The old cannon shells looked like rusty pineapples.
Construction workers renovating this old Ottoman fort outside the port town of Al Wajh hauled them up in buckets from a long disused well. There were dozens. Some were packed in rotting wood boxes a hundred years old. Probably, the explosives were still dangerous. Naturally, this made me think of Lawrence.
Thomas Edward Lawrence—”Lawrence of Arabia”—has been on my mind lately.
As I walk north through the Hejaz toward Jordan, retracing the wanderings of the earliest humans who spread from Africa, I am traversing, too, the old battlefields of the Arab Revolt, a “sideshow of a sideshow” during World War I, to use Lawrence’s modest description of a conflict that reshaped the future of the Middle East.
Al Zureb fortress, defended by German-allied Turks, fell early in 1917 to a joint force of British warships and a motley cavalry of Arab camel men who galloped into battle wearing “rusty-red tunics henna-dyed, under black cloaks, and carried swords. Each had a slave crouched behind him on the crupper to help him with rifle and dagger in the fight, and to watch his camel and cook for him on the road.” Among that whooping, colorful horde rode a small foreigner, just 5’5″ tall and towheaded, with chilly blue eyes and first class honors degree from Oxford in medieval archaeology. As a boy he’d dreamed of knights and chivalry. As a soldier of empire he yearned, subversively, to bring liberty to an immense Arab-speaking swath of the globe that was then staggering under the yoke of the Turks. His orders from the British High Command were simply to foment a rebellion—and, ultimately, to betray the Arabs who fought it.
This is why Lawrence still fascinates. He pioneered a postmodern archetype: the fatally compromised hero.
It is hard today to imagine waging a war in northwestern Saudi Arabia.
The deserts I walk through are far emptier than a century ago. The Bedouin nomads Lawrence once marshaled with promises of self-rule and bags of British gold have been mostly resettled in cities. (Though the “ladder of tribes” he described on the trail north to Jordan—the Juhaina, the Billi, the Howeitat—yet exists.) Gorgeous but perishingly hot Wadi al Safra, the famous desert valley where Lawrence met Prince Feisal, the leader of the Arab Revolt, is now almost pure wilderness. Old stone-walled towns that Lawrence raced his thoroughbred she-camel through have vanished under strip malls. Today most Saudis remember little about the British guerrilla chieftain except his famous nickname.
“He has a mixed reputation here,” says Awad Al-Subhi, head of the committee of friends of Yanbu heritage and archaeological sites. “He was a spy for the British. But once he got here, the Arabs won his heart. He was a divided man.”
Tactfully, Al-Subhi doesn’t mention that Lawrence, for all his battlefield brilliance—his insurgent tactics are studied by the U.S. forces in Afghanistan—backed the wrong royals to rule Arabia. The Hashemites under Feisal weren’t just cynically sidelined after the war by colonial Britain and France but defeated in a regional power struggle with the modern rulers of the Arabian Peninsula: the house of Saud. (Feisal went on to be a figurehead king in Iraq, and his brother Abdallah started the Hashemite line in Jordan.)
Embittered, Lawrence refused a knighthood and turned into a blistering critic of Britain’s neocolonial entanglements after World War I. Regarding a military quagmire in the new British-made country of Iraq in 1920 he wrote:
“The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honor. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Baghdad communiques are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are today not far from a disaster.”
Lawrence died in motorcycle accident in England in 1935. He was 46. He died under an assumed name.
Squinting in the sun at the well in Al Zureb fortress, watching the laborers step obliviously around the old ordnance, I thought of the flamboyant Briton in Arab robes. Of an Arab Revolt and of an Arab Spring. And I warned the men not to kick the explosives.