Western fighters have streamed into the Middle East to help ‘liberate’ Arab countries such as Syria and Libya.
Since when is an early 20th-century, silver-gilt dagger from the Hejaz part of British culture? Apparently since early February – when Ed Vaizey, the British culture minister, issued a temporary ban stopping the dagger and a set of white robes that belonged to T E Lawrence from leaving the UK.
The man popularly known as Lawrence of Arabia holds a special place in the hearts of romantics for his activities 100 years ago during the Arab Revolt. His reputation was further enhanced when he fought for Arab independence in the post-World War I conferences and, having failed, then changed his name – twice – and, despite being a colonel, re-enlisted in the British armed forces as a private.
Lawrence’s initial fame was manufactured by an American journalist, Lowell Thomas, who was in Palestine with a film camera in 1917 looking for positive news stories to bolster United States public opinion for involvement in World War I when he met the young officer.
After the war, Thomas’s film, With Lawrence in Arabia, was seen by as many as four million people and made Lawrence one of the first stars of the motion-picture era.
Lawrence’s death in a 1935 motorcycle accident, at the age of 46, and the posthumous appearance of his account of his wartime experience, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which was a publishing phenomenon,sealed his fame, as did Peter O’Toole’s portrayal of him in David Lean’s 1962 biopic Lawrence of Arabia.
Not a hero
But what significance can Lawrence have today to British culture or, for that matter, to people in the Middle East? Especially since his reputation has suffered from rumours about his personal life, shifting attitudes to colonialism and challenges to his own account of his involvement in the Arab Revolt.
Lawrence, like Faisal, would be horrified by the current state of the Middle East and would, no doubt, be reminding British officials that he had told them that the divisions they were creating after WWI would end badly.
Lawrence was a very junior liaison officer in 1916 and was first sent to the Hejaz to get him out of Cairo, where he had made enemies. One senior officer said he needed “a good kicking”.
Some of those attitudes changed after the fall of Aqaba from the Ottoman Empire to Arab forces in 1917, but a recent biography of the Emir Faisal by Ali Allawi suggests that Lawrence was often absent at significant moments of the revolt, and that many of the key decisions – among them the idea to attack Aqaba from the desert – came from Faisal, not Lawrence.
In a similar vein, many people in the Arab world have told me that Lawrence was nothing more than an agent of imperialism and implicate him in creating the faultlines that have led to the current trouble in the region.
Critics tend to point to Lawrence’s motives for his involvement in the revolt. Was he fighting for Arab independence, as he seemed to suggest? Or was he a double-crossing British agent?
Detractors focus on the Sykes-Picot agreement, the secret deal between Britain and France, and agreed by Russia, to divide up the Middle East after the defeat of the Ottomans.
That agreement was signed in May 1916, and the Arab Revolt – encouraged by British promises of autonomy to the Sharif of Mecca and made possible by British gold and weapons – began the next month.
Lawrence of Britannia
Four months later, Lawrence made his first journey to the Hejaz. It isn’t clear when Lawrence knew of Sykes-Picot: Obviously not when he first went to Arabia and perhaps not before it was published in the Manchester Guardian newspaper in November 1917, but he certainly must have found out by December of that year.
Whenever he did find out, he objected loudly to the agreement for several reasons. He thought that the French should be allowed nothing, having behaved so badly in Algeria and elsewhere in northwest Africa. He thought a post-war commonwealth of Arab states under British tutelage might work.
And he protested at having to ask Arab forces to fight on what he called a lie. “I can’t stand it,” he insisted. And yet he continued. Why?
Perhaps for the reason he stated on the last page of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, where he wrote that whatever he did during the revolt, his greatest motive was personal. It is a reference to a close friendship he had with a young Syrian from Jerablus on what is now the Syrian-Turkish border, whom Lawrence had adopted as his protege, and whom he had trained as an archaeologist for several years before the war.
Later he wrote that: “I thought that freedom for the race would be an acceptable present.”
Emir Faisal, future king of Iraq, said in 1920: “He was also truthful in his promises, a matter that made the Arabs trust him.”
Lawrence, like Faisal, would be horrified by the current state of the Middle East and would, no doubt, be reminding British officials that he had told them that the divisions they were creating after World War I would end badly.
As for his recently sold silver-gilt dagger, Lawrence would have been puzzled by the British government’s export ban.
True, it was a gift from one of the sharifs, but Lawrence was much more attached to a smaller, more beautiful gold dagger that he had had made in Mecca, which he wore until Damascus was captured, and which now sits in All Soul’s College, Oxford.
Anthony Sattin is an expert on North Africa and the Middle East, and the author of the recently published book Young Lawrence.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.