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A thrilling and revelatory narrative of one of the most epic and consequential periods in 20th-century history: the Arab Revolt and the secret game to control the Middle East.
The Arab revolt against the Turks in World War I was, in the words of T. E. Lawrence, "a sideshow of a sideshow". As a result, the conflict was shaped to a remarkable degree by a small handful of adventurers and low-level officers far removed from the corridors of power. Curt Prüfer was an academic attached to the German embassy in Cairo whose clandestine role was to foment jihad against British rule. Aaron Aaronsohn was a renowned agronomist and committed Zionist who gained the trust of the Ottoman governor of Palestine even as he built an elaborate anti-Ottoman spy ring. William Yale was a fallen scion of the American aristocracy who traveled the Ottoman Empire on behalf of Standard Oil, dissembling to the Turks in order to gain valuable oil concessions. At the center of it all was Lawrence. In early 1914 he was an archaeologist digging ruins in Syria; by 1917 he was riding into legend at the head of an Arab army, as he fought a rear guard action against his own government and its imperial ambitions.
Based on four years of intensive primary document research, Lawrence in Arabiadefinitively overturns received wisdom on how the modern Middle East was formed. Sweeping in its action, keen in its portraiture, acid in its condemnation of the destruction wrought by European colonial plots, this is a book that brilliantly captures the way in which the folly of the past creates the anguish of the present.
In this well-researched, detailed but highly interesting story, Scott Anderson travels back to World War I and the tottering Ottoman Empire to set the stage for the Middle East we know now. Lawrence of Arabia has a large role, but it's not primarily his story -- it's the story of how war, oil, greed, imperialism, chicanery, empty promises and personalities interacted to fertilize the creation of Saudi Arabia, Israel (then known as Palestine), Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and their neighbors.
T.E. Lawrence is the flywheel of the story, and his deeds lubricate the story, but there is oh so much more, from a wide range of Zionists to the scion of the family that founded Yale, to the Turks and Arabs and military leaders who had a hand in the battles and negotiations. Lawrence isn't idealized -- in fact, no one is idealized. It's not the David Lean movie! But it *is* fascinating.
I found Malcolm Hillgartner a terrific narrator. He uses voices, but he uses them so smoothly and carefully that it's not jarring. (I tend to like my narrators to read rather than dramatize, but Hillgartner's approach could please everyone.)
One note: I found myself often referring to a map. You'll likely find that having one to consult occasionally is helpful.
48 of 49 people found this review helpful
In the words of author Scott Anderson, “history is often the tale of small moments, chance encounters, casual decisions, or sheer coincidences, that seem of little consequence at the time, but somehow fuse with other small moments to produce something momentous.” In his view, this is what happened on an oft-forgotten front of World War One, in a web of intrigues and political machinations that were to shape the Middle East to this day.
Through the accounts of a few figures who were caught up in the drama, such as the famous T.E. Lawrence, Anderson explores the deal-making, promises, and betrayals that took place, as both warring sides sought to exploit the local populations of Arabs and Jews, while having no real intention of granting them autonomy. Instead, the British and French, who “won” World War One by the skin of their teeth, would carve the former Ottoman Empire up into their own protectorates, with consequences that carry far forward (the Sikes-Picot Agreement came up on a podcast about the current spate of violence in Iraq). Meanwhile, the US began its tradition of “misunderestimating” (to use a Bushism) the people of the Middle East.
The central personal stories are pretty engaging. Of course, Lawrence, the young British officer whose behind-the-lines exploits were immortalized in the film Lawrence of Arabia, is the star of the book. A quiet but intense Oxford scholar who traveled to Palestine to study medieval castles, he got sucked into the British intelligence service when the war began and promoted through a fortuitous combination of mindless bureaucratic machinery and his own clever maneuvering. Understanding the local Arabs better than his superiors, who demonstrated the blend of arrogance and incompetence that Allied commanders were infamous for, Lawrence transformed himself into an effective military leader, guiding Arab rebels against the Turkish army and tying up enemy troops that might have gone elsewhere. However, misgivings about Britain's ultimate political goals and the horrors of war began to eat away at him, leaving a man who would, at conflict's end, walk off the world stage into self-imposed anonymity.
The other figures here, though, are hardly uninteresting. We also learn about deceptive German agent provocateur Curt Prufer, who might have been the closest thing to Lawrence’s counterpart on the other side; William Yale, a scion of the Yale family and an employee of the scummy American company Standard Oil, who comes to be the eye of US interests in the region; and the Jewish agronomist and spy Aaron Aaronsohn, whose energetic efforts to make the deserts of the Promised Land bloom seem aptly symbolic of his costly campaign to steer the Allies in a direction favorable to the Jewish people, even as he pretends to be loyal to Turkey. Many more actors cross the pages, such as Zionist Chaim Weizmann, the self-important diplomat Mark Sikes, Turkish governor Ahmed Djemal Pasha, and various members of the Hussein family, who would assume leadership roles in new Arab states. For a time, Arabs, distrusting Britain and France, looked to the US as the light of national self-determination, though it seems our oil interests were always agnostic to who was in charge. A wasted opportunity?
As noted by some of Lawrence’s own prophetic journal entries, the “peace” following the War to End All Wars was to be as poorly managed in the Middle East as in Europe, fraught with problematic agreements and lingering resentments that would plague the region for decades to come. To me, the awful, take-no-prisoners brutality exhibited in his final battles, as he fights bitterly on behalf of leaders he no longer trusts, was a lesson all too predictive of the rest of the 20th century. Alas that it had to be retaught again and again and again.
Though I’m not sure that Anderson answers any questions that haven’t been hashed out already, or resolves any mysteries about Lawrence himself (e.g. the nature of his sexuality) I enjoyed the details of this well-researched book. Lawrence in Arabia is a fine window into the fascinating, portentous intrigues of a forgotten corner of a forgotten war (for most Americans, anyway). The past is never as far away as we think.
Audiobook narrator Mr. Hillgartner does a good job finding the emotions of the story, and I didn’t get bored with his reading over several days of car and plane travel, though some might miss the maps and photos of the print edition. 4.5 stars.
25 of 26 people found this review helpful
What did you love best about Lawrence in Arabia?
The narration is superb, never getting in the way of the story at all, which is in and of itself incredibly engaging. Excellent research brings new light on some of the most troubling and debated events in the story of T.E. Lawrence. The story is well-rounded out with other fascinating and influential people, and I have a much better understanding of the events of WWI in the Middle East, and their far-reaching effects.
Who was your favorite character and why?
T.E. Lawrence is a difficult person to like and to understand, but the author makes him understandable and in that understanding I commiserated with him. He is a rare person in human history and these events have had such long-lasting effects, certainly to modern times, and possibly much further.
Have you listened to any of Malcolm Hillgartner’s other performances before? How does this one compare?
I have not listened to this narrator before, but I am actively seeking other books he has narrated based upon what an excellent job he did.
Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?
I never intended to listen to this in one sitting, (the narration is over 22 hours), nor should anyone try. There is so much here to take in! I will listen to this one again, I can tell you that for certain, and have purchased the hardback to read at home as well.
Any additional comments?
I purchased books to listen to while I work or while travelling, times when I cannot read a physical book. This was totally worth it and I have spent a very enjoyable month listening to this, rewinding and listening to parts over and over. It makes some of my drudgery work go faster. This is the best recording yet!
12 of 13 people found this review helpful
Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?
I recommend this book without reservation to any reader who wants a better understanding of World War I in the Middle East. The Lawrence movie is only a small part of the adventures of five young intellectuals who had much to do with shaping the subsequent conflicts of the land once oil became the world currency..
What did you like best about this story?
Anderson deals with the underlying concerns of the European combatants of WWI in how they are going to grab the emerging area with all its potential riches and the nationalistic and cultural conflicts of the area.
What about Malcolm Hillgartner’s performance did you like?
The performance was good and did not add undue theatrics to the reading. He read the book well and left it at that.
Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?
This is modern history that few people have studied. Enlightenment is my feeling from reading it. This is a well written tale that was hard to put down.
Any additional comments?
I am planning to require the reading of this book in a college level class I will be teaching next spring.
15 of 17 people found this review helpful
Any additional comments?
I enjoyed reading this book because it gave me a much better understanding of the Middle East and the role T.E. Lawrence played there during WWI. However, it was a slow read rather than a page turner. It was also a little hard to follow all the characters. I thought the narrator did a good job. Would recommend.
9 of 10 people found this review helpful
Any additional comments?
I read this hoping to gain insight into how and why the modern Middle East was created. On that score I was greatly disappointed. Upon further research I found the classic account in the book " A Peace to End All Peace" by David Fromkin. I now realize that T.E. Lawrence was only a minor player. As Fromkin says in his Introduction "...the Arab Revolt...occurred not so much in reality as in the wonderful imagination of T.E. Lawrence, a teller of fantastic tales whom the American showman Lowell Thomas transformed into " Lawrence of Arabia." Originally published in 1989, Fromkin's book and his Afterword to the 2009 Edition are extremely insightful. So if you're interested in Lawrence the person then buy "Lawrence in Arabia." If your larger goal is understanding the modern Middle East then read "A Peace to End All Peace."
23 of 27 people found this review helpful
I often like histories that focus closely on one person like this and both the time and the place sounded fascinating before I began. During the reading, there were moments when I thought the story was going to pull me in, but it never did.
There was nothing glaringly wrong or problematic in the story, but I never got excited enough about what happened to really care--though I kept expecting I would. I would pause and think, "now this is going to get good" but in never quite did.
The thing I missed the most was the lack of connection to what came before and after the time of the "action" in the book. How did this historical event/battle/plan stem from events decades before or decades after. The subtitle is the "making of the modern middle east" but this book ends with the end of the lives of the major players. We are left to remember ourselves what the middle east turned into during and after WW2 and beyond.
I am left with an idea the Lawrence was a remarkable boy and young man, a conflicted adult who felt rightly betrayed by various people and the British government and then he died. the end.
15 of 19 people found this review helpful
Any additional comments?
This book delivered exactly what I expected: The truth about the life of a man who became a cliché. But it also delivered something unexpected, and that is a clear and sensible look at the causes and course of the First World War. And it's also true to the part of its subtitle that promises an understanding of the making of the modern Middle East.
7 of 9 people found this review helpful
I found this to be a well narrated and written book on the history of the making of the modern day Middle East. The book commences with the period just prior to World War I and takes the listener through World War I into the carving up of the former Ottoman Empire territories of Syria, Arabia, Palestine, Lebannon, Jordan and to a lesser extent Egypt (which was Ottoman territory but administered by the British prior to the War). The book covers the history through the eyes of four individuals- TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), Curt Prufer (a German Diplomat), Aaron Aaronsohn (a Palestinian Jewish Scientist originally born in Europe) and WIlliam Yale (an American employed by Standard Oil of NY). Through their experiences (Lawrence being the most famous), one acquires a greater understanding of how France and Britain carved up the former Ottoman Empire between them, which eventually led to the circumstances the word now confronts in that area of the world. Historical events begin to unfold through their eyes and one is introduced to many of the people who were made famous by the war (Allenby, Kitchner, Faisal, Ibn Saud, Mark Sykes and David Lloyd George to name a few). Of the four characters, the portrait of Lawrence is the most remarkable (as one would expect) and the author does a great job contrasting Lawrence's real life from what is presented in Lawrence's book, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom and David Lean's 1962 movie Lawrence In Arabia. The narration was excellent and I must admit I learned more about the Middle East that I knew prior to reading the book. If you are interested in learning more about the making of the Modern Middle East and conflict in that part of the world today, this would be a great book to start with. As has been pointed out in several other reviews (Amazon as well as Audible), if you wish to learn even more about the making of the Modern Middle East, consider purhcasing a copy of David Framkin's book, "A Peace To End All Peace", which covers the more than this book does (unfortunately it is not available on Audible).
4 of 5 people found this review helpful
Extremely well written. What you always wanted to know about why the middle east is the way it is as a result of western power manipulation. As an Audible audio book: Extremely well narrated. An excellent choice if you like history. A well told story.
6 of 8 people found this review helpful