Thursday, 31 March 2016

** FATHER FRANK’S RANTS Rant Number 672 31 April 2016 LAWRENCE OF ARABIA


Who was T.E. Lawrence? A leader of desert warriors? An adventurer? A spy? A modern crusader? An Englishman who dared to dream a dream on behalf of the Arabs? A self-hating, sado-masochistic homosexual? An advocate of peace between Britain and Germany murdered by war-mongers?

In Dorset on Holy Saturday, visiting Lawrence’s secluded, Spartan cottage at Clouds’ Hill, the priest found himself wondering whether that fascinating man was not a bit of all those things.

During WWI Lawrence led a daring and bloody Arab revolt against the ruling Turks. An illegitimate, middle-class child, short but fair and sturdy, the youth got a First Class Honours in history at Oxford. His thesis was on the architecture of castles built by crusading Franks in the Levant – a clue to his vocation and destiny?

Undoubtedly Lawrence liked the Arabs and wanted them to achieve some sort of independence. Mecca’s Amir Faisal was indeed promised an Arab state in exchange for fighting the Turks. Unfortunately the infamous, secret Sykes-Picot Agreement said otherwise. France and Britain had already decided to gobble up the Middle East for themselves. When Lawrence later learnt of it he confessed: ‘I was bitterly ashamed’. Yet he assured Faisal that England would keep her word. A melancholy episode, because it may show the legendary hero being like any diplomat of the old school – a man sent abroad to lie for his country.

Not totally fair.  Because after the war Lawrence refused to accept the many baubles, honours and decorations Britain wanted to bestow on him. Lawrence personally told King George V he believed the role he played in the Arab revolt was ‘dishonourable to himself and to his country and government. He had, by order, fed Arabs with false hopes’. Further, he respectfully informed his monarch he was determined to fight on, even militarily, until the Arabs obtained justice. That shows a man with some moral consistency, even dignity and nobility.

Faisal, on behalf of his father the Sharif of Mecca, wanted to be King of All the Arabs. Damascus was at the heart of his project but at the Paris Peace Conference France seized the mandate for Syria. Winston Churchill put the guilt for Faisal’s misfortunes on French greed for their share of the cake. Gallic sentiment for Syria went back to Saladin and the Crusades, it seems. Bitterly, Faisal remarked: ‘You forget who won the Crusades…’

Blaming ‘la perfide France’ suited Churchill but he left out the real jokers in the pack at Paris: the Zionists. The ambiguous 1917 Balfour Declaration had committed Britain to ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’. Faisal’s father however rejected the Zionist aspirations. A Cairo British intelligence officer reported further that ‘the Arabs of Palestine fear repetition of the story of Jacob and Esau’. For the biblically illiterate, look up Genesis, chapter 27. The account of how Jacob shamefully cheated his first-born brother Esau of his birth right. For Jacob read the Jews and for Esau the Arabs. Yet, Lawrence did not sympathise with the shabby Balfour imbroglio. Still, while at Paris, according to a hostile writer, A.L. Tibawi, he may have colluded with Zionist Chaim Weizmann’s subtle deceptions towards the Arabs.

Robert Graves’ 'Lawrence and the Arabs' makes no bones about his hero’s dark side. Though an accomplished guerrilla leader and strategist, he disregarded military conventions about the treatment of prisoners. The Arabs brutally massacred and robbed Turkish captives. ‘Take no prisoners…the best of you are those who bring me the most Turkish dead’ Lawrence told his Bedouins. On seeing the remnants of Turkish police forces at Deraa (where he himself had been tortured by a queer Turkish Pasha), men notorious for their cruel treatment of Arab peasants, being led away as prisoners, Lawrence again ordered no mercy. Conduct becoming ‘an officer and a gentleman’? Groan…I suppose he behaved no worse than the Turks did towards their Arab prisoners.

After the war Lawrence could have had anything he wanted. A high post in the Colonial Office or an imperial, lucrative governorship in the East, the sky was the limit. Instead, he scorned all. He was an extraordinary being for whom comforts, a wife and a family, a home, money, rank and power were basically indifferent. Whether that is wise in the sense meant by the Book of Proverbs, chapter 9 – see the title of his epic work, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom – I know not.  He enlisted as a simple private in the RAF and then the Army. Amazingly, he even applied for a job as a night watchman in a London block of flats. (Atonement, perhaps?) After the ferocious desert battles and the Byzantine diplomatic intrigues, Lawrence craved silence and obscurity. Human, all too human.

In 1935 Lawrence died in a motorcycle accident. His friend and peace activist Harry Williamson believed he had been assassinated, to stop his leading a campaign for an entente between Britain and Germany. Conspiracy theory or conspiracy fact?

After the cottage I went to see Lawrence’s tomb in the graveyard of St Nicholas Church. On the tombstone is the motto of Oxford University, ‘Dominus Illuminatio Mea’. Also the immortal words from St John’s Gospel, 5: 25: ‘The Hour Is coming & Now Is When The Dead Shall Hear The Voice of The Son of God And They That Hear Shall Live’.


Revd Frank Julian Gelli


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