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September 2016: 2013 > Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson - 4-1/2 Stars

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message 1: by Regina Lindsey (new)

Regina Lindsey | 1005 comments While the title will lead the reader to assume the bulk of the work is focused on on the name most associated with this era of Middle East history, it is really about a host of lesser known characters, who in addition to Lawrence all bear a great deal of responsibility for what ensued in the region with the fall of the Ottoman Empire: Mark Sykes, the author of the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement who tended to have the simplistic view of the region inherited by many today, William Yale, an American with Standard Oil, Aaronsohn twins, Aaron and Sarah, who were early staunch adherents to the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine, and German Curt Prufer, who may have been one of the founding promoters of jihadist terrorism by Muslim against British rule among others.

I finished about a week ago but needed some time to digest the work before tackling a review. As a pretty well-read student of Middle East history there was so much packed into 500 pages and I appreciated having a number of dots connected for me. First, I finally understand how and why Germany and "Turkey" (I use the term loosely because it was not Turkey at the time) became allies during WWI. Secondly, I had never considered how the Russian Revolution played into coalescing Jewish thought around the world on supporting the Allies in WWII and actively pursuing an official Jewish state in Palestine. The way Anderson makes his case it makes tremendous sense, but it had never dawned on me before. Thirdly, I have read a great deal on the Armenian genocide and the lead up to Balfour accord and its aftermath but always in isolation. It was fascinating to read of the two events in their parallel timeline and how, depending on your viewpoint, Jews under Ottoman rule were either terrified they were next or used it as propaganda to further the Zionist cause. There's a good case to be made for both and it is probably more feasible that there's a little truth to both. Anderson does a superb job of identifying the pivot points where seeds of mistrust germinate between the Middle East and the West while at the same time pointing out why a united "Arab" nation would have been difficult in practicality. Based on these items alone this will always be an important book in my library. I adore "what-ifs" of history. Recently, I've seen a theory bandied about in recent years pondering what would the Middle East look like today if the West hadn't precipitated the fall of the Ottoman Empire with the caliphate in place under Ottoman rule. This book lends more interesting points to consider here.

However, there were a couple of areas where I felt losing a star was credible. First, and I recognize this is because Anderson is a journalist by trade and not an historian by training, much of his writing comes across as opinion with little analysis. There are copious notes in the back but the organization of the work doesn't lend itself to efficiently cross-referencing statements against sources. Finally, while I appreciate the introduction to some characters I knew little about some major players were largely overlooked. For instance, Ataturk is barely mentioned and only in the Epilogue. Finally, what of Gertrude Bell. I went into it defensive because I had read she was ignored. Then, for much of the book, the geography of focus made sense. However, once Faisal arrived on the scene and the British desire to put him forward as the leader it is inexcusable to leave her out. Finally, I'd be interested to know how someone with little foundation in this era received the work. I have no idea. A part of me thinks it would make an excellent broad overview, but on the other hand there is so much material discussed within a relatively short space I don't know if it is enough to drive home some important points.

Every time I read of this era in history I come away shaking my head at how little foresight many had in what we would be dealing with today. However, Lawrence did seem to know, "if a Jewish sate is to be created in Palestine, it will have to be done by force of arms and maintained by force of arms amid an overwhelmingly hostile population." (pg. 426)

message 2: by Booknblues (new)

Booknblues | 6204 comments Interesting. If you do want to know about Lawrence , I suggest Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia.

I'm going to keep this on my radar but it is not on the top of my list.

message 3: by Regina Lindsey (new)

Regina Lindsey | 1005 comments Booknblues wrote: "Interesting. If you do want to know about Lawrence , I suggest Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia.

I'm going to keep this on my radar but it is not on the top of my list."

Thanks. While I've not read that book, since I do so much reading on the region's history I feel I have a pretty good handle on Lawrence. I've heard that's an excellent work though

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