Wonder about all the turmoil in the Middle East? I recently discovered a book that gives me a lot better idea of how these countries currently in the headlines were established, and their relationship to one another. Non-fiction, but written like a thriller, the book is Lawrence in Arabia, by Scott Anderson. Hot off the press, it describes the events surrounding World War I almost a century ago, yet with the perspective of today. For some of us, Lawrence is a very familiar character, thanks to the 1962 epic movie, Lawrence of Arabia. But this is the REAL story. Researched in detail from letters, memos, military reports and in some cases biographies that allow an in-depth accounting of those times.
In additon to T. E. Lawrence, Anderson also introduces us to an American oil company representative, who in addition was a spy. A German academic, who was also a spy. A Jewish agronomist, who –wait for it– was a spy. Which of course, so was Lawrence! How these men, and numerous others, crossed paths and engaged in activities that directly influenced the structure of the Middle East today is told in a straight forward fashion that is hard to put down.
The subtitle of the book: “war, deceit, imperial folly and the making of the modern middle east” is an accurate summary of the volume. The high-level back room deals that were being made, often in conflict with one another, provide a chilling look at how the imperial powers did business. And how the US fit into the picture.
I found Anderson’s writing style to be refreshing and crisp. He explains the mind set of William Yale, the American oil company rep who later becomes the state department’s “special agent” in the Middle East, as follows:
An exemplar of the American can-do spirit, William Yale also held to the belief, quite common among his countrymen, that ignorance and lack of experience could actually bestow an advantage, might serve as the wellspring for ‘originality and boldness.’ If so, he promised to be a formidable force in the Middle East.
Anderson brings this period of history to life, providing insights into the forces, and personalities, that clashed during the war. He doesn’t sugar coat the actions of the allies, which often lead to the seemingly needless loss of thousands of lives. The book has maps in the inside covers, which greatly aides the reader if you don’t happen hold the geography of the Middle East in your head. Even so, I found myself going to Google Earth on occasion to appreciate the distances and terrain, which are important elements of the story. I would highly recommend this book. An will now take a look at some his other works. A grateful thank you to Terry Gross and her interview on Fresh Air which first brought this book to my attention!