impression (if at all) that subsequent events or experiences changed his perceptions as they were at the time.  He lost most of the first draft to the book, so it is even more impressive that he could go back, write it again, and still write with that fresh, almost first perspective.  Just amazing... 

By the way, the photo above is from the end of the war, but I thought it was an interesting picture (a preview, if you will).

Quotations are from the 1935 edition, published by Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., Garden City, NY.

Top Ten Tuesday: Characters I didn't "click" with

9.01.2015

Hosted by The Broke and the Bookish
Saw this over at Hamlette's blog, and thought it would be a fun trip down memory lane.  Here goes - and hope I don't tread on any toes.  ;)

  1. Werther from The Sorrows of Young Werther.  
  2. Everyone from A Passage to India.  (Sorry, Forster.)
  3. Irene Adler from "A Scandal in Bohemia". 
  4. Erik from The Phantom of the Opera.  In all fairness, I am meaning to re-read this.  During my first read, I definitely found book!Erik to be less likeable than Webber's version.
  5. Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby.  I get the impression one is supposed to like him, but I was left unimpressed.  (I was also shocked that his undisguised racist commentary never gets mentioned in mainstream circles).
  6. Everyone from Dragonwyck.  When I was in middle school, a friend recommended it to me, on the basis it was similar to Jane Eyre.  My mother cautioned me that it sounded like a romance novel, but in my blissful ignorance I wasn't quite aware what that meant.  (Hint: think Edward and Bella in 1800s Dutch New York...)
  7. Mary Russell from the Mary Russell series. 
  8. Aragorn from The Return of the King.  Specifically ROTK, and maybe TTT, because I thought he was pretty cool in The Fellowship of the Ring, but less interesting as the story progressed.
  9. Ahab from Moby-Dick.  I'm not sure antagonists are supposed to "click" with you.  I do know that Gregory Peck's portrayal brought a much-needed human/charismatic element to the character, whereas Starbuck, though different in the book from the movie, is still compelling apart from his film version. So with that in mind, I'd say book!Ahab didn't "click".
  10. Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice.  *gasp*  Don't click away!  ;) She is probably the best-loved heroine in literature.  I just can't honestly say I found her more interesting than many others. 
I'm sure I've listed someone's favorites...well, the good news is, after six (and not necessarily in the above order), I found it super hard to list the last four!