Thursday, December 9, 2010

T.E. Lawrence: An Arab View (1962, Suleiman Mousa)

Publishing info:

Mousa, Suleiman. T.E. Lawrence: An Arab View. English translation. London: Oxford University Press, 1966. 301 pp.


One of the more interesting books in the wave of post-Aldington revisionism is this work by acclaimed Jordanian historian Suleiman Mousa. T.E. Lawrence: An Arab View casts a critical eye on the Lawrence legend, with Mousa arguing that Western historians unfairly downplay the Arab contributions to the war by focusing on Lawrence and other Allied advisors. It's a worthwhile,  unique read - one of the few Arab-written books on Lawrence and the Revolt available in English. However, it's also a flawed and (inevitably) dated work, with Mousa's own prejudices coloring his depiction of Lawrence.

The Author:

Suleiman Mousa (1919-2008) came from a modest background, born in the Jordanian village of Al Rafeed. From an early age he cultivated a love of learning and began teaching at the age of 16. He was also a freelance essayist and poet, and began working for the Jordanian government in 1957. Mousa published his first book, Ali Hussein ibn Ali and the Great Arab Revolt, that year, and produced a steady output of works about Jordanian and Middle Eastern history, most notably his Lawrence biography and Days Unforgotten: Jordan in the 1948 War. Widely respected in both the Middle East and the West, Mousa passed away in 2008.

The Review:

Mousa's book is valuable if only for its focus on the Arab leaders and soldiers who fought alongside Lawrence. His recounting of specific events is interesting, filling in some much-needed gaps in the story of the Revolt. He ewcounts the major battles of the Revolt in significant detail and telling analysis; the famous Tafilah battle of February 1918, long held as a sign of Lawrence's military genius, is convincingly portrayed as the result of improbably heroic Arab resistance. There is a lot of interesting material here for an open-minded reader to digest. Mousa makes a good case that Lawrence, at the very least, overstated his importance as a military leader. It's nice to see a version of the story where the Arabs are actors in their right, rather than mere imperial pawns.

Mousa brings the Arab protagonists to vivid life. These men aren't callow opportunists or greedy bandits as many Western writers portray them, but heroic patriots fighting for a worthy cause. He castigates Lawrence for his portrayal of Prince Abdullah, depicting him as shrewd a ruler as Feisal. Mousa also dips into a well of sources, from Arab memoirs to personal interviews, that many Western writers left untouched. A reader may take issue with some of Mousa's interpretations or uncritical acceptance of these sources, but on the whole it's nice to see the Arab side of things. However, these laudable attributes should not cause us to overlook the book's faults.

Mousa's biggest problem is his own bias. He was writing with the sponsorship of Sherif Hussein's descendants, and his reluctance to criticize the Hashemites undermines his credibility. To hear Mousa tell it, Sherif Hussein and all his sons were military and political geniuses of the highest caliber, commiting nary a mistake in their conduct of the Revolt. Most egregiously, he refuses to believe that Feisal tried to negotiate with the Turks in the summer of 1918, ignoring the fact that many sources other than Seven Pillars (including the memoirs of German General Liman Von Sanders, who had no reason to back up Lawrence) reported this. Why doesn't Mousa accept it? Apparently, because Feisal "was known to be level-headed and prudent" (p. 180).

Mousa goes on to argue that the Arab people were united in support of the Revolt - something at odds with virtually every other history I've read. Mousa completely omits the potentially-disastrous feud between Feisal and Abdullah in the summer of 1918, and neglects to mention Auda's 1917 correspondence with the Turks. Certainly it's not fair to portray the Arabs as glorified bandits, as Aldington does, but the opposite extreme is no better. He criticizes Lawrence's accounts of Turkish and Arab atrocities during the war as spurious, going so far as to, incredibly, doubt that the Tafas Massacre ever took place!  His uncritical acceptance of Arab accounts and sources while raking Lawrence's work over the coals, is also very telling. If Lawrence's Western biographers have an agenda to sell, then so does Mousa.

Though he never resorts to the bloody-mindedness of Aldington, Mousa repeats most of his themes: Lawrence was a liar, egomaniac and sadomasochist. He paints Lawrence as a coldly-calculating Machiavellian British Agent who manipulated the Arabs from beginning to end, and who was also a Zionist. Nevermind Lawrence's tortured equivocations over his role in the war, expressed in both private correspondence and published works: for one example, his comments in Seven Pillars that he was "thoroughly and bitterly ashamed" (p. 283) of his role in deceiving the Arabs. Would an imperialist harbor such feelings? Mousa, being a pan-Arabist, sees anything short of absolute endorsement of Arab nationalism as a betrayal. He paints Lawrence's idea for a post-war Middle East as proof of Lawrence's chicanery, rather than a naive and unworkable hope for compromise.

A major innovation of Mousa's work is his questioning of the Deraa incident. Mousa examines discrepancies in Lawrence's diary entries, memoirs and Arab accounts and concludes that "the whole story [is] highly implausible" (p. 117). Similar arguments have been advanced by future biographers (most recently James Barr), but Mousa doesn't account for Lawrence's whereabouts or provide a reasonable explanation of what *did* happen. Mousa is either ignorant of or unduly dismissive towards Lawrence's private correspondence with Charlotte Shaw (Bernard Shaw's wife), E.M. Forster and W.F. Stirling, compromising his argument.

Some of these discrepancies can be explained, quite easily. Many of the war-time records and primary documents concerning the Revolt weren't opened to the public until 1968; indeed, Mousa reportedly softened on Lawrence after gaining access to this material. (He also played a major role in researching Knightley and Simpson's Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia, which I hope to read soon). I do, however, find it hard to excuse certain aspects of the book, especially his uncritical use of Arab sources. Why Naseeb al-Bakri's fifty-years-after-the-fact reminiscences disprove that Lawrence's "northern ride" to Baalbeck during the Aqaba campaign is left unexplained, except by the author's own predilections.

Lest we be overly critical, let's give Mousa his due. His work is, despite its flaws, rational and well-reasoned enough to provide a point of synthesis with the more extreme Lawrence worshipers of the pre-Aldington era (Lowell Thomas, Robert Graves). Prejudices aside, Mousa doesn't have a personal axe to grind and he's a responsible and thoughtful historian, even allowing A.W. Lawrence a brief rebuttal at book's end. There's no talking to a Richard Aldington or a Desmond Stewart, but Mousa was a gentleman one could dialogue with.

Mousa's book fulfills its purpose in providing "an Arab view" of one of the 20th Century's most dramatic and important events. Lawrence scholars will find much to criticize, but T.E. Lawrence: An Arab View remains a unique interpretation of the Lawrence legend.

What Others Say:

"This book is not a thoughtless trashing of T.E. Suleiman is a careful researcher who evaluates the evidence, and the picture he paints of Lawrence is by no means negative." - CooperToons

"Although many admirers of T.E. will prefer Lawrence's version of his part in the Arab Revolt, Mr. Mousa's obvious concern to be fair-minded and the weight of the evidence he produces makes his book one that must be studied by all who are interested in 'Lawrence of Arabia'." - Oxford University Press

"Although they can be readily challenged, Mousa's criticisms were to prove important for the next period of Lawrence biographies." - Stephen E. Tabachnick

"By challenging the accepted Western view, Suleiman Mousa played an important part in that process. For that he deserves lasting recognition." - Jeremy Wilson

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