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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Those expecting a novel (the cover art may fool you) or an easy read will be disappointed. The title is from Lawrence's description of Emir Feisal in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and Lawrence took the photograph used for the cover. (He used photography as an archeologist and map maker before the war.) The book is well sourced; it has a bibliography, an index, footnotes, maps, and a list of people. The list was very helpful, because this is a story with dozens of characters. Barr inserts little descriptions of places he visited during his research. I found these interesting. Some places haven't changed much in a hundred years; other places (like Aqaba) are completely transformed.
Setting the Desert On Fire isn't about Lawrence of Arabia, it is about Britain's role in the Arab Revolt. Lawrence was an important part of the story, so he's used as the fulcrum. The romantic image of Lawrence of Arabia was used to sell the book. This is unfortunate, but I'm glad I wasn't put off by the publisher's marketing.
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.
Chapter 19 on the Dera episode is perhaps somewhat unkind. Of course one cannot not be perfectly clear on the single missing page in Lawrence's diary. I would have like to have seen photos of the adjacent pages, a mention of the possibility that Mrs. Shaw may have removed it, a mention of evidence going against the author's theory (in that there is a statement of a military doctor who treated Lawrence soon after the Dera incident and there are statements by other colleagues saying that they did not question that the event did in fact occur and why).
One never is able to chose the order of their books, but this book is best savored after reading Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922 Oxford Edition), Safety Last, and Orientations. Better to read the word of TEL's fellow officers before taking on the modern perspective.
The author obviously loves his subject and has done his work extremely well.
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