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'He had a genius for backing into the limelight" - that is how American journalist Lowell Thomas described T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. Now on the 70th anniversary of his death, he is the subject of a special exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London. The exhibit, which opened last October, will close on April 17, and is well worth a visit for people who are in London and have an interest in Middle East history.
Thomas had a good reason for his observation about Lawrence. In 1919, he effectively exploited his penchant for the limelight by mounting a popular spectacle in London to show off his adventures in the Arabian Desert in the form of a travelogue with music and vibrant images. Soon a modern legend took tangible shape. Some 40 years later, David Lean's epic film, Lawrence of Arabia, would cement that legend (and collect seven Oscars).
But this fascinating, in-depth exhibition goes far beyond the glitzy aspects of Lawrence's story. Through a variety of photos, documents, original objects (his famous kefiyeh, aqal, dagger etc.) and an excellent audio guide, his complex personality and deeds come into focus. With relations between Muslim and Western cultures featured daily in the media, the Lawrence episode from the early 20th century is still oddly relevant.
It is a curious fact that his claim to fame rests on no more than three or four years of intensive activity during World War I. But he came to it thoroughly prepared. Later on, utilizing his superb writing skills, he capitalized on that unique experience by writing on his travels in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and by fixing his image as much more than an adventurer by donning Bedouin garb.
Lawrence was a child of unwed parents. He felt the "illegitimate" stigma early on, setting a course of internal tension that marked his character throughout his life. But he managed to advance as a student at Oxford. (The exhibition reveals he had a close relationship with his mother). He arrived in the Middle East for the first time as a student doing work for his final thesis on the architecture of Crusader castles. He then engaged in archeological excavations in this region, and in 1914 used this scientific cover to do mapping in the Negev and Sinai Desert for intelligence purposes. World War I was about to break out, and the British Empire was set on bringing down its Ottoman rival.
By the end of the war, Lawrence was a much-decorated lieutenant-colonel. Things changed for him when he managed to get an assignment to go out to the field, or rather the desert, landing in Jeddah, a city in the Hejaz region. The exhibition has photos of the port city taken by Lawrence. There he made contact with the Hashemite Emir Hussein, ruler of Mecca, who had launched a rebellion against the Turkish masters.
By that time Lawrence knew Arabic. The audio guide includes a 1962 BBC interview with his teacher, and she refers to his self-discipline in language study. Lawrence had cast aside his drab army uniform and dressed as a Bedouin, fostering an admiration for the ways of the Arab desert tribes. Here, it seems, is the core of the Lawrence legend: he stepped out of the box in a genuine gesture of fascination with a strange culture, while consciously advancing British political and regional interests. The exhibition portrays persistent guerilla warfare and battle, culminating in the conquest of Aqaba by the Red Sea, and ultimately Damascus, which Camel-riding Bedouins entered in advance of General Allenby's troops.
Still in the Hejaz, Lawrence was captured by the Turks at Deraa. One of the strongest points in the exhibition is an audio reading of Lawrence's description of his humiliation and brutal raping by his captors. He managed to escape, but the experience continued to haunt him. A very different description on tape brilliantly renders the awesome landscape of Wadi Rom, not far from Aqaba.
Abruptly, Lawrence ended his desert saga with the conquest of Damascus which finally brought about the collapse of the Turks. Later he participated in the Peace Conference in Paris, which shaped the future of the Middle East. An informal adviser to Faisal, he also felt the British betrayed the Hashemites when foreign office types took over.
The organizers of this impressive Lawrence exhibit did exhaustive research. For Israelis, the years of the desert campaign are of special interest, as they shed light on one element in the complex historical puzzle of this region. The Arab Revolt culminating in the conquest of Damascus - Lawrence describes the virtual hysteria of joy in the city - gave rise the emergence of a new Pan-Arabism.
The time of glorious action was over, replaced by a different kind of glory: public celebrity. A confused personal identity is documented by the exhibition. He changed his name (to Shaw), voluntarily enlisted in the Air Force as a private, then switched to the Tanks Corps, then back to the Air Force, retiring to a modest cottage called Clouds Hill, which he adored. He also loved his Brough Superior motorcycle. On a country road back to the cottage, he got entangled with a boy on a bike and became an accident fatality. Winston Churchill was among the mourners at his funeral. Lawrence never married.
The exhibition makes no reference to Zionism. But the Encyclopedia Hebraica states: "At the beginning of his activity Lawrence related with hostility toward Zionism and acted against it during World War I and the Paris Peace Conference. During the 1920s this attitude changed, and he became a pro-Zionist and a supporter of Weitzman."