Lawrence in Arabia
War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East
By Scott Anderson
(Doubleday, Hardcover, 9780385532921, 592pp.)
Publication Date: August 6, 2013
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NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY
New York Times • Christian Science Monitor • NPR • Seattle Times • St. Louis Dispatch
National Book Critics Circle Finalist -- American Library Association Notable Book
A thrilling and revelatory narrative of one of the most epic and consequential periods in 20th century history – the Arab Revolt and the secret “great game” to control the Middle East
The Arab Revolt against the Turks in World War One was, in the words of T.E. Lawrence, “a sideshow of a sideshow.” Amidst the slaughter in European trenches, the Western combatants paid scant attention to the Middle Eastern theater. 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 effete academic attached to the German embassy in Cairo, whose clandestine role was to foment Islamic jihad against British rule. Aaron Aaronsohn was a renowned agronomist and committed Zionist who gained the trust of the Ottoman governor of Syria. William Yale was the fallen scion of the American aristocracy, who traveled the Ottoman Empire on behalf of Standard Oil, dissembling to the Turks in order gain valuable oil concessions. At the center of it all was Lawrence. In early 1914 he was an archaeologist excavating ruins in the sands of Syria; by 1917 he was the most romantic figure of World War One, battling both the enemy and his own government to bring about the vision he had for the Arab people.
The intertwined paths of these four men – the schemes they put in place, the battles they fought, the betrayals they endured and committed – mirror the grandeur, intrigue and tragedy of the war in the desert. Prüfer became Germany’s grand spymaster in the Middle East. Aaronsohn constructed an elaborate Jewish spy-ring in Palestine, only to have the anti-Semitic and bureaucratically-inept British first ignore and then misuse his organization, at tragic personal cost. Yale would become the only American intelligence agent in the entire Middle East – while still secretly on the payroll of Standard Oil. And the enigmatic Lawrence rode into legend at the head of an Arab army, even as he waged secret war against his own nation’s imperial ambitions.
Based on years of intensive primary document research, LAWRENCE IN ARABIA definitively 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.
Scott Anderson is a veteran war correspondent who has reported from Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Northern Ireland, Chechnya, Sudan, Bosnia, El Salvador and many other strife-torn countries. A contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, his work has also appeared in Vanity Fair, Esquire, Harper's and Outside. He is the author of novels Moonlight Hotel and Triage and of non-fiction books The Man Who Tried to Save the World and The 4 O'Clock Murders, and co-author of War Zones and Inside The League with his brother Jon Lee Anderson.
“Scott Anderson’s fine, sophisticated, richly detailed Lawrence in Arabia is filled with invaluably complex and fine-tuned information…. eminently readable…. For those already fascinated by Lawrence’s exploits and familiar with his written accounts of them, Mr. Anderson’s thoughtful, big-picture version only enriches the story it tells….. illuminating…. Beyond having a keen ear for memorable wording, Mr. Anderson has a gift for piecing together the conflicting interests of warring parties….. Lawrence in Arabia is a fascinating book, the best work of military history in recent memory and an illuminating analysis of issues that still loom large today. It’s a big book in every sense, with a huge amount of terrain to cover…. It’s high praise for both the visually grand film and this grandly ambitious book to say that they do have a lot in common.”—The New York Times
"Thrilling....a work as galvanizing and cinematic as Lean’s masterpiece....It’s a huge assignment, explaining the modern roots of the region as it emerged from the wreckage of war. But it is one that Anderson handles with panache....Anderson brilliantly evokes the upheavals and head-spinningly complex politics of an era....His story is character-driven, exhilaratingly so — Prufer, Yale, and Aaronsohn’s stories are richly sketched....shows how individuals both shape history and are, at the same time, helpless before the dictates of great power politics."
--The Boston Globe
“No four-hour movie can do real justice to the bureaucratic fumblings, the myriad spies, heroes and villains, the dense fugue of humanity at its best and worst operating in the Mideast war theater of 1914-17. Thrillingly, Scott Anderson's Lawrence in Arabia (four stars out of four) does exactly that, weaving enormous detail into its 500-plus pages with a propulsive narrative thread”
--USA Today, 4 Stars
"Expansive, mesmerizing, and—dare one say—cinematically detailed "Lawrence in Arabia" exemplifies the ways biography and history can enhance each other."
--The Wall Street Journal
“Among the many individual stories of World War I that will doubtless be told and retold for the centenary years between 2014 and 2018, that of T.E. Lawrence stands out from all the rest…[Anderson’s] book could not be better timed. As global attention is drawn to Syria and Egypt, it is arresting to look back 100 years and see a familiar picture….The multi-character approach has the great virtue of opening up the story’s complexity. Through his large cast, Anderson is able to explore the muddles of the early 20th-century Middle East from several distinct and enlightening perspectives. Furthermore, while he maintains an invigorating pace, his fabulous details are given room to illuminate. And the book is thick with them, whether it is Lawrence attempting to collar a live leopard; Prufer arranging 10 days of “boozing, dancing and flirting” with a wayward German princess for Abbas Hilmi, the deposed khedive of Egypt; or Aaronsohn fending off a strikingly biblical plague of locusts.… [An] engrossing, thoughtful and intricate account.”
--The New York Times Book Review [Editor’s Choice]
"Brilliant....a dazzling accomplishment that combines superb historical research with a compelling narrative equal to any courtroom thriller."
--The Seattle Times
“Anderson carries his erudition lightly, but there's enough scholarship there to make an academic proud. As with the best kind of yarns, you don't realize what you've learned until the narrator goes silent.”
--The Daily Beast
“A terrifically well put-together book.”
--Tom Ashbrook, On Point
"In this well-researched, sweeping account of the life and times of T.E. Lawrence, author Scott Anderson offers a fresh and compelling look at the making of the modern Middle East....a gripping narrative that makes this nearly 600-page account hard to put down....The book’s broader achievement is that it reveals the incompetence and deceit of Lawrence’s British superiors in shaping the postwar Middle East. It also offers a revealing account of other British agents and those from the United States and Germany in the remarkable events of the period."
--Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Cuts through legend and speculation to offer perhaps the clearest account of Lawrence’s often puzzling actions and personality.....Anderson has produced a compelling account of Western hubris, derring-do, intrigue and outright fraud that hastened — and complicated — the troubled birth of the modern Middle East."
--The Washington Post
"Anderson’s well-told tale of war, betrayal and depressing short-sightedness is also a vivid reminder of why the Middle East continues to preoccupy us."
“Be prepared to be surprised. Scott Anderson is a great writer and I guarantee that you’ll be startled by what he’s uncovered about T.E. Lawrence’s role in what he himself called “a sideshow of a sideshow,” otherwise known as the Arab Revolt against the Turks in World War I…..Scott Anderson’s magisterial study puts a complicated picture in context, showing how major powers’ old follies led to the wars, religious strife and brutal dictatorships that now pollute the development of the Middle East.”
--The Buffalo News
"Renders painfully clear how deeply the political structure of the Middle East has been born of eccentric fantasies."
“Anderson has speckled this cast with little known associates of Lawrence who are just as enigmatic as he and probably just as important in the creation of the mess we know as the modern Middle East….Exciting”
--Hudson Star Observer
"It's thorough research clothed in smoothly written prose, Anderson's history strikes a perfect balance between scope and detail about a remarkable and mysterious character."
--Booklist, starred review
"A well-fleshed portrait of T.E. Lawrence brought in burnished relief against other scoundrels in the Arabian narrative....A lively, contrasting study of hubris and humility."
"Readers seeking to understand why turmoil has been so omnipresent in the Middle East will benefit from Anderson's easy prose, which makes liberal use of primary sources and research, but reads like a political thriller."
"Anderson's genius is to show how the actions of these four men intertwined on many levels....His research is extensive and well integrated into the story, while the prose is as addictive and sophisticated as the best John le Carré thriller."
“Lawrence of Arabia is said to have reinvented warfare, and Scott Anderson has now reinvented Lawrence. By placing him alongside the other adventurers and spies who roamed the Arabian war theater, Anderson brilliantly illuminates how the modern Middle East came to be. The research in this book is so daringly original, and the writing so spectacular, that it feels like I'm reading about the topic for the first time. A deep and utterly captivating reading experience.”
--Sebastian Junger, New York Times bestselling author of WAR and THE PERFECT STORM
"A startlingly rich and revealing portrait of one of history’s most iconic figures. Equally satisfying is the cast of obscure German and American agents nearly as eccentric as Lawrence himself. They exercised such outsized influence on shaping the world as we know it that reading about them here is not only revelatory but practically surreal. Anderson is an exquisite writer and dogged researcher, whose accounts of century-old brutalities are made utterly convincing by the knowledge that he has personally witnessed the sort of offhanded horror he’s unearthed in archives. Lovers of big 20th-century history will be in nirvana."
--Tom Reiss, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of THE BLACK COUNT and THE ORIENTALIST
"An amazing accomplishment. LAWRENCE IN ARABIA captures the bravado, surreality, grandeur of the Middle East in the birth throes of the 20th century. Anderson employs the highest order of dramatic narrative to create an indelible portrait of a great and enduring figure of war and politics. Along for the show is a cast of characters drawn straight from Graham Greene. This is history of the most vivid and relevant order."
--Doug Stanton, New York Times bestselling author of HORSE SOLDIERS and IN HARM’S WAY
“LAWRENCE IN ARABIA is a work of serious research and powerful insight, but it is so rich in incredible stories and glittering details that it felt like a guilty pleasure while I was reading it. Completely absorbing, sweeping in scope and riveting from the first word, this is a book that will stay with me for a long time.”
--Candice Millard, New York Times bestselling author of DESTINY OF THE REPUBLIC and RIVER OF DOUBT
“Few characters in history can match T.E. Lawrence for adventure, intrigue, or sheer enigma. Scott Anderson, an indefatigable reporter well-acquainted with the Arab world, has carefully reconstructed Lawrence's shadowy realm. Anderson shows how Lawrence, along with a surprisingly small cast of lesser-known rogues and operatives, laid the groundwork, wittingly or not, for the mess that is the modern Middle East. Here is an intimate history painted on a very large canvas, with one fantastically charismatic—and fabulously flawed—man at the dusty center of the tale.”
--Hampton Sides, New York Times bestselling author of GHOST SOLDIERS and HELLHOUND ON HIS TRAIL
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