JOANNE MYERS: I'm Joanne Myers, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I'm delighted that so many of you have joined us for our afternoon discussion about the uncrowned king of Arabia, also known as Lawrence of Arabia.
If you are an adventurer, a romantic, an admirer of heroes, visionaries, or legends, in my opinion there are few subjects that are as compelling as the eternally fascinating Lawrence of Arabia. Anyone who has seen the epic movie of this larger-than-life British soldier, strategist, scholar, diplomat, explorer, or who have read his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom, will understand why T. E. Lawrence has left a legacy of mythic proportions.
Yet, having the right person to tell the story of this complex figure, someone who would be able to separate myth from reality, could have been a very daunting task. For Michael Korda, former editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster and an illustrious writer of complex subjects, such as Ulysses S. Grant and General Eisenhower, this was a challenge that was easily met.
In Hero Mr. Korda writes that in addition to documenting Lawrence's achievements, he wanted to expose the unknown part of a man who inspired devotion, passionate friendship, fierce loyalty, and intense admiration. In successfully doing so, he recreates the character of a man whose foresight, planning abilities, and meticulous attention to detail are given just as much weight as his adventures in the Middle East.
Given the realities of this challenge, after reading Hero I would have to say that Mr. Korda has succeeded in a dazzling way to tell the story of the man who trained himself from the earliest of times for a role of glory in the Arabian desert.
Even today, the unsettling events in the Middle East continue to remind us of Lawrence. Not only did he introduce Arabs to counterinsurgency and guerrilla warfare, but he was determined to create an everlasting Arab state. Curiously enough, his vision of what the state should be is still at the very center of every diplomatic dispute, insurrection, and political revolution throughout his vast area.
Biographies, if they are successful, can create a sense about the person and the events which that person experienced. In this case, Hero is that one biography which will take you to another time and place. There is no doubt that with its rich past, vibrant character, great setting, and exotic scenes, Mr. Korda has made this period of the early 20th century come alive as he tells the story of this quintessential English hero.
If you will all join me in giving me a very warm welcome, I guarantee that he will bring this exotic legend back to life.
MICHAEL KORDA: Lawrence of Arabia has been a fascination for me ever since I was a child. The task of writing about him became, for me, not a challenge but an enormous pleasure.
"Oh! If only he had died in battle! I have lost my son, but I do not grieve for him as I do for Lawrence....I am counted brave, the bravest of my tribe; my heart was iron, but his was steel, a man whose hand was never closed but always open....Tell them...tell them in England what I say. Of manhood, the man, in freedom free; a man without equal; I can see no flaw in him." These are the words of T. E. Lawrence's friend Sheikh Hamoudi on learning of Lawrence's death in a motorcycle accident in 1935.
Another friend, John Buchan, author of the famous spy novel Greenmantle and The Thirty-Nine Steps, wrote:
"I do not pretend to have understood T. E. Lawrence fully, still less to be able to portray him; there is no brush fine enough to catch the subtleties of his mind, no aerial viewpoint high enough to bring him into one picture [the manifold of his character]...I am not a tractable person or much of a hero-worshipper, but I could have followed Lawrence over the edge of the world....If genius be, in Emerson's phrase, 'a stellar and undiminishable something,' whose origin is a mystery and whose essence cannot be defined, then he was the only man of genius I have ever known."
These are unusual tributes to a most unusual man, for Lawrence was a Protean figure, not only in legend but in fact. Born the illegitimate son of a wealthy English aristocrat, Sir Thomas Chapman, who abandoned family, name, title, land, and fortune to run away with the Scottish governess of his four daughters, Lawrence was, and remains still, one of the most controversial figures in British history and letters.
Though his father and mother never married—Lady Chapman refused to give her husband a divorce—they had five sons, of which T. E. Lawrence was the second. A brilliant scholar, whose First at Oxford was so remarkable that his tutor gave a black-tie dinner party for the examiners to celebrate Lawrence's achievement.
He was a gifted young archeologist, whose four years in Syria helped to uncover the lost city and the culture of the Hittites, and upon whose adventures the character of Indiana Jones was partly based.
He was a daring young explorer, whose search in 1919 for the route by which Moses led the Jews across the Sinai Desert from Egypt was at least partly a cover for mapping the area across which the Turks would surely attack the Suez Canal if or when war broke out between the great powers.
He was a gifted intelligence analyst, whose reports, even when he was merely a temporary second- lieutenant in Cairo in 1915 and 1916, were eagerly read at the very highest political and military levels in London.
Lawrence went on to become at the age of 28 a military genius. He was the inventor of a new form of guerrilla warfare, who would influence Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro, and the modern Islamic insurgents. He was also a legendary warrior and hero, and in his role as a diplomat and statesman a creator of nations, two of which still survive, as well as the author of one of the most famous books ever written about war in the English language, Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
He is also the world's first and most long-lived media celebrity. He was born with what Henry James called the le génie de la reclame, a natural gift for publicity, which would be the envy of any movie star, for Lawrence's name is still as famous today as it was 75 years ago.
The First World War has long since receded from the memory of most people. The very last of those who fought in it are dead now. The wounds of that great conflict have not so much been healed as scarred over by other and more recent catastrophes. Out of the many millions who fought in that war, how many of its countless heroes are still recognizable by name to the average person—indeed, to anyone?
In the English-speaking world, only one. For even those who know nothing at all about what was called until 1939 "the Great War" are still likely to recognize the name of at least one of its heroes, Lawrence of Arabia.
Of course, to many people Lawrence of Arabia is Peter O'Toole. [Laughter]
It is surely no accident that Lawrence was the hero of one of the most successful films ever made, David Lean's 1962 masterpiece, which was nominated for no less than ten Academy Awards, and won seven, including Best Picture and Best Director. But we must bear in mind that it is a drama, not a docudrama. Even the most successful film does not convey the full complexity of the real person.
It is not just that Peter O'Toole is six-foot-two while Lawrence was five-foot-five. The real Lawrence was also a bewilderingly complex personality, a man of extraordinary talents, even genius, with a gift for friendship far beyond the ordinary. And, far from stumbling accidentally into the great adventure that turned him into Lawrence of Arabia, he set out even as a schoolboy with the ambition of becoming a general and being knighted before he was 30, ambitions that were well within his grasp by the age of 30, had he still wanted them.
It would not have surprised him that the Library of Congress lists over 100 books on the subject of T. E. Lawrence, no less than 56 of them biographies. There are also four children's books about him; two plays, one by George Bernard Shaw, one by Terence Rattigan; not one, but two films; a scholarly journal; and innumerable websites. For a man who died at the age of 46 and whose military achievements, however extraordinary, were squeezed into two years, that's a lot of words.
Lawrence's fame exceeded that of any other mortal during his own lifetime, in part because of Lowell Thomas's 1921 film lecture and travelogue With Lawrence in Arabia, which was seen by many millions of people in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the British Commonwealth. It was the world's first full-length documentary film in which sound was keyed to the action. It was also the first film ever to fill Madison Square Garden in New York City night after night, and the first film every played at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden at the personal request of King George V.
It was, at the dawn of the age of cinema, the first multimedia international show business sensation in which music, film, and still photographs were woven together with a master hand around a single real heroic figure—or, as Lowell Thomas called Lawrence, "the uncrowned king of Arabia, the prince of Mecca, and in the United States the George Washington of Arabia—the man who led the Arab tribes to victory in the desert, in their revolt against the Turks, and brought them out of the desert to capture Damascus and shatter the Ottoman Empire."
Lawrence's face was as famous and recognizable in his day as Princess Diana's was in hers and, like her, he struggled on the one hand to escape from that fame and on the other hand courted it.
Like her, he lived in the limelight. Like her, his every move was news. Like her, he was surrounded by photographers, the equivalent of what are now called paparazzi. Like her, he sat for more photographs, paintings, and sculptures than anyone else in his generation. Like her, he met a tragic early death in a road accident. And, like her, his demise was front-page news all over the world, with photographers trying desperately to get into the mortuary to take a picture of his corpse. And, like her, he was mourned by millions.
But who was Lawrence and what exactly did he do?
We live in an age when the word "hero" has become overused. We have become used to thinking of heroism as something that simply happens to people. Indeed, the word has been cheapened by the modern habit of calling everybody exposed to any kind of danger, whether voluntarily or not, a hero. Soldiers—indeed, anybody in uniform—are now commonly referred to as "our heroes," as if it were a universal quality shared by everyone who bears arms.
Lawrence, however, was a hero in the much older, classical sense of the word. It was surely no accident that his last written work was a much-admired translation of Homer's Odyssey, which is still in print.
And, like the heroes of old, he trained himself from early childhood for the role. Without the war, he might never have accomplished his ambition, but once war came, he was prepared for it both morally and physically.
He had schooled himself to an almost inhuman capacity to endure pain and to do without food and water. As a youth, he had walked barefoot in the desert. He had carefully honed his courage and studied the art of war. Like the young Napoleon Bonaparte, he was ready to assume the role of hero when fate presented him with the opportunity.
He seized it eagerly with both hands at the Battle of Aqaba in 1917; and, like Ajax, Achilles, and Ulysses, he could never let go of it, for no matter how hard Lawrence tried to escape from his own legend and fame, they stuck to him to the very end and beyond. He remains as famous today as ever. "His name will live in history," King George V wrote on Lawrence's death in 1935. And so it has.
I have chosen to begin my biography of Lawrence with the act that made him famous overnight: the taking of Aqaba.
By 1916, the First World War had become a deadly trap for all the nations involved. On the Western Front, the war had long since ground down to a bloody stalemate in the trenches, taking lives by the millions for little or no gain of ground. Attempts to break through were costly catastrophes. The German attack at Verdun cost them over 300,000 men and inflicted over 400,000 casualties on the French. The British attack at the first Battle of the Somme, begun to relieve the pressure on the French Army, would cost them nearly 600,000 casualties, 60,000 on the first day, the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army.
There were those who believed that there must be a better way of winning the war than that of battering one's head against a brick wall at the cost of millions of lives, and that perhaps attacking Germany's weakest ally, Turkey, might pay better dividends. And Lawrence was one of them.
However, a British attack on the Ottoman Empire, intended to open a year-round warm-water supply to Russia through the Straits of Dardanelles, ended in the disaster of Gallipoli, which cost the British, the Australians, and the New Zealanders over 49,000 dead, nearly 200,000 wounded or sickened by dysentery or malaria, including the admired poet Rupert Brooke, while another British Army advancing from Basra to take Baghdad was surrounded and besieged halfway there by the Turks at Kut al Imara.
The British War Cabinet sent a young intelligence officer, a temporary second-lieutenant and acting staff captain named T. E. Lawrence from Cairo, to offer Khalil Pasha, the Turkish commander, £1 million in gold to let the besieged British Army in Kut go, an offer which Khalil Pasha courteously refused over dinner.
T. E. Lawrence, a diffident dressed young Oxford scholar and archeologist in uniform—and mighty sloppy uniform at that—was never surprised at being in the thick of things. While there were those who were skeptical of him—one of his seniors in Cairo inquired shortly after Lawrence arrived there, "Who is this extraordinary pipsqueak?"—most people fell under his spell. He was brilliant, hard-working; he had made himself the foremost expert on the Turkish Army; full generals paid attention to what he had to say.
Thus, it was hardly surprising that in October 1916 Lawrence was sent to Jidda, the seaport of Mecca on the Red Sea, to appraise the sons of Hussein ibn Ali, the Sharif near Mecca, and to decide which one seemed the best for the British to support.
Though the Arab revolt had broken out in June 1916, it had so far made little headway against the Turks. True, they had been driven out of Mecca. But an Arab attack on Medina, some 200 miles to the north of Mecca, had been repulsed with heavy losses. The Bedouin tribes were brave, but they were not trained to fight a conventional war against a modern army, well entrenched and equipped with machine guns, artillery, and airplanes, as the Turks were.
There, in the stifling heat of Arabia, Lawrence described it inimitably in Seven Pillars of Wisdom: "The heat of Arabia came out like a drawn sword and smote us speechless."
Lawrence met with Abdulla, the second son of Sharif Hussein's five sons, and quickly dazzled Abdulla by his knowledge of the Turkish Army. He knew who commanded what division and how reliable its troops were, to the point where Abdulla cried out, "Is this man God to know everything?" In fact, Abdulla was so dazzled that he agreed to call his father—surprisingly, there was a telephone system in Mecca, in which Sharif Hussein's number was very appropriately Mecca-1 [Laughter]—and obtain his father's permission for Lawrence to ride inland.
To understand how extraordinary this was, you must keep in mind that Mecca and the desert around it was and remains holy land forbidden to foreigners and infidels.
Since nobody in Jidda seemed to know where the Arab Army was or what it was doing, Lawrence decided to go and find out. After a journey by sea to Rabegh, a port in British hands, he rode off into the desert by night accompanied by an Arab guide and his son. He traveled in Arab robes and headdress over his uniform, since there was a very good chance he would be murdered as a foreigner in uniform so near Mecca and Medina, two of the three holiest cities in the Muslim world (the third is Jerusalem).
After two days and nights of hard riding in blistering heat, he at last reached Wadi Safra, where Emir Faisal, the third of Hussein's sons, was camped with his defeated army, and met the leader he had been searching for. He wrote:
"I felt at the glance that now I had found the man whom I had come to Arabia to seek....He looked very tall and pillar-like, very slender, dressed in long white silk robes and a brown headcloth bound with brilliant scarlet and gold cord. His eyelids were drooped, and his close black beard and colourless face were like a mask against the strange still watchfulness of his body. His hands were crossed loosely in front of him on his dagger."
Lawrence almost immediately saw that taking Medina was neither possible nor necessary, that in his words the Turks' position at Medina was "all flanks and no front." Cutting the railway that ran from Damascus to Medina across almost 800 miles of desert would effectively keep several divisions of Turkish infantry busy defending their own supply line. What the Arab Army needed was a good port north of Medina to which the British could send small arms, gold, and supplies, and to take up guerrilla warfare rather than trying to assault the Turkish lines in Medina.
The port of Aqaba was well defended against attack from the sea, but the Turks did not believe it could be attacked from inland, across some of the harshest and most difficult desert terrain in Arabia.
With the help of the formidable Howeitat warrior Auda Abu Tayi, who had killed at least 70 people with his own hands in desert feuds—Auda did not bother to count Turks—Lawrence plunged off on a reconnaissance mission across the desert that took him all the way into Damascus itself, despite a price on his head. He then brought the pick of the desert tribes down through the mountains to take Aqaba from the rear, where it was undefended.
Aqaba made him an instant hero. He was recommended for the Victoria Cross. But, since there were no British witnesses to his feat, he was instead made a Companion of the Order of the Bath, an extraordinary honor for a 29-year-old junior officer, one which he shared with Nelson and the Duke of Wellington. Lawrence did not decline it—indeed, he could not—but he ignored it, as he would every other honor he was awarded.
He already knew about the Sykes-Picot Agreement, in which the British and the French had agreed to carve up the Middle East between themselves, and that what the Arabs were fighting for, a single unified nation stretching from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf, they would never get.
The two years in which Lawrence fought with such extraordinary bravery and skill were therefore agonizing to him. He felt that he was leading the Arabs on false promises, and hoped that by capturing Damascus before the British and the French could get there, they might establish an Arab government and win their independence in the eyes of the world.
It was this sense of guilt, intensified by Lawrence's personal experience when he was taken, though unrecognized, by the Turks at Daraa as he walked in to study the town's defenses and subjected to terrible beatings and to a gruesome gang rape, that made Lawrence the most poignant and unwilling of great heroes, one who despised himself for having failed the Arabs and for having surrendered himself to violent sexual abuse.
Lawrence created a new kind of warfare, one in which he deliberately avoided conventional battles and instead inflicted on the enemy an endless series of what he called "pinpricks," in which the Arabs would ride out of the desert, blow up a train or a bridge, inflict casualties, and then disappear back into the desert where the Turks could not follow them. They would then regroup and attack again somewhere else the next day. By these tactics, a handful of men armed only with explosives and light weapons could paralyze an army.
What he did should sound familiar to us today. In describing the war in Afghanistan, for instance, The New York Times recently had thisto say about our Taliban opponents:
"They are a resilient, canny insurgency that has bled American forces through a war of small cuts. The insurgents set the war's pace, usually fighting on ground of their own choosing and then slipping away. Sabotage and trickery have been weapons every bit as potent as their small arms, mortars, or suicide bombers."
Every word of this might have been written by or about Lawrence. It is how he taught the Arab Army to fight, and he used it to bring down a vastly bigger and better equipped army and to undermine a large and powerful empire.
He himself described attempts to put down such a guerrilla force as "like eating soup with a knife: messy and slow." The tactics of our enemies today are exactly those which Lawrence devised 94 years ago.
Lawrence brought the Arabs victory, but he could not bring them what they had fought for, a single unitary Arab state stretching from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf, with Damascus as its capital.
Raised to the heights of fame by his achievements, he was at the same time crippled by his sense of failure. He went on to try and secure the Arabs' independence at the War Cabinet in London and at the Peace Conference after the war. He became their spokesman in Britain, lobbying at the very highest levels, including the King and Prime Minister David Lloyd George. Eventually, turning himself into a diplomat, he joined the Colonial Office at the personal request of Winston Churchill and played a major role in the creation of Jordan and Iraq. Indeed, the carved frontiers of the Middle East were in part Lawrence's creation.
He foresaw many of the problems that haunt us still in the Middle East and tried to prevent them, almost succeeding in getting the British to agree to a joint Arab and Zionist rule in Palestine and to an independent Kurdish state. But in the end the greed of the French for territory and of the British for oil was too much for Lawrence to overcome.
Exhausted by the effort of writing his 400,000-word account of the Arab revolt, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and at exactly the same moment when Lowell Thomas was making him famous with his film and lecture, Lawrence tried to step out of the limelight by enlisting under a false name in the ranks of the infant Royal Air Force. Naturally, he did not succeed.
His life became a succession of failed attempts to vanish from the headlines, interrupted by tremendous bursts of publicity. Each book he wrote—Seven Pillars, The Mint, his translation of The Odyssey—made him more famous despite himself.
It did him no good to turn down his decorations, to change his name, to decline the offer of a knighthood from the King, or to have himself posted as an airman to the borders of far-away Afghanistan to escape the attention of the press. His fans followed him everywhere. In the end, he only eluded them by his death in a motorcycle accident in 1935, which was of course headline news throughout the world.
He was 46 when he died. In his short lifetime he had done more than any other man to shape the future of the Middle East. He had accomplished feats of heroism seldom equaled by anyone. He had borne the burden of self-imposed guilt, written one of the great classics of English literature, and come closer than anyone has since to the creation of a Palestine in which both the Jews and the Arabs might live in peace. Two Arab royal families, those of Iraq and Jordan, owed him their lands and their thrones.
However, the first thing to keep in mind about Lawrence is that his wartime exploits represent only two years out of his life; that his books mattered more to him than this wartime adventures; that his friends from 1918 to his death included Winston Churchill, Bernard Shaw, Thomas Hardy, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, E.M. Forster, Nancy Astor, and Noël Coward; and that throughout his short lifetime he had an extraordinary effect on people and events.
He was not merely a hero. With no effort on his part, he became the symbol for innumerable other heroes whose names were not remembered, who fought or who died in World War I. He became a painful but glamorous reminder of not only the sacrifices that had been made in that war, but of the failures that had taken place after it at the Peace Conference and elsewhere—the broken promises, the hasty and misjudged frontiers, the greed for oil that had led to the dismemberment of the Middle East, and much else.
Lawrence reminded people constantly—by his work, by his fame, by his highly visible public atonement, by his very presence—of what might have been achieved after the Allied victory and was not.
Nobody understood this better than Lawrence himself, who wrote in a passage that might serve as the defining anthem of the lost generation, and of the work of writers like Ernest Hemingway in America, Henri Barbusse in France, Robert Graves in England: "We lived many lives in those whirling campaigns, never sparing ourselves any good or evil: yet when we achieved and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took from us our victory to re-make it in the likeness of the former world they knew."
These words are constantly quoted about the 1920s and the 1930s, even by people who do not know that they are from Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
Lawrence was, without having sought to become it, a glowing and sacrificial figure. He was the symbol for the heroism and sacrifice of the 1914-1918 war and for the failure of the combatant countries to live up to the ideals for which that war had been fought, and for the peace treaty which plunged us into a new world war only 20 years after the old one ended.
He carried that burden, the down-side of his glittering celebrity, until his death. Hence his continuing fame three-quarters of a century after he died.
Nobody described himself better than Lawrence did. He wrote:
"All men dream: but not equally.
Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their
Minds wake in the day to find that it was but
vanity; but the dreamers of the day are
dangerous men, for they may act their dream
with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did."
Questions and Answers
QUESTION: James Starkman. Thank you for a wonderful talk.
MICHAEL KORDA: Thank you.
QUESTIONER: You seem to have quite an affinity for the underdog. Lawrence was certainly a great historical figure. You have also written a book about a nation of underdogs, With Wings Like Eagles: A History of the Battle of Britain. I was wondering why you chose Lawrence to talk to us today as opposed to The Battle of Britain.
MICHAEL KORDA: I would have talked about The Battle of Britain if I had been asked to.
I have an unconscious affinity with the underdog. I'm not quite sure how it developed.
What brought me to Ulysses S. Grant was that he was so clearly an underdog who succeeded, but who nevertheless kept on feeling that he was an underdog, even when he was commander in chief of all the Union armies, and even when he was elected twice to the presidency of the United States.
There's no question that everybody thought that the Royal Air Force in 1939 was the underdog when compared to the German Luftwaffe, although everybody was wrong about that. It's certainly one of the attractions of the Battle of Britain that we, the Royal Air Force and we as British, were the underdogs who succeeded against a very powerful enemy.
Ike was an underdog, in the sense that he certainly did not shine at West Point, and late in his army career he was still a lieutenant colonel and never expected to rise higher. Indeed, his highest ambition was to be promoted to the rank of colonel, and he did not think it would ever happen.
Lawrence is an underdog of a very special kind. He was recognized at an early age as brilliant. He was physically extraordinarily tough despite how short he was. And yet nobody looking at him or thinking about him could ever anticipate that there burned in him this enormous desire not only to lead troops to victory, without any precise notion of who those troops might be—he wasn't fussy—but to remake nations. He saw himself as a maker of nations.
I find it most interesting that Lawrence's vision of himself was so clear as a young person, and remained clear. He was willing to make such sacrifices and endure such pain in order to bring it about, and that fate handed him, in effect, the Arabs and the Middle East as the place in which he would carry these things out, almost by accident, and that, once it had happened, it was too much for him to bear and support. The fame and celebrity, was oppressive to him because of a sense of personal guilt and failure.
The fact is that Lawrence is sort of ingrained in my DNA because when I was a child, I constantly heard stories about him. My uncle Alexander Korda had bought from Lawrence the motion picture rights to Revolt in the Desert, the condensation of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which is a much more readable book in some ways. My uncle knew Lawrence in the year before Lawrence's death, and they corresponded frequently with each other about the film, which Lawrence did not want to have made while he was alive.
My father Vincent Korda was going to do the art direction, scenery, and costumes for it; my uncle Zoltan Korda was going to be the director; Leslie Howard was going to play Lawrence; the film script was prepared and written by Miles Malleson, who later went on to become a very famous English character actor; and Winston Churchill, who was then on the payroll of London Films because he was in between powerful roles in the 1930s and needed help in supporting an ambitious and extravagant lifestyle on practically no income.
In the end, Alex did not make the film. The British government was very firmly opposed to a film which might enrage the Arabs by showing them as having been led by a young British officer and enrage the Turks by showing just how monstrously cruel they had been throughout Arabia.
Alex, who was never one to proceed in something that wasn't going to happen, converted that into sending my uncle Zoltan and my father into the Middle East to make The Four Feathers. Unable to make one desert film, he switched quickly to make another desert film, and it was an enormous success. He wasn't at all concerned or worried by it.
After the war, Alex liked to say that he bought books, properties, plays, short stories, and so forth as a kind of investment in the future. He thuoght that in his old age, which unfortunately he never reached, he would use them to finance his lifestyle.
When Sam Spiegel evinced an interest in making Lawrence of Arabia, he had to go to Alex and buy from him not just the rights to Revolt in the Desert, but all my father's sketches, the screenplay, and everything else that was associated with it, which they settled over a quick—well, not that quick—but over a good lunch in Annabelle's.
At the end of the lunch, Sam asked my Uncle Alex if there was anything else Alex would like to get out of his filing cabinets. Alex described a book he had bought the rights to recently, called African Queen.
Sam said, "That sounds good. I'll buy that too if the price is right."
My uncle Alex, in one of his rare misjudgments, said, "My poor dear Sam, an old man and an old woman go down an African river in a boat. You will go bankrupt." [Laughter]
As he was fond of saying, and indeed said at the Academy Awards when the first non-American film won an Academy Award, which was his The Private Life of Henry VIII, "Even a Hungarian can be wrong." [Laughter]
When I was 13 or 14, for my birthday I was given a priceless edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom. I grew up surrounded by people who had either known or admired Lawrence. I joined the Royal Air Force in part because Lawrence had been in the Royal Air Force under various assumed names. At the age of 17, I got my first motorcycle, and kept on riding motorcycles until finally a heart attack in Central Park made my doctors and my wife Margaret lay down the law and say, "That's enough of the motorcycles."
Without consciously saying that I emulated or followed Lawrence, he was really a kind of living presence to me. I would have felt wrong not to have written this book, because Lawrence is largely shaped in people's minds by two different kinds of books: one which takes the view that everything that Lawrence said was a lie, that everything that he did was flawed, and that everything he accomplished was useless, if he accomplished it indeed at all.
The other, takes the view that Lawrence was a kind of secular saint and, what's more, that he sought for a kind of secular sainthood, that his joining the Royal Air Force under an assumed name was the equivalent of a Medieval person joining a monastery and renouncing all secular life.
None of these things is true about Lawrence, and I therefore very much wanted to produce a more balanced, fair appreciation of Lawrence. It is sympathetic to him, because I admire and like him enormously, but also I try to balance out those two extreme views of him because neither one of them is true without the other.
It was a really fascinating task, not just to unravel what Lawrence said about himself—almost nobody in the history of Great Britain has ever written more letters than Lawrence. The most daunting thing for anybody writing a biography of him is the sheer quantity of Lawrence's letters, how fascinating they are, how long they are, and how really weird it is that he was able to write them in the moonlight, leaning against a camel, with a pencil and army requisition forms. There was never a moment that he was not writing.
The portrait that emerges from those letters is of such an interesting man and such a likable man, of such a tormented and tortured man, that it is really extraordinarily interesting to write what I think about him at all.
It has been a great pleasure and an honor. I have come in writing the book—which sometimes happens to biographers—to like him more when I finished the book than I did when I began it.
QUESTION: Edith Everett.
Did Lawrence have any special concern or affection for the Arabs, or was it a question of history and geography?
MICHAEL KORDA: Lawrence had a deep personal affection for the Arabs.
One of the things that is clearest in starting Lawrence's campaigns is how bitterly he rejected the notion that the Arabs could be used as an ordinary fighting army. He resented and was very often extremely angry about any Arab casualties.
He understood that the Arabs in those day—and still to a certain degree today—fought as tribes and clans. Therefore, the kind of mindless casualties inflicted upon the French, British, German, and Russian armies in the First World War would have been unthinkable to the Arabs, because every one lost was a person known to them.
They did not think of themselves as an Arab nation; they thought of themselves as part of a clan, that the clan was part of a tribe; the tribe owed an allegiance to some larger entity, but not to an enormous entity. It was always somebody that you knew and to whose tent you could go and to whom you could bring your problems.
Lawrence absolutely loved that world. He went straight to it. Even in his last year as an undergraduate at Oxford, he spent the years from 1911-1914 working as an archaeologist in Syria and what is now Iraq. His closest friend in life was an Arab donkey boy named Dahoum, with whom Lawrence had what can only be described as an intense personal relationship, but almost certainly not of a sexual nature.
If Lawrence had allowed himself a release from the really savage sexual repression in which he held himself all his life, then he would have chosen Dahoum as the person with whom he wanted to share his life. But he also accepted the impossibility of that both from Dahoum's point of view and from the point of view of the Arabs as well as the British.
He loved the Arabs. The story of his participation in the Paris Peace Conference—the fact that the most memorable moment in most people's memoirs of the Paris Peace Conference was Lawrence pleading for the Arabs in his robes. The Council of Ten, the prime ministers and presidents of the chief allied nations, met at Paris and applauded him, something which they did for nobody else.
He was willing to suffer, would have been willing to die for, and was passionate for the Arabs. But it must never be thought that he pretended in any way to be an Arab, or would have tried to pretend to be an Arab, or thought that he could be an Arab. He had the extraordinary ability to remain what he was—a short, pink-skinned, blond, blue-eyed Oxford Englishman. Yet he was able to join into Arab life to a most extraordinary degree. He had the capacity to do that.
When he stopped, he almost ended it as if cut by a knife, when he left Damascus in 1918, after he and Faisal took Damascus, and went back to England, he never intended to return to the Middle East. He only went back, most reluctantly, when Winston Churchill asked him to.
There are two wonderful scenes of Lawrence in 1919 in what is now the West Bank of Jordan with Sir Herbert Samuel and Winston Churchill, in which the Arab Bedouin tribes ride out of the desert.
Lawrence is standing there in a grey suit and civilian shoes, hat, collar, and tie, and these glamorous, exotic figures by the thousands come riding out of the desert on their camels and horses, firing their rifles and this pistols in the air, and riding around Lawrence and crying, "Orence, Orence, Orence" (which is how they pronounced Lawrence's name), and Winston Churchill remarked, "He could have been the emperor of the East. He had only to say the word and they would have followed him anywhere."
There is another wonderful scene in which he and Samuels and Churchill were standing in front of a crowd of Arabs in Jerusalem who were shouting, and Churchill took them to be applauding him, which is a natural thing for any politician. He is standing there doffing his hat to them. They are shouting and gesticulating and he is doffing his hat. He finally turns to Lawrence and says, "What are they saying?" Lawrence says, "Death to the Jews." [Laughter]
What's hard to convey is Lawrence's sense of humor, which except at the worst of events, like his gang rape and beating at the hands of the Turks, is always present. I am sure that I would love to have known him.
QUESTION: William Verdone. Thank you very much, sir.
Lawrence was larger than life. I'm curious if you might know of any monuments to him in that part of the world, or indeed in England.
MICHAEL KORDA: Thank you.
In England we have not only no lack of monuments to Lawrence, we may even have a surplus. The Kennington bust of Lawrence faces Nelson in the crypt of St. Paul's Cathedral, which is absolutely the right place for him, because he and Nelson were about the same height and they were both very slender. They were also both vain and arrogant and did their very best to hide it behind a mask of humility and modesty. Nelson was a womanizer and Lawrence was not at all a womanizer. But his position there is appropriate.
However, if you go to Jesus College in Oxford, you will find the famous 1919 portrait by Augustus John of Lawrence.
If you go to All Souls College in Oxford, you will find his robes, his gold dagger that he bought in Mecca, and another portrait of Lawrence.
At Moreton in the church there is Kennington's life-size effigy of Lawrence in Arab robes, clutching his dagger, with his head on a camel saddle, carved out of marble.
There are probably more statues and paintings of Lawrence than there are of anybody else in English life except Nelson.
In the Middle East, no. Lawrence is not popular in the Middle East because nobody in the Middle East wants to be reminded that the British had anything to do with the Arab revolt. Lawrence's exercises in self-inflicted guilt and his very strong impulse towards sadomasochism are regarded with some amazement and contempt among Arabs. On the whole they felt very strongly that David Lean's film exploited the Arabs on behalf of Lawrence despite Omar Sharif's wonderful performance.
So no, in the Arab world not only will you not find a monument to Lawrence; to be honest with you, the part of the Arab world that Lawrence was most interested in is sufficiently religious to abhor the making of any human image. Even if in Riyadh, which is unlikely, they wanted a statue to Lawrence, you would probably have your head cut off for making one. So no, he is not celebrated in the Arab world as he is in ours.
QUESTION: My name is Kevin McMullen.
I have a question about the Arabs who were in the Turkish Army. If I remember correctly, in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom Lawrence talks about Arabs being generals in the Turkish Army, including on that front, and how some of them were actually part of the conspiracy to establish an Arab national state. One of the generals who was supposed to take over in Damascus couldn't because the Turks had appointed him to be in charge of the retreat. What role, if any, were those officers able to play in the Turkish disintegration on that front?
If you were a general and you want to keep your head in that situation, you're not going to do anything obviously stupid, but there can be alternatives that one might consider that would play into the hands of the nationalist revolt.
MICHAEL KORDA: Let me say first of all that a peculiarity of the Ottoman Empire is—and one must to a substantial degree admire the Turks for this—that a relatively small group of passionately self-contained Turks managed to hold together for several centuries one of the most improbable, ramshackle, poorly developed empires that the world has ever seen, in which the only uniting bond among citizens of the Ottoman Empire was a hatred for the Turks.
Armenians, Maronite Christians, Orthodox Jews, Zionists, Arabs both Shiite and Sunni—hardly any of the people who lived in the Turkish Empire wanted to be in it.
The Turks, very cleverly, divided and conquered people by favoring people. They even moved people into areas where they would be hated more than the Turks were hated to provide everybody with an object to hate that wasn't Turkish.
They did that with the survivors of the Armenian massacre. They killed 1,500,000 Armenians, but those Armenians who remained moved into places where the Armenians would be hated more than the Turks.
You have to picture the Turkish Army as having regiments that were essentially, as they were in the English Army, ethnic in characteristic. They didn't mix Arabs and Turks in the same regiment, but there were Arab regiments in the Turkish Army, there were Arab generals in the Turkish Army. You're right, the governor of Damascus was an Arab.
All of these people were in one way or another in communication with other Arabs about Arab independence. Anybody who lived in the Middle East could tell, as Lawrence could tell even as an undergraduate in 1911, that the whole thing was going to collapse.
It was instinctive in people to play both sides and to have a connection with both sides. As late as 1918, Faisal was still in correspondence with General Pasha, who was the Turk who had charge of all the Arab lands and who had killed tens of thousands of Arab nationalists.
Everybody knew that the Turkish Empire would come to an end, but whether it would come to an end in war or in negotiation remained to be seen. In addition to which, among the Arabs there was a passionate determination not to exchange being Turkish subjects in the Ottoman Empire for becoming British or French subjects in the French or the British colonial empires.
You have to imagine that there is a level of double-dealing present in the politics of the Turkish Empire that is almost unthinkable and that perhaps Lawrence understood better than anybody in the world. He had himself a most politically complicitous nature, a real ability to hide feelings and thoughts. He had a Machiavellian side to him which was almost as valuable as his genius for guerrilla warfare.
So yes, Arabs played very important roles in the Turkish Empire, and always had. But they always kept their options open in favor of Arab independence when the opportunity came.
JOANNE MYERS: Just as Lawrence was living presence in your life, you made him come alive for us. I thank you very much.
MICHAEL KORDA: Thank you very much for having me.