Setting the Desert on Fire: T.E. Lawrence and Britain's Secret War in Arabia, 1916-18 (Anglais) Broché – 18 juin 2007
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At the heart of this book is T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), and his extraordinarily daring, brave and probably short sighted actions. There seems to be tendency these days to dismiss the Legend of Lawrence (partly created by his own writings), but Mr. Barr's assessment of his involvements take an intelligently balanced point of view. His involvement in the story does provide a dynamic end engaging drive, but there are many other equally important characters in the narrative. The author gives particularly welcome insight into the significant parts that Sharif Husein and Sharif Feisel play in the encouragement of Arab revolt against the Turks.
As a whole this book takes us through the events in detail, carefully mapping out the positions of the Turks, British, French and Arabs along the way, whilst placing the whole vital but small-scale actions in the context of the mass slaughter going on in France at the time. However, what really brings this book alive, and completes its important accessibility are the contemporary insights of the author. A trip by Mr. Barr to the site of the Hijaz railway and the various towns in the area provides numerous connections to the present day. This creates a freshness and energy that helps the reader to visualize the place and time with clarity and texture.
Lawrence's story--Seven Pillars of Wisdom (abridged as Revolt in the Desert) helped keep the legend alive after WW I. But being a legend, creating a legend, and narrating legendary deeds (in a sometimes self-serving way) isn't always as enjoyable as you might think. Lawrence had to become Private Shaw to achieve anonimity. For a long time, the legend was the history: Seven Pillars of Wisom was the historical reference. Then there were books from the Arab point of view, often belittling many of Lawrence's claims. And, of course, we have Peter O'Toole on camelback. What is needed is a sorting-out. What actually happened? What was the larger picture? Barr's book does an exemplary job here.
Barr puts everything in perspective: how Lawrence got involved (he nearly didn't get involved at all in the conflict), the incessant tribal conflicts and loyalties, the clashing personalities on both the Arab and British sides, and, most of all, the politics. Arabia was a sideshow to the Western Front, but it had vital strategic importance. The Suez Canal was gravely threatened, and immense turmoil could have been caused among the Moslems in British India. So the British wanted a strategic victory, or at least a strategic stalemate in the area. They also wanted to maintain control after the war ended. The French had an interest in Syria, and felt that they would have to control Syria after the war. So the British were happy to make lots of promises which they figured they could renegotiate or break after the war, and were willing to supply money and a few supplies and an advisor or two--such as Lawrence. They also made agreements with the French, often diametrically opposite of what they had promised the Arabs.
So what you get here is a well-written tale of deeds, setting mines under railroad tracks, politics, promises, personalities. Barr visited many of the sites to get a firsthand feel of the area, and there are plenty of photos showing remains of trains blown up by Lawrence during the war. You get the overall picture, and you get a balanced perspective. Barr will tell you when he thinks Lawrence is exaggerating or dissembling. Lawrence remains a magnificent figure in the book--it's not anti-Lawrence. We need to put the legend in context, and we've needed this book for a long time!
The book is well researched with copious notes and references and extensive bibliography. There are also photographs of many of the people and places mentioned in the text. The book examines the reason for Britain's involvement in the region, the tensions between the India Office and its support for the ibn Saud family and the Egypt Office and its support for the ibn Husain family and the tensions between the Arab tribes themselves and the lack of a clear aim for the revolt. It also examines in some detail how the British government wanted to distance itself from the Sykes-Picot accord as the war progressed and the French insistence that it be honoured.
The only criticism I have is that the author has a tendency to interpose his own observations of the sites of events in the middle of the text about those events without the benefit of separate paragraph. Apart from this the book is an excellent read and well worth its purchase for anyone interested in the region, the desert revolt or T. E. Lawrence.
The writing is, particularly in the beginning, slightly sloppy, cliche-ridden, and self-indulgent, but the narrative demonstrates careful and exhaustive research. However, the final page's attempt to make this story relevant to the current Middle East struggle, by claiming that Britain's failed pledges to the Arabs in 1918 are what created Osama bin Laden, is nonsense.
The author's style of inserting independent clauses in the middle of almost every sentence drove me to the brink of insanity. I became so distracted by the horrid habit, I lost track of what was being described and focussed on the sheer agony of knowing every thought of writing would be interrupted by a set of commas and literary noise.
The over-descriptiveness initially seemed helpful and provided imagery, but after one chapter I could not stand it. The author obviously knows what he is talking about factually, but his style kills the brilliance of his work.
I had to give it a single star, because as much as I respected the author's knowledge of the subject, I absolutely hated the grinding pain I endured trying to plow through it.
I recommend the biographical work "Hero" instead of this book.
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