Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘T. E. Lawrence’

Britain and the Arab Middle East

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 4th January, 2018

AD409BBC-8DAA-47D4-92AA-A809A7CA3A16Britain’s war against the Ottoman Empire, following the Turks’ decision to side with Germany in the First World War, was considered a side-show by many generals and politicians in London, who believed that the Western Front was the real battlefield. Yet British intervention in the Middle East, partly in harmony with Arab forces keen to liberate themselves from the Ottoman yoke, was to have resounding consequences that are still being felt today. Rober H Lieshout’s weighty study of the subject, essentially covering the years 1914-1919, Britain and the Arab Middle East (I B Tauris, £29.95), examines the voluminous public records covering the period, notably of the War Cabinet and Foreign Office, supplemented by diaries, presenting material in such detail that one almost believes one is present. There were wrangles aplenty about just how much encouragement the British Government should give Sherif Hussein of Mecca regarding the putative independent Arab Kingdom that was meant to come into being after peace was agreed, but there is little doubt that he and his sons were largely duped. Despite the Entente, France comes over very badly most of the time, and whereas by 1918 the Lloyd George government believed that the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement carving up spheres of influence in the non-Turkish parts of the Ottoman Empire could not stand in its original form, because of the Wilsonian doctrine of self determination, Paris dug its heels in, determined that France should have its Syrian and Lebanese cake and eat it. Another issue that gave rise to huge disagreements within the British government was the Balfour Declaration, whose centenary was commemorated last year. The only Jewish member of the Cabinet, Edwin Montagu, was strongly opposed to the Zionists’ pleas as he believed the Arab population of Palestine would not agree to Jewish domination there and moreover that Jews elsewhere might suffer further persecution in their home countries if a Jewish state were proclaimed. Some of the most valuable parts of Lieshout’s book cover these sometimes heated discussions and the personalities involved. Largely, he lets the documents speak for themselves, keeping critical commentary and theorising to a minimum, which allows the reader to make up their own mind. Presumably for marketing purposes, the book uses a fetching photograph of T E Lawrence in Arab garb on the cover, though he was in reality quite a marginal figure, despite the publicity that his romantic derring-do later generated. The index will be of use to serious scholars of the period, as well as to amateur historians of the Middle East, as this well-documented narrative is a valuable resource.

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Letters from Baghdad

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 16th April, 2017

Gertrude Bell 1A century ago, the shape of the modern Middle East was formed out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. The behind-the-scenes power play by Britain and France that resulted in the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement led to the boundaries of their respective zones of influence. But also significant was the work done by the British explorer, archaeologist and spy, Gertrude Bell, who drew the borders of the modern state of Iraq. A contemporary of T. E. Lawrence, with whom she had a friendship spiced by intense personal rivalry, Bell left her mark in more ways than one, including founding the Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad and chivying, not always successfully, the British government to, run its Middle Eastern League of Nations mandates according to her priorities. There have been several books about Gertrude Bell, but none gives such a vivid picture of her as the new documentary film by Sabine Krayenbuhl and Zeva Oelbaum, Letters from Baghdad. Their approach is quite daring, reflecting its subject’s forthright personality, as it largely comprises archive footage that the film-makers found in 25 separate locations, as well as black-and-white photos taken by Bell herself. The streets of Baghdad, Aleppo, Cairo and other places 100 years ago are so successfully brought alive that one is transported back in time, as well as place.

Letters from Baghdad still

The commentary is drawn from the subject’s letters and diaries, supplemented by those of some of the people who encountered her. The actor Tilda Swinton provides Bell’s voice, while other actors impersonate key characters, filmed as if giving live interviews. This is truly history reincarnated before our eyes. The film does not hide the complexities, even difficulties, in Gertrude Bell’s character. She was driven by what she believed to be right, and she could be both churlish and offensive towards those who disagreed with her, or struck her as superficial. She was as brave as any man, and the Arabs treated her respectfully as if she were one, yet she also had a colossal wardrobe of clothes, one reason for T. E. Lawrence’s sneering disapproval. She would not have been an easy woman to have as a friend, but one would have had to admire her energy, even if she herself became increasingly disillusioned with life by the end, dying from an overdose (accidental or otherwise) of sleeping pills. This film does her an immense service, as well as underlining Britain’s role in shaping, for better or for worse, the modern, conflict-riven Middle East. It’s a “must see” for anyone with even the slightest interest in the region, but it should appeal also to anyone who relishes accounts of extraordinary individuals.

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