Greed, intrigue, Lawrence of Arabia

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By MARY FOSTER

T.E. Lawrence told his version of the Arab revolt, building the legend of Lawrence of Arabia and the intrigue of that time.

In Setting the Desert on Fire: T.E. Lawrence and Britain's Secret War in Arabia, 1916-1918 (W.W. Norton & Company, 352 pages, $27.95), James Barr tells a wider but no less fascinating tale of the revolt and the present-day consequences for the Middle East.

Setting the Desert on Fire

The Turks jumped into World War I on the side of Germany. Their leader declared jihad against the British and their allies. The Turks had controlled much of the Middle East and North Africa for 400 years and expected the Arabs to follow their lead.

Instead, Sharif Hussein, ruler of Mecca, used the moment as an opportunity to curry favor with the British. Hussein wanted more than good will, however, he had a list of demands that he presented to British commissioner Henry McMahon. McMahon in turn assured Hussein that in return for their aid, the British would make sure the Arabs were independent and grant them land stretching across much of the modern middle east.

In Setting the Desert on Fire, Barr shows it was a lie that brought disastrous effects that are still resonating today.

Barr turns history into a drama, with bright writing and a fascinating cast of characters.

‘‘A gunshot and the tinkle of broken glass on the ship’s deck abruptly ended Ronald Storr’s brief siesta,’’ Barr writes as he details Storr’s trip down the Red Sea in a ship ‘‘crammed dangerously full with secret supplies for this tribal uprising against the Ottomans.’’

His four years of searching archives in Europe and crossing the deserts of the Middle East allowed Barr to turn out a colorful slice of history. He gives a fresh look at Lawrence, pointing out that he did not start the revolt and giving credence to doubts that he was captured and abused by the Turks.

Barr not only shows that the British government never expected to have to honor its vague assurances to Hussein, he shows the way that falsity led to many of the current problems between the West and the Middle East.

‘‘Just as Hussein was armed by the British government in 1916, Osama bin Laden was one of those armed by the U.S. government in the 1980s to fight a war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan,’’ Barr writes in the epilogue.

And after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, bin Laden left no doubt that his memory was long and bitter, ‘‘our nation has been tasting humiliation and contempt for more than 80 years.’’

‘‘In 2003 he added, ‘As I speak, our wounds have yet to heal ... from the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 between France and Britain, which brought about the dissection of the Islamic world into fragments.’’’

AP

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This page contains a single entry by Teresa Budasi published on March 24, 2008 4:13 PM.

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