Who was the real Lawrence of Arabia?

On Sunday, news of the death of Irish actor Peter O’Toole, who was most famous for his role in the 1962 film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, hit the airwaves. His death reminds the world of the real Lawrence, linking the events in the Arab world today to those of a century ago.

Who was the real Lawrence of Arabia?

Ertan Karpazli / World Bulletin

Irish actor Peter O’Toole passed away in London on Sunday at the age of 81. The older generation of cinema lovers will mostly remember him for playing the role of T.E. Lawrence is the 1962 classic ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.

However, when it comes to the real T.E. Lawrence, there are very few people today who have been alive long enough to recall the actual events that provided the plot for the movie. As for the younger generation, they neither have any recollection of the film or the events that took place in the Arabian Desert almost a century ago.

Although few people realize it, the story of T.E. Lawrence still holds an important place in the world today, especially after Edward Snowden and Wikileaks exposed cases of spying taking place all over the world. Moreover, the climate created by the Arab Spring, which has spread unrest and lawlessness all over the Middle-East and North Africa, bears resemblance to the power vacuum from which Lawrence emerged as the most infamous spy in recent history.

Born in Wale in 1888 to Irish parents, Lawrence immigrated to England at a very young age, where he received his education. As a young man, he later moved to the Middle-East to work as an archeologist. He started studying Arabic in Beirut at the age of 22, and eventually mastered it well enough to be even more articulate than many native speakers.

With the onset of World War I, he was recruited into the British army in 1914 to conduct a military survey of the British-occupied Negev Desert, which is today a part of Israel. His experience living and travelling across the occupied Ottoman lands of the Middle-East gave him a unique insight into the culture, politics and geography of the region.

This insight was the main factor in him being recruited by British intelligence in Egypt, which was also under their occupation. He was later stationed in the Hejaz, the Red Sea coast of Arabia, where he teamed up with the son of Sheriff Hussein of Mecca to launch a revolt against the Ottomans in 1916.

The power of the Ottomans at that time was waning, despite having repelled an attempt by the British Empire to occupy the Bosphorus Straits in 1915. Having failed to gain the upper-hand against the Ottomans at the Battle of Gallipoli, the British set their sights at destroying the Ottomans from within by taking advantage of anti-Turkish sentiment in the Arab provinces. After encouraging growing feelings of Arab nationalism in the region, the British prepared a strategy to hijack the Arab desire for independence to expand their own operations in the Middle-East.

This is where Lawrence became useful. He instructed Sheriff Hussein’s Hashimite clan to attack the Hejaz railway which supplied the Ottoman garrison in Medina. The Ottoman forces, who were forced to come out of their stronghold to investigate the damage, consequently left themselves open for ambush. This saw the capture of a number of cities in the Hejaz, which eventually led to the fall of Damascus.

Eventually all the lands that Lawrence had led to break-off from the Ottoman Empire fell under British occupation. After the Ottoman Empire collapsed, Sheriff Hussein, as the default custodian of the two Holy Cities Mecca and Medina, declared himself as the new Caliph of the Muslim world. However, this declaration did not settle well with the British, who then turned their favor to the Saudi clan which was based in the region of Najd, just south of Iraq. With their support, the Saudis chased Sheriff Hussein out of the Hejaz, leaving him with no choice but to flee to Cyprus. In his stead, the British foresaw the establishment of today’s Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, the British occupation of Palestine coincided with Zionist sponsored efforts to settle Jews in the region in hopes of establishing a Jewish homeland. In 1948, the state of Israel was officially recognized after the British withdrawal. Israel expanded further after Jews fleeing the genocide in Europe arrived in their shiploads to their newfound state.

Following World War II, the power of the British Empire began to vanish while the United States slowly began to emerge as the new global superpower. The very same Arab nationalism that the British used Lawrence to take advantage of to establish their authority in the region became their very demise, as Arab nationalist movements eventually came to power. However, as events today demonstrate, Arab states are still struggling to shrug off the influence of U.S. foreign policy, which took over from where the British left off.

The removal of dictators in Iraq, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen have been a combined effort by grass-roots Arab civilians who are genuinely fighting for their freedom, but has also worked in favor for U.S. interests in getting rid of leaders like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi who threatened to challenge America’s jugular vein, the petro-dollar, by introducing alternative methods of trading oil.

The death of O’Toole reminds the world of the man he was famous for bringing back to life on cinema and TV screens across the world. More importantly, it may indirectly allow Arabs, who are still seeking self-determination, to reflect and reconsider their political strategy so that their efforts are not once again manipulated and inhibited by those who play on their emotions, desires and growing impatience for freedom.

Last Mod: 16 Temmuz 2014, 16:30
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