Oxford University

Setting the desert on fire

The first time I came across written pieces of T.E. Lawrence, it were the letters he wrote to his mother while he crossed Europe on his bicycle as a teenager. This was written long before he became the legendary Lawrence of Arabia, and the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, but somehow the letters were so much not a teenager, but a serious young adult that had plans to conquer the world in his own way. Yesterday, chatting with a friend in his hidden campus office, I lost a bet. Which college did T.E. Lawrence go to? I said Keble, he St. John's. We were both wrong. It was Jesus. I was believing for more than two decades that I stayed in the dorm of Lawrence of Arabia at Keble, when visiting there. I guess I was wrong then. Never mind.

Lawrence of Arabia was a central figure in Britain's campaigns in the Middle East during the First World War. He skillfully facilitated the Arab Revolt against the Turks, sieged Medina, participated in the Battles of Fweila and Aba el Lissan. Using his local knowledge and enormous physical endurance he united Arab tribes while crossing the Nefud Desert and took Aquaba. The city was nearly defenseless because artillary pointed to the Red Sea and could not be turned towards the desert, because it was believed nobody can cross it with a significant army. In the years to come he was a central figure in the battles of Talifeh, Deraa and Damascus. He was pulling the strings of Arab tribes terrorizing the Turks in small units, blowing up railways and performing surprise attacks. This was guerilla warware in its early form - some might call it terrorism.

Lawrence translated Homer's Odyssey from ancient Greek into English and his major books were the Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Revolt in the Desert. He was a close friend to Charlotte Shaw, the wife of George Bernhard Shaw, who both gave him a Brough Superior SS100 as a present, which was one of the fastest motorcycles at that time. Two months after he left the forces, he had a fatal accident with it. There are a few recent books on T.E. Lawrence, like John E. Mack's The Prince of Our Disorder, or Michael Korda's Hero and collections of his own writings, like Evolution of a Revolt, and Malcom Brown's anthology T.E. Lawrence in War and Peace.

I recently read James Barr's Setting the Desert on Fire, which is easy reading and discribes contexts around the campains of Lawrence of Arabia during the First World War. Also Wilfried Thesinger's Arabian Sands is an interesting record of the world of the Beduins, decades after Lawrence, but still in the same pre-oil money era.

The Middle East kept going through war and peace since the 1916-1918 campaigns. Glory and tragedy are always hand in hand in war. Now there is a fragile peace in some regions and revolts in others. The deeper you dig in the Middle East, the closer you come to the cradles of Europen civilisation. I will carefully listen to the news and watch the map in the next few weeks and stay on the safe side of the line.