Seven Pillars of Wisdom - 4: Extending to Akaba

Previously: Introduction, Book I, Book II, Book III

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La forteresse d'Aqaba by Jean Housen [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons


This name, uttered by Peter O'Toole as a sleepless T. E. Lawrence, rings out as a revelation, the password to a quandary that only he can see.  In the fit of inspiration, he prevails upon his frenemy, Sherif Ali, to help him lead an attack on the Port of Akaba, without orders or consultation with his British superiors.  The script is not far from the truth - as soon as he decided to take Akaba, the real-life Lawrence was on his way, leaving his commander with a note and relying chiefly on the strength of Feisal's men and his other Arab followers.
The Arabs needed Akaba: firstly, to extend their front, which was their tactical principle; and, secondly, to link up with the British.  If they took it the act gave them Sinai, and made positive junction between them and Sir Archibald Murray.  Thus having become really useful, they would obtain material help.  The human frailty of Murray's Staff was such that nothing but physical contact with our success would persuade them of our importance.  (p. 281)
Akaba had guns facing the sea, but was more or less open on the land side, from which Lawrence proposed to attack.  First, before any chance of victory, they faced a long and dreary toil of a march.

It was in this part of the book that the dual nature of T. E. Lawrence really started to emerge.  He became, at once, both hero and anti-hero, and torn between the two he settles into a very real, human character.  The interesting thing is that this humanness is just as troubling as the film portrayal, yet in different ways.

In the movie, Lawrence turns back during the march to search for Gasim, whose empty camel saddle showed the man had gone missing.  Lawrence writes of his outright reluctance, "I looked weakly at my trudging men, and wondered for a moment if I could change with one, sending him back on my camel to the rescue" (p. 261).    When he does ride back, he feels angry with Gasim, who, as hinted in the movie, was apparently a troublesome character.

Lawrence is self-deprecating in this passage, but his actions aren't devoid of heroism.  No one else in his party was particularly concerned about the missing man.  Lawrence went of his own initiative, with one compass, which was no small risk on a terrain that, so often windswept, left few camel tracks.  The rescue of Gasim is also contrasted by another disappearance, a slave who was later found dead of dehydration and heat.  Gasim would have lost his life in the same way if Lawrence had not gone back.

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Auda abu Tayi, leader of the Howeitat tribe
Another theme that shows itself in Book IV is Lawrence's self-consciousness of his differences, which oftentimes he considers to be weaknesses.  In the snake-riddled land of Sirhan, he is honest when he says he had "a shuddering horror of all reptiles" (p. 277).  When he joins up with the Howeitat tribe, led by Auda abu Tayi, Lawrence is pushed far out of his comfort zone, as honor from the Bedouins comes to him in the form of enormous, greasy, communal meals of lamb and rice, for days on end.  He lives in a strange, yet truly realistic struggle, feeling both his foreignness and his hybrid identity: an Englishman who treats the Arabs like equals, speaks their language, and lives much like a Sheikh.  He earns their trust and respect.

This trust haunts Lawrence, for he is still torn.  He is British by birth, serving the British government during wartime.  He draws on connections, rhetoric, resources, and his own blood to lead the Arab Revolt.  Already, however, he feels like a traitor, using the Arabs to aid the British against the Turks (and, thereby, also Germany).
So the Arabs...asked me, as a free agent, to endorse the promises of the British Government.  I had had no previous or inner knowledge of the McMahon pledges and the Sykes-Picot treaty, which were both framed by war-time branches of the Foreign Office.  But, not being a perfect fool, I could see that if we won the war the promises to the Arabs were dead paper. (p. 282283)
Lawrence was one of the mouths that spoke those dead promises, and it began to torment him.  He could see not only Arab independence on the line, but the lives of the ordinary Arab people whom he was rousing to fight beside him. 
In revenge I vowed to make the Arab Revolt the engine of its own success...vowed to lead it so madly in the final victory that expediency should counsel to the Powers a fair settlement of the Arabs' moral claims. (p. 283)
Was Lawrence a born leader, or too "unlike a soldier"...would he accomplish anything more for the Arabs than another British "advisor" might have done?

It remains to be seen.  But he, Auda, and the others of his force did succeed in capturing Akaba, and he still held his ideal of a free Arab nation.

Aqaba Beaches by Wolljuergen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

2016 Mount TBR Challenge

Despite my truly abysmal record at reading challenges (basically, I failed every one I ever tried), I still haven't got the sense to give up.  ;)  One popular challenge that comes around every year is the Mount TBR Challenge.  Essentially the goal is to read books that have been on the stack for a while, especially ones you own and have never read before.  This is kind of ideal...I own an embarrassing number of unread books.   But I do own them, which means I do want to read them eventually.

In customary fashion, my goal is the tiniest mountain, Pike's Peak (12 books).  (That's factoring in real life and Camp Nanowrimo and possibly other reading challenges, so not quite as sad as it looks!) These are my current ideas: 
  1. Pinocchio - Collodi
  2. Nutcracker and Mouse King and The Tale of the Nutcracker - Hoffmann, Dumas
  3. Memories of the Future - Krzhizhanovsky
  4. Joan of Arc: In Her Own Words
  5. The Silent World - Cousteau (another to-finish)
  6. Dracula's Guest - Stoker
  7. An Artist of the Floating World - Ishiguro
  8. Tales of Unrest - Conrad
  9. Works of Love - Kierkegaard
  10. In the Land of White Death - Albanov
  11. The Red Badge of Courage - Crane
  12. Evita: The Real Life of Eva Peron - Fraser, Navarro
I think I'll be off to a good start, if I manage to finish Seven Pillars before the new year.  :)

Wishing you all...

Caspar David Friedrich 056

a safe & happy Thanksgiving!

In so many ways, Thanksgiving feels like the end of a year.  Harvest foods are put on the table, a long summer leaves behind shivery nights and frosty mornings, and Advent, the Christian New Year, is right around the corner.  I know I'll be cozying up with the second half of Seven Pillars this weekend...I hope you all have a great one, too, with books, loved ones, and autumny goodness!  ^_^

"It's highly technical!", not quite - The Imitation Game

Last year, my family and I went to see an exhibit in Seattle called "SPY: The Secret World of Espionage."  It was an intriguing collection spanning historical, military, and technological history, focused mainly on the twentieth century - far back enough to not be secret anymore, yet still close enough to feel recent.  Among other interesting, sometimes diabolical machines, the exhibit had an Enigma encryption device.

"An Enigma code could have 150 quintillion possible solutions."

This ominous typewriter became Alan Turing's personal nemesis, when he got a job at the not-so-subtly named Government Code and Cypher School.  A Cambridge academic, Turing put his brilliant mathematical-logical abilities to the task of improving the "bombe" (from the Polish bomba): a machine that would consistently decrypt the Nazis' Engima messages.  This, if achieved, would gain the Allied Powers an incredible strategic advantage, at a time when they desperately needed it.  The Imitation Game follows this period of Turing's life at Bletchley Park, the friends and enemies he made there, and the events that led up to his early death.

Being a computer science major, I had heard of Alan Turing before, and so came into this film with some prior knowledge.  The film is full of Hollywood cliches, it can't be denied - I won't enumerate all of them here, but certainly, the glamorous production choices, glossing over of the science, and greatly black-and-white personality portrayals were somewhat off-putting, though not unexpected.  It is a movie that borders on "tell" rather than "show."  Mostly this manifested itself in the portrayal of the computer science.  I don't expect a full-out documentary info dump, but why not depict, even in layman terms:
  1. The basics of the Enigma encryption scheme
  2. The basics of how a Turing machine works
  3. What the Turing Test is
These are really not very complicated things to put into film.  And yet, I would imagine most viewers coming out of The Imitation Game could not explain any of these three concepts, which have made Turing such an influential figure in the history of computers.  This is a discredit to the man the film tries to honor.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing - a role not dissimilar to BBC's Sherlock.

In spite of these ironies in the screenplay, the film manages to hone in on the social atmosphere of the time, which in itself provokes plenty of thought.  Cumberbatch's performance is excellent, so much so that he even succeeds in separating this character from Sherlock, though there are striking similarities between the two (again, not necessarily historically correct).  His portrayal is convincing - Turing becomes simultaneously a contrast of strengths and weaknesses, a genius hiding under the guise of a reclusive mathematician.

I had just rewatched Lawrence of Arabia, and can't help but see parallels between that and The Imitation Game.  Lawrence, after all the suffering he had undergone for the Arabs and the Allies, would see his goal of Arab independence swiftly undermined by the hands of European politicians.  Turing, after the war, was arrested for homosexual behavior and forced to choose between a prison sentence or a "corrective" drug"You are a very small cog in a very large system," Turing's boss tells him.  True to the words, Turing's historic contribution became obscured by military secrecy, his trial, and his sudden death.  It's a sobering fact which the most glorified history book cannot hide from us, that great heroes, after their victories, are sometimes forgotten, or worse.

Content: Rated PG-13 "for some sexual references, mature thematic material and historical smoking."  There was some risque dialogue and quite a bit of profanity. 

Disclaimer: I don't own the images in this post; they are used here only for illustrative/educational purposes (fair use).

Seven Pillars of Wisdom - 3: A Railway Diversion

Previously: Introduction, Book I, Book II
My precioussss paperback.  Fun fact: the cover art has seven layers of hills. 

In the previous part, T. E. Lawrence acquiesced to his general's request and returned to the field, where he and Feisal took the port city of Wejh, a key victory on the western side of Arabia.  For most military men, this would have been a credit to their resume, but hardly the foundation for legend.  Lawrence, on the other hand, was just getting started - he was not a military man so much as he was a strategic thinker, and how he would build upon this success was, perhaps, no less important than the success itself.

Though the movie streamlines this part of the story quite a bit, in reality, a rather intricate thread of politics directed Lawrence's next movements after Wejh.  Already he had his eye on Akaba, but his idea of attack - strictly from land and not sea, leading Arabs rather than French or English - was another point of contention between him and the French commander, Colonel Bremond.  Additionally, the British wanted to be at Medina, a city southeast of Wejh, from which the Turks were said to be evacuating and would apparently fall easy prey.  Lawrence, to be diplomatic, agreed to go to Abdulla, Feisal's older brother, and try to recruit his support for this effort.

During this journey, Lawrence contracts a bad fever, and two significant things happen during this time.  First, one man in his group murders another, and Lawrence, as the only tribally neutral person, finds no ultimate alternative than to serve as the executioner.  In the film, he later confesses he "enjoyed" shooting the man, but in the book, he describes the scene somberly, and with little comment, except that in the page title (there is a "summary" title for each page in the book), he calls it "Another Murder."  I'm not sure he didn't think of himself as an executioner, doing what the situation called for, but his general tone implies he was bothered by it - there's certainly no suggestion he enjoyed it.

"As I have shown, I was unfortunately as much in command of the campaign as I pleased, and was untrained" (p. 193).  The second thing that Lawrence did in his illness was perhaps one of the most important of his career.  While lying in his tent, miserable and immobile, he reexamined the Brits' current plans more critically, using what he remembered from military books he had read in college.  He concluded Medina was not the best objective, and, in general, the slower and more cumbersome European style of fighting was not going to be the Arabs' strength.  They must instead work with mobility, knowledge, and calculation, using the vast and hilly terrain to their chief advantage.
In Turkey things were scarce and precious, men less esteemed than equipment...  Ours should be a war of detachment.  We were to contain the enemy by the silent threat of a vast unknown desert, not disclosing ourselves till we attacked.  The attack might be nominal, directed not against him, but against his stuff...  (p. 199, 200)
This was the light-bulb moment that started his campaign to dismantle the Turkish railways.  He started work upon this soon afterwards, intent upon striking the Turks by taking away their resources, while attempting always to preserve Arab lives.

During the midst of this, Lawrence was becoming even more educated in the Bedouin culture, especially since meeting Abdulla.  Lawrence seemed less comfortable in Abdulla's camp than he was in Feisal's; personality-wise, they were much less alike than he and Feisal.  It was also difficult for him to appreciate the older brother's hospitality - Lawrence was a self-professed loner, and, though patiently gracious, got tired of some of the highly social customs and having to live closely with others.  I could write a whole post on this part, but it was just an interesting piece of the whole, and, once again, something that was not really touched upon by the film.

In the end, his better judgment could not confine himself to the "official" plan of taking Medina.  So, with "a letter full of apologies" (p. 233) to General Clayton, Lawrence returned to his former scheme of focusing the attack on Akaba, and set off on his own initiative to make it happen.

Blog name changing! And Ishiguro.

Hi all,

I've been so remiss in my blogging this year, it hardly seems like a big announcement - still, if I don't explain it, it may be confusing, yes, it's worth announcing.  After five years of being Tanglewood - from Hawthorne's Tanglewood Tales - this blog is (soon) going to be

Since the time I split out my book reviews into their own blog, I've always felt 1), glad I organized it that way, and 2) still wistful my book reviews were partitioned off from my main blogging.  Recently I've concluded that changing the name and URL is probably the easiest solution to this quandry.  By naming it similar to my non-book blogs (e.g. noonlightsonata on Tumblr), the blog can still be its own "thing," but it'll make it easier for me to link content across all three blogs, as sometimes I'd like to.

I did a bad thing this weekend, and that was to buy another book.  Actually, what I did next was worse: I started reading it.

When I think about it, Ishiguro is probably my #1 writer's inspiration - not in terms of style, but as regards his actual ability to write about topics he would supposedly not "know about," yet write about them with plausible conviction and extraordinary insight.  Granted, I base my impressions of him on the only book I've read through, The Remains of the Day.  That alone is enough to impress, but, as I flipped through An Artist of the Floating World, I became even more interested in seeing how this Japanese immigrant had approached a topic close to his roots, post-WWII Japan.  To me, as a biracial American, the most intimidating subject would be to tackle one's own ethnic heritages.  I'm reading An Artist with that thought in the background - how would you go about writing this?