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In this well-researched, detailed but highly interesting story, Scott Anderson travels back to World War I and the tottering Ottoman Empire to set the stage for the Middle East we know now. Lawrence of Arabia has a large role, but it's not primarily his story -- it's the story of how war, oil, greed, imperialism, chicanery, empty promises and personalities interacted to fertilize the creation of Saudi Arabia, Israel (then known as Palestine), Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and their neighbors.
T.E. Lawrence is the flywheel of the story, and his deeds lubricate the story, but there is oh so much more, from a wide range of Zionists to the scion of the family that founded Yale, to the Turks and Arabs and military leaders who had a hand in the battles and negotiations. Lawrence isn't idealized -- in fact, no one is idealized. It's not the David Lean movie! But it *is* fascinating.
I found Malcolm Hillgartner a terrific narrator. He uses voices, but he uses them so smoothly and carefully that it's not jarring. (I tend to like my narrators to read rather than dramatize, but Hillgartner's approach could please everyone.)
One note: I found myself often referring to a map. You'll likely find that having one to consult occasionally is helpful.
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In the words of author Scott Anderson, “history is often the tale of small moments, chance encounters, casual decisions, or sheer coincidences, that seem of little consequence at the time, but somehow fuse with other small moments to produce something momentous.” In his view, this is what happened on an oft-forgotten front of World War One, in a web of intrigues and political machinations that were to shape the Middle East to this day.
Through the accounts of a few figures who were caught up in the drama, such as the famous T.E. Lawrence, Anderson explores the deal-making, promises, and betrayals that took place, as both warring sides sought to exploit the local populations of Arabs and Jews, while having no real intention of granting them autonomy. Instead, the British and French, who “won” World War One by the skin of their teeth, would carve the former Ottoman Empire up into their own protectorates, with consequences that carry far forward (the Sikes-Picot Agreement came up on a podcast about the current spate of violence in Iraq). Meanwhile, the US began its tradition of “misunderestimating” (to use a Bushism) the people of the Middle East.
The central personal stories are pretty engaging. Of course, Lawrence, the young British officer whose behind-the-lines exploits were immortalized in the film Lawrence of Arabia, is the star of the book. A quiet but intense Oxford scholar who traveled to Palestine to study medieval castles, he got sucked into the British intelligence service when the war began and promoted through a fortuitous combination of mindless bureaucratic machinery and his own clever maneuvering. Understanding the local Arabs better than his superiors, who demonstrated the blend of arrogance and incompetence that Allied commanders were infamous for, Lawrence transformed himself into an effective military leader, guiding Arab rebels against the Turkish army and tying up enemy troops that might have gone elsewhere. However, misgivings about Britain's ultimate political goals and the horrors of war began to eat away at him, leaving a man who would, at conflict's end, walk off the world stage into self-imposed anonymity.
The other figures here, though, are hardly uninteresting. We also learn about deceptive German agent provocateur Curt Prufer, who might have been the closest thing to Lawrence’s counterpart on the other side; William Yale, a scion of the Yale family and an employee of the scummy American company Standard Oil, who comes to be the eye of US interests in the region; and the Jewish agronomist and spy Aaron Aaronsohn, whose energetic efforts to make the deserts of the Promised Land bloom seem aptly symbolic of his costly campaign to steer the Allies in a direction favorable to the Jewish people, even as he pretends to be loyal to Turkey. Many more actors cross the pages, such as Zionist Chaim Weizmann, the self-important diplomat Mark Sikes, Turkish governor Ahmed Djemal Pasha, and various members of the Hussein family, who would assume leadership roles in new Arab states. For a time, Arabs, distrusting Britain and France, looked to the US as the light of national self-determination, though it seems our oil interests were always agnostic to who was in charge. A wasted opportunity?
As noted by some of Lawrence’s own prophetic journal entries, the “peace” following the War to End All Wars was to be as poorly managed in the Middle East as in Europe, fraught with problematic agreements and lingering resentments that would plague the region for decades to come. To me, the awful, take-no-prisoners brutality exhibited in his final battles, as he fights bitterly on behalf of leaders he no longer trusts, was a lesson all too predictive of the rest of the 20th century. Alas that it had to be retaught again and again and again.
Though I’m not sure that Anderson answers any questions that haven’t been hashed out already, or resolves any mysteries about Lawrence himself (e.g. the nature of his sexuality) I enjoyed the details of this well-researched book. Lawrence in Arabia is a fine window into the fascinating, portentous intrigues of a forgotten corner of a forgotten war (for most Americans, anyway). The past is never as far away as we think.
Audiobook narrator Mr. Hillgartner does a good job finding the emotions of the story, and I didn’t get bored with his reading over several days of car and plane travel, though some might miss the maps and photos of the print edition. 4.5 stars.
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