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British Legend a Hero Only in the West : There's Little Evidence of Lawrence in Arabia

August 24, 1986|JOHN RICE | Associated Press

AMMAN, Jordan — There is little of Lawrence in Arabia.

No street, no town, no statue commemorateE. Lawrence, the World War I British officer whose name, in the West, still evokes the romance of the desert and of guerrilla campaigns with Arabian tribesmen.

Not a single shop or cafe named for Lawrence is listed in the national telephone directory of Jordan, location of his best-known exploits.

"Lawrence of Arabia was made a legend in the West. He was never a legend here," said Sari Nasir, a University of Jordan sociologist who has written on Western views of the Arabs.

Errors in Book

A wartime propaganda effort, a classic book and a celebrated movie made the camel-riding Englishman dressed in Arab garb more famous in the West than the cause he fought for--the liberation of the Arabs from centuries of Turkish rule.

But Nasir said that few Arabs know who Lawrence was. And for those who do, the memory is tainted by the broken promises of British colonialism.

Lawrence, in his book "Seven Pillars of Wisdom," grossly exaggerated his own role in the Arab revolt, Arab historians assert.

"He did not lead the revolt. It was an Arab revolt. He was one among many," said Suleiman Mousa, a Jordanian historian who wrote "T. E. Lawrence: An Arab View," which documented errors in Lawrence's book.

Movie Banned

Sensitivities are so strong that Jordan banned the Academy Award-winning movie "Lawrence of Arabia," in which Peter O'Toole played the title role.

Travelers can still see the rail lines that Lawrence dynamited. And guides will point out to Western tourists the rooms that Lawrence occupied in the crumbling Roman fort at Azraq.

But "if I came and suggested a street should be named for him, or a cafe or a road, they would look at me as having a very strange idea," Mousa said.

Lawrence was an Arabic-speaking archeologist who found his way into British intelligence in World War I and enlisted in the British effort to aid the Arab revolt.

Supported Rebellion

To divert Turkish and German energy away from Europe, Britain supported the rebellion launched by the Hashemite sharif of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali. The British promised to work for an independent Arab nation at after World War I in modern Syria, Palestine, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

The sharif's sons rallied a fierce army of desert tribesmen that--with British advisers like Lawrence--fought their way 850 miles to Damascus, ending centuries of Ottoman rule.

But the victorious European allies put Syria under French rule and left Palestine, Jordan and Iraq under British tutelage. Only modern Saudi Arabia was made fully independent.

Nasir said that the Lawrence legend fed on racial stereotypes and on Western beliefs that Arabs needed foreigners to guide them.

A Hero in 1919

American journalist Lowell Thomas made Lawrence a hero in 1919 with a series of lectures in the United States and Britain portraying the blue-eyed Englishman as leading wild tribesmen on daring raids against the Turks.

The legend grew with "Seven Pillars," which Winston Churchill said "ranks with the greatest books ever written in the English language."

Lawrence's driving, poetic language captivated Western readers. But his descriptions were not always kind to his battlefield comrades.

"They were a limited, narrow-minded people," he wrote of the Arabs, "whose inert intellects lay fallow in incurious resignation."

Considered Meddlesome

His alliance with one of Hussein's sons, Feisal, and his expressed mistrust of another, Abdullah, also undermined his later standing among Arabs. Abdullah founded modern Jordan and was the grandfather of the current king. Abdullah considered Lawrence meddlesome and accused him of helping the Wahabis of Ibn Saud take what is now Saudi Arabia away from Abdullah's father after World War I.

Mousa said the trauma of Arab disappointments and European assistance in the creation of Israel hurt Lawrence's reputation.

"It is a matter of pride," Mousa said. "Had we achieved unity, had we not been defeated by the Israelis, I don't think we would be so sensitive about Lawrence."

He said his own opinion of Lawrence has mellowed since he wrote his book 20 years ago.

'Did His Best'

"To my mind he did his best to foster the Arab cause, as far as he was able, and within the framework of being a British officer," Mousa said.

For example, he said, Lawrence talked the British into giving the Arabs seats at the post-World War I peace conference. But he retained a colonialist view, Mousa said. "He thought that the Arabs should be guided by a Western power and that the British were the best for it," Mousa said.

Despite what he believes are its inventions and distortions, the Arab historian said: "I should confess that the 'Seven Pillars of Wisdom' was a great service to the Arabs. . . . It was to my mind the most important medium to bring . . . the aspirations of the Arabs to the Western world."

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