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Loving Lawrence, Hating Arabia : DREAMING OF SAMARKAND by Martin Booth (William Morrow: $19.95; 333 pp.)

June 03, 1990|David Lamb | Lamb, a Times national correspondent, is the author of "The Arabs: Journeys Beyond the Mirage." His latest book, on minor - league baseball, will be published next spring. and

I may be admitting to an intellectual shortcoming, but even after living in the Middle East for four years, my image of Lawrence of Arabia was supplied primarily by Hollywood. Mention his name and what came to mind was Peter O'Toole and thundering horsemen and stunning desert vistas.

T. E. Lawrence was, to be sure, one of the epic Western figures to emerge from colonial Arabia, though after reading Martin Booth's fine novel, "Dreaming of Samarkand," one is struck by the fact that Lawrence, and the European spymasters with whom he was entangled, were not altering history; they were only delaying it.

Booth's novel is a dramatic treatment of a real and fascinating moment in the Middle East--the days prior to World War I when the British, French, Germans, Italians and Turks were double-dealing each other to stake their claims on the future of the Levant. Only Lawrence saw the Arabs as anything more than pawns to be manipulated by distant European capitals.

In "Dreaming of Samarkand," in the final days of 1911, an obscure British poet, James Elroy Flecker, is struggling along in his dreary job at the British Consulate in Beirut. He is sickly, indebted, desperate for literary acclaim and miserable in an Arab world he detests. If Lawrence is the legend, infatuated with the mysteries of the Middle East, Flecker is the tragic misfit, longing for the drizzle of England and the fog of the Cotswolds.

"People speak of the East being the birthplace of civilization, but where is it?" Flecker says to his wife, Helle: "In ruins, misruled by usurping and greedy Europeans. The only real civilization today lies in the grubby back streets around the factories of England. They are the people who are in touch with life, not existing from one oasis to the next, nomads with no compass. They know where they are going."

Lawrence is working on an archeological dig in Syria during the winter of Flecker's discontent, and also keeping an eye on a railway that the Germans were building from Berlin to Baghdad. Flecker, the most unlikely of spies, is recruited by British intelligence to assist Lawrence. In doing so, he is drawn inescapably into the web of Middle East intrigue and finds himself caught in the grip of Lawrence's spell-binding charms and intellect.

"You are in love with him, I know this," shouts Helle one day. Flecker cannot deny it, and until his death in Switzerland three years later--a death hardly noticed in literary circles--he is to love both Helle and the desert adventurer, who travels with an Arab boy, Dahoum. Rebuffed by Lawrence when he makes a advance, Flecker asks why, then, Lawrence embraces Dahoum. "That's different; I've told you that," Lawrence replies. "I want not only him, but his whole world. His villages and ruins, the castles of the Crusaders, the dunes of the desert, the hot sun. . . . You do understand?" "I think so," Flecker answers.

Poetry is to Flecker what the desert is to Lawrence, the ray of life itself. As different as the two men are, their friendship unfolds as a grand adventure of diplomatic scheming and European rivalry that ranges through Lebanon and Syria to a Turkish jail where Flecker must match wits with the captors of Lawrence and Dahoum.

Flecker's life as a gunrunner and spy bring moments of exhilaration, but as his bronchitis worsens, as his poems are rejected by London publishers, he falls deeper into depression, disillusioned with himself and the world. Even Lawrence, he eventually realizes, is but the tool of the power hunters for whom intelligence work is a game.

The characters of whom Booth writes have the glow of authenticity, and their story is a skillful blend of history and fiction. The reader is left with the realization that the foundation of the Middle East's problems today--the turmoil in Lebanon, the conflict between Arab and Jew, the jockeying for influence between superpowers--was laid by European architects in the time of Lawrence and Flecker. The Middle East is a giant trap from which even Lawrence could not escape. Nor can Flecker, even though he finally leaves Lebanon, with his wife, to seek refuge in a series of Swiss sanatoriums.

Feverish and weakened, Flecker is haunted by his longing for Lawrence. The poems he writes are the finest of his life; his days, if not happy, are at least free of a doomed relationship and the "cruel climate with its cruel people and their savage history" that, in the end, shape the softness of his words.

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