History: March 2008 Archives

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.

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