This may have been my favorite book of 2013. Prior to reading this book, everything I knew about T.E. Lawrence came from David Lean’s film, Lawrence of Arabia which I like a lot. The real story is even better and more interesting than the film.
From the outset Anderson admits that Lawrence is a difficult character to know, there is so much mythology about him, both negative and positive. Lawrence himself contributed to the confusion through his own writings that are inconsistent and contradict other eyewitness accounts. Anderson has worked through a lot of source material, often providing the reader with differing accounts of the same event, sharing his conclusions, but allowing the reader to draw her own.
The book begins prior to WWI introducing Lawrence at a young age. His family was reclusive due to his parents’ scandalous romance. As the book moves into the Middle East, it follows three other men who were contemporaries of Lawrence who were operating in the Middle East. Curt Prüfer was a German national and spy who was trying to incite jihad against the British. Aaron Aaronsohn was a Jewish agronomist and Zionist, a spy and a critical figure in the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Anderson also tells the story of an American, William Yale, who worked for Standard Oil. His story is much smaller than the others, but also reflects the outsider role the United States played through much of World War I.
Lawrence was a student of history and archaeology. He traveled through Syria and became familiar with the region and the culture. Later he became part of the British military, although he held it in low regard, and they him. He felt the military was stupid, particularly when not taking his advice, and the military found him to lack military discipline. As Lawrence was trying to get Britain to assist the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman regime, the British were negotiating with the French to determine how they would divide the region after the war. These negotiations resulted in the Sykes-Picot agreement, in which the British agreed to the opposite of what they promised the Arabs. Even while European nations were fighting to stalemates on the Western and Eastern fronts , they never gave up planning how they would carve up “The Big Loot,” their nickname for the Ottoman Empire.
Anderson leaves nothing off the table. Particularly tragic are the accounts of the slaughter of the Armenians by the Ottomans and the stupidity of the British at Gallipoli. At the same time the senseless killing in Europe played a central role in the Middle Eastern theater, particularly because resources were often taken from there and sent back to Europe at critical points.
The book is well researched and there are plenty of notes at the back if you’re interested in the source materials. It may be Anderson’s experience as a journalist, but I found the narrative kept me interested from beginning to end.