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Audiobook Review: Lawrence in Arabia

Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and the Making of the Modern Middle East
by Scott Anderson read by Malcolm Hillgartner

Lawrence in Arabia Cover

A thrilling and revelatory narrative of one of the most epic and consequential periods in twentieth century history—the Arab Revolt and the secret game to control the Middle East

The Arab revolt against the Turks in World War I was, in the words of T. E. Lawrence, “a sideshow of a sideshow.” As a result, the conflict was shaped to a remarkable degree by a small handful of adventurers and low-level officers far removed from the corridors of power. Curt Prüfer was an academic attached to the German embassy in Cairo whose clandestine role was to foment jihad against British rule. Aaron Aaronsohn was a renowned agronomist and committed Zionist who gained the trust of the Ottoman governor of Palestine even as he built an elaborate anti-Ottoman spy ring. William Yale was a fallen scion of the American aristocracy who traveled the Ottoman Empire on behalf of Standard Oil, dissembling to the Turks in order to gain valuable oil concessions. At the center of it all was Lawrence. In early 1914 he was an archaeologist digging ruins in Syria; by 1917 he was riding into legend at the head of an Arab army, as he fought a rearguard action against his own government and its imperial ambitions.

Based on four years of intensive primary document research, Lawrence in Arabia definitively overturns received wisdom on how the modern Middle East was formed. Sweeping in its action, keen in its portraiture, acid in its condemnation of the destruction wrought by European colonial plots, this is a book that brilliantly captures the way in which the folly of the past creates the anguish of the present.

Histories of The Great War tend to focus on Europe, on the western front, even mostly on France. This makes plenty of sense if you’re reading primarily in English and especially if you’re reading from the American libraries. The eastern front seems poorly understood and even alien in some cases, despite being at the center of the drama. And the Russian Revolution and their subsequent withdrawal from the war is often portrayed as a burden on Britain, France, And the United States.

But there was a theater in World War I that wasn’t really covered in all the hours of Blueprint for Armageddon or anything else I’ve read recently. The Ottoman Empire, The Middle East, and North Africa. When Lawrence in Arabia came up in a search, I leapt at it.

Scott Anderson’s focused research and delicate understanding just shines. Written almost as an interlocking narrative of the lives of Prüfer, Aaronsohn, Yale, and of course Lawrence, this book delivers breath and depth in an oft neglected space. The competing interests of colonial powers have never been so illuminated, the people responsible for them so incisively deconstructed.

This corner of World War I, examined in such detail, provides perspective on many of the missteps made on both sides as they ramify out to the fringes to be repeated or rejected. Seen as relatively insignificant at the time, this is where many of our modern conflicts began. If the Middle East confuses you, you could scarcely read a better book to gain a foundational understanding of how we got to where we are now.

It’s well worth a recommendation on it’s own. But it’s better in context. Getting to know the primary figures in this history prepares you for the creation of Israel, the propaganda of World War II Germany, the United States’ commercial project, and Britain’s social transformation. The twentieth century would not have been what it is had these events not happened the way they did.

Finally, since it’s mostly focused on T.E. Lawrence, this is where you want to start with him. The oughties and the teens have produced incredible scholarship on some of history’s most controversial figures. Lawrence apparently left little of his own work behind and managed to contradict himself and undermine his credibility even so. Anderson compares everything that’s come before along with contemporary primary sources to create a portait of a fascinating human being.

It’s apolitical and sympathetic everywhere it can be, giving context for people of their time thrust into difficult situations. No one comes out unscathed and yet neither are any irrevocably damned. That may come later, of course, but such only proves the even hand applied.

Lawrence in Arabia is edifying. I’m truly better off for having read it. Listened to it, rather. Malcolm Hillgartner reads clearly and consistently, displaying interest and keeping the listener engaged in a complex story with an otherwise overwhelming onslaught of information.

Recommended for fans of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lawrence of Arabia, and Aaron Burr.