By Harlan Garbell
Recently I read an article that mentioned a scene from the great 1962 historical epic, “Lawrence of Arabia,” the film based on the life of T. E. Lawrence. In this scene a man has fallen off his camel during the night in the desert and is inadvertently left behind by his comrades, presumably to die. Lawrence (played by Peter O’Toole) wants to go back and look for him. Sherif Ali, the Bedouin leader (played by Omar Sharif), objects. Another Bedouin agrees: “Gasim’s time has come, Lawrence. It is written.” Lawrence angrily replies: “Nothing is written.”
In spite of these objections, Lawrence goes back and rescues Gasim to the amazement, and complete exhilaration, of the men in Ali’s cavalry.
The scene takes place prior to a daring military campaign that has been planned by Lawrence. The plan is for Ali’s cavalry to cross the desert and surprise the Ottomans (i.e. the Turks) from their rear and seize the strategic fortress guarding the Red Sea port of Aqaba. Ali remains dubious as to the wisdom of the plan and the prospects for its success. He knows how unforgiving the desert can be and is wary of a major battle against a more heavily armed, technologically superior foe.
So, why did the director of the film, David Lean, insert this scene about Gasim into the movie? Lawrence knew that in order to convince Ali and his men of the merits of the plan he had to win their trust. The scene demonstrates Lawrence’s personal courage and his ability to navigate alone in the desert, attributes highly prized by Bedouins. Lawrence further understood that he needed to exhibit an aura of supreme confidence in himself in order to win the confidence of the suspicious tribesmen.
But there is another, perhaps more subtle, reason as well. Ali is leading a coalition of Arab tribes against the Ottoman Empire, which is allied with the Germans against the British. Lawrence, who is advising Ali on how to prosecute the war, is promoting a particularly upper-class British point of view that through their innate characteristics, the elite representatives of this faraway island are able to impose their will on historical events through courage and self-discipline. Of course, this Darwinian-like attitude strongly suggests that the cultural fatalism and superstition of the Arab tribes is not only misplaced, but self-defeating.
At the height of the British Empire, Lawrence’s attitude was the prevailing view, or ethos, that inspired colorful adventurers, explorers, and soldiers to further the interests, influence, and power of the Empire. For sure, fate (e.g. the weather, accidents) plays a part in human events. However, a British soldier/adventurer would view these as obstacles to be overcome, reflecting his superior upbringing and breeding.
Returning to the plot, this scene then sets up the later battle scene in the movie where, against all odds, Ali and Lawrence lead the cavalry to a stunning victory in the subsequent attack against the Turks at Aqaba. As the story progresses, and the Bedouin army wins even more battles, Lawrence becomes the
quasi-mythical strategic genius behind what historians now refer to as the “Arab Revolt” of World War I. (With the considerable help of American writer Lowell Thomas, who widely publicized Lawrence’s feats.)
Ironically, the ultimate “reward” for the Arabs’ successful revolt is that the British and French are substituted for the Turks as colonial overseers of the newly formed Arab nations. The Western powers redraw the map of the Middle East to suit their interests, which becomes formalized after the war at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Prince Faisal, next in line to rule the Arab tribes, was promised earlier by the British that he would rule a united Arab nation from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Instead he is installed as the nominal king of just a portion of that Empire —Iraq. The former Arab citizens of the Ottoman Empire, and the tribes and clans they belonged to, are then assigned new nationalities within the arbitrary boundaries drawn from this defeated empire.
In looking back a hundred years at the history of the Middle East, some historians have persuasively argued that the so-called “victory” of Lawrence and the Arabs was actually a historical disaster of major proportions. The Ottomans, for all their corruption and backwardness, were generally tolerant and benign rulers who managed to keep their Arab populations at peace with each other for four centuries.
Unfortunately, the carving up of the Ottoman Empire after World War I served to set in motion a perpetual cascade of coups, insurrections, and wars. Many of these events, often very violent, were due to tribal or confessional conflicts as opposed to national ones. Periodically, the dictators of some of these new nations even exhibited genocidal behavior against their own citizens, which continues tragically today. In retrospect, these historians argue that the real blunderers were the Western imperial powers who intervened in a region for their own geopolitical purposes and failed to foresee the unintended consequences of their incessant scheming.
Which brings us to the reverse side of the same coin that “nothing is written,” and that humans can control events by the sheer force of will, intelligence, and power. This is the Ancient Greek concept of “hubris.” To the Ancient Greeks, hubris was considered a fatal flaw of humans (usually men) in which overconfidence brings down tragic heroes. Overconfidence often leads the hero in seeking to exceed his natural human limitations and assume godlike characteristics. Of course, the gods are jealous of their superior status and punish the offender.
An excellent modern-day example of hubris was the invasion of Iraq by the United States in 2003, at the instigation of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and others. Like the Western powers of World War I, the U.S. thought that by using its military power it could rearrange the dynamics of an Arab society it knew little about. Not only did it fail dramatically to achieve its strategic goal of spreading democracy in the Middle East, it unleashed dark forces that led to untold misery, death, and destruction. It did not foresee the chaos and other unintended consequences of its policies and actions. For all of its efforts, the lives lost and ruined, and the trillions of dollars wasted, the U.S. was defeated-ignominiously.
Getting back to the hero of our story, when Lawrence learned about the treachery of his own government, he started having serious misgivings about the role he played in this historical drama. He went to the Paris conference for purposes of lobbying the delegations of the victorious parties, who were in the midst of determining the geographical and political fortunes of nations around the world. Fluent in Arabic, and deeply knowledgeable of Arab culture and politics, Lawrence argued for the reversal of their misguided plans for the Middle East. His efforts, along with those of Prince Faisal, failed.
After the Paris Peace Conference Lawrence went back to England, hoping to slip back into obscurity. He still had a taste for adventure though, even enlisting in the Royal Air Force under an assumed name. But he also had a passion for writing that never ebbed. Aside from his famous account of his adventures during the Arab Revolt, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, he also spent four years (1928-31) translating The Odyssey of Homer from the Ancient Greek. (Yes, he knew that language as well.) Perhaps Lawrence undertook this task because he knew that The Odyssey is filled with stories about fate, hubris, and betrayal. Experiences he was intimately familiar with during his days fighting in the desert.
Note: Because “Lawrence of Arabia” was primarily intended for American and European audiences, it served to reinforce a prevailing 1962 Western cultural perception that the West was superior in all things military, political, and cultural. Even today, some of us may be tempted to display a kind of hubris regarding the purported cultural superiority of the West over some non-European cultures that may still embrace a fatalistic approach to events. But consider this, how many of us have ridden a temperamental camel in the desert during a blinding sandstorm?
Harlan Garbell is HumanistsMN president.