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(A study in the leadership)

By: Hichem Karoui


Excerpts from a XXVIII chapters' long biography:


CHAPTER 1: THE OUTSIDER                                             (read in P.D.F)

Chapter 2: A Street Arab

Chapter 3: The pieces of the game.  

Links related to Lawrence of Arabia


 "Being, though little in person, yet great in opinion of himself, nothing less would serve him than to go and convert the pope"!

*   Thomas Ellwood (XVIIth cent.) about John Perrot’s adventures in Rome. -


In some ways, Thomas Edward Lawrence appears to us - we, this late generation of later times- a strange and mysterious man, and an obstinate fighter in a struggle that was not even his. So possessed by his dream, so involved in the trend of the Arab Revolution, he became a little more than a simple British officer, and a little less than a true Bedouin of the desert.

What kind of man was he really?

Man of faith and creed? Maybe. Man of action and influence? Certainly, with however that halo of mysticism which places him above many others of his epoch and border.

We may follow him all along his magnificent and intriguing itinerary; we may feel his fears, his joys, even his bitterness; but something in his personality would still puzzle us and escape from our understanding. And we would say: enigmatic and versatile man!

Yet, we would bow before his eloquence, which is only matched by his acumen.

It was also a curious epoch, which has produced its lot of oddities: adventurers and charlatans, poets and soldiers of the good fortune, mystics of the impossible, wanderers of the high seas and oceans, erring and running everywhere, settling down here and there wherever it is possible to find a place under the sun.

In England, the Mother of Parliaments at Westminster had shown herself able to keep pace with fast-moving change, and to bring within her moderating influence the fierce forces of organized trade unionism, proletarian socialism, and the violent surges of raw public opinion. "Since the formation of the Labour Party in 1906, with its twenty nine representatives in the House of Commons", wrote David Thomson(i), "there had existed a steady pull towards constitutional action through elections and parliamentary alliances, rather than through the ‘direct action’, favoured by the more extremist kinds of trade unionism and socialism. The solid basis of the Labour Party was the growing trade-union movement."

King George V had been on the throne since 1910, and " had revealed a rich store of tact and good sense in his handling of the constitutional crisis about the House of Lords, already erupting when he ascended the throne. One thing could have united the British people in concerted support for a single policy: a flagrant threat to Britain’s national security.”(ii)

It was the alliance between Germany and the Habsburg Monarchy of Austria- Hungary that constituted the threat. Since then, the drums of war began to be heard of in the old continent.

The Arab Revolution proclaimed and led by the Sherif of Mecca, appeared in the English conscience just a piece within a gigantic puzzle; for the Turks it was a gloomy conspiracy; and for the Arabs it was the way to freedom. Retrospectively, these three conceptions proceeding from three different peoples appear to us nowadays somewhat obliterated by excess.

As to the author of the famous Seven Pillars Of Wisdom, -(: S.P.W)-he started his text by this statement: " Some Englishmen, of whom Kitchener was chief, believed that a rebellion of Arabs against Turks would enable England, while fighting Germany, simultaneously to defeat her alley Turkey"(iii). In other terms, the rebellion was a war within the war, although with an ethnic and geopolitical specificity, which enabled it to be an instrument of the British strategy.

Nevertheless, men grasped by violent passions in the pathos of war, may reach the revelation of themselves and may not react like simple tools in the gigantic machine. Even the gladiators in the antic Rome had found their Spartakus. For the Arabs subdued by centuries of Ottoman reign, "Spartakus" was no more or less than a slim blond officer of the Intelligence Service, named Lawrence. And since the first pages of S.P.W., we can observe that the words " freedom" and "slavery" are as "chained" to each other as an indissoluble couple of catholic married: " We were (...) devoted to freedom (...) We had sold ourselves into its slavery, manacled ourselves together in its Chaingang..."(iv) Here is a basic idea which is a fundamental key to understanding Lawrence’s thought and life. There is no freedom away of slavery, and there is no slavery away of freedom either! Is this an odd idea? Maybe it is not quite clear from a Sadomasochistic strain, but can we deny that the dialectic exists? Anyway, it is not a mere figure of style, for beyond the apparent irreconcilable paradox a certain unity may be perceived whatsoever the distances between the two notions: In our material life (: historic) and in our spiritual life (: intellect), freedom and slavery have always been linked, for it is just impossible to imagine one’s existence without the other. Even in our epoch that had abolished slavery, other kinds of human servitude appeared. But for different reasons, mostly psychological, some of Lawrence’s biographers would label him, as "masochist" -e.g. Anthony Nutting-, while others - like Suleiman Moussa- would talk of his "sadism"! So where is the truth?

However, there is one certainty: Lawrence was not an ordinary man. He had perhaps some mania, but was it unhealthy? Was he a raving megalomaniac? A schizophrenic who ignores himself? Or shortly a masochist as it had been pointed out several times? How such an insane could then not only handle and manipulate masses, but also select and intelligent people such as high ranking officers of the British army, princes, and kings? A task that requires so many qualities, such as cleverness, adroitness, rationality, and other personal skills. No doubt that we can find in history some examples showing us that in exceptional circumstances, insane leaders could appear and lead their people towards tragedies and chaos: Maybe Hitler was a clever and skilful man who had been able not only to reach power but also to play on the obscure side of the human nature in order to impose himself to his people. Yet, he was also very crazy and perfectly relishing his insanity, which at his eyes was more than ambition, since he considered himself as a herald of some sort. Here, we are also confronted to a moral problem: the State’s Reason and the person’s creed. When these two poles are contrasting, the clash is unavoidable and the human balance is threatened. The moral problem can grow up until it is transformed into a psychological tragedy, when the subject is actually- like T.E. Lawrence- an agent of the State. And since the latter has, from the start, put the problematic of the Arab Revolt in terms of moral and ethic, he has at once put himself on the way, which conducted him to the bitter feeling of failure and treason. The lack of compensation after the considerable effort consented led him unconsciously towards some kind of uneasiness of life, which preceded - perhaps indirectly precipitated- his unlucky and absurd death in a futile accident of motorcycle in 1935. He was just forty-seven years old.

From some sentences in the first chapter of S.P.W, we are already led to deducting that the author was really a man who cared enormously about his duty, who believed faithfully in his mission, in moral terms: " I was sent to these Arabs as a stranger...» But was he to be sent out if he was not a stranger? The only man who could claim that he was sent to the Arabs as an insider - not an outsider- is the Prophet Muhammad. If we underline the difference, it is because Lawrence has not used the word "stranger" linked to the expression " sent to these Arabs" at random, but rather purposely. In fact, in many occasions Lawrence would emphasize that he is a stranger even while preaching the revolt in order to obtain the independence for the Arabs. On the one hand, "preaching " is a word, which suffers from being used adjacently with "strangeness". And on the other hand, those who preach some acts as great and important as Revolt and Freedom, are not usually ordinary people always well adapted to their societies, but rather men - or women - who are mostly judged by their contemporaries as "strangers". Although subtle, the detail is important; but Lawrence did not consider himself as a "prophet", albeit he acknowledged that he was preaching in the desert. Maybe was he too respectful of others’ creeds, or just too malicious to pretend to more. Anyway, how could he, since he was "unable to think their thoughts or subscribe their beliefs"?(v) However, he was "charged by duty to lead them forward and to develop to the highest any movement of theirs profitable to England in her war"(vi). In reality, nobody charged him, but he charged himself, and sometimes we will find him complaining about this "too much freedom" allowed to him.

The question is: Did he think in that period that he was able to accommodate himself, his beliefs, his education...with the Arab way of life? Indeed he did, for he had prepared himself during long years, and in this sense he was not a perfect stranger. In some ways, he had provoked his destiny, and when he faced the desert, he faced at once his fate in that continent of sand and stones which opened to him the mysterious gates of the infinite, the independence, and the game with the unknown. No other place on earth can provide men with such a mystic exaltation. Yet, men in the desert are all but unequal in their feelings. They may be ordinary men or prophets, half-gods or devils, simple shepherds or bandits, poets or cutthroats. They may measure themselves with the dimensions of the infinite, hear the great appeal of the History and the Sacred; or they may be just indifferent and ... ineligible.

Him who knows the desert knows why Nikos Kazantzakis stated while he was wandering in Sinai, that " the common people do not see sirens or hear songs in the air. Blind and deaf, they sit bowed over in the earth’s hold, and row. But the more elect, the captains, hear a siren inside them - their soul - and gallantly follow her voice"(vii).

Indubitably, it sounds as if Lawrence was one of those elect people.

It is curious how the loneliness has always influenced men’s imagination. Poets and prophets, great inventors of creeds and religions, great producers of ideas and philosophic systems, explorers of the unknown and experimenters of new ways of life, have ever worked alone, or at least have been attracted by loneliness. And if the desert is so important, it is because it can procure an unequalled amount of loneliness added to the vacuum of an extraordinary extensive space, which is beyond any human control.

Many of those who have experimented a spiritual voyage into the desert have been touched by the invisible wings of genius or by the transparent breath of holiness. The young Kazantzakis dreamed to be a saint. Adult, he would undertake the great pilgrimage in Sinai. He did not become a saint, but he certainly approached some sort of high spirituality.

Nonetheless, Lawrence was neither seeking holiness nor any mystic experience. And if he had it though, it was almost haphazardly and perhaps even in spite of himself.

In the desert, his soul was in eruption like a volcano, which had been sleeping for centuries. Then unexpectedly, by a mysterious spell, its crater began to crack and spit out lava and inflamed stones. Burdensome and sacred fire! And the magnificence of a magic breath touched then his spirit, and he abandoned his body " as rubbish". Never had he felt himself so tied to men within the brotherhood of guns, while death whirled above their heads like a hungry vulture. Never had he felt himself so alone and so inextricably mixed with those Bedouins who were fighting for their freedom: "Blood was always on our hands: we were licenced to it."(v iii) Could it be otherwise? The cruelty of the war added to the desert’s made no choice. If you don’t kill to survive you would be killed. Life and death were just a game for the sake of the noblest cause. In this struggle there was no certitude: "We lived for the day and died for it"(ix). The game was open. The cards were thrown out, and fate or destiny would handle them according to its whim.

Men do not live just because life has been given to them. In this case, what may possibly differentiate them from animals? That is why Ernest Hemingway has stated once that the difference between a dying man and a dying horse is just that the man knows consciously that it is the end; a horse does not. As a matter of fact, the conscience is what makes the difference between them. Now the same conscience is also matter of differences between men themselves, for we can reach a level of lucidity but we cannot reach the end of it. Everybody reaches actually his own limit. A fight for a place under the sun may gather several thousands of men, provide them with a common motive, a common energy, and unite their consciousness within a single dream. As Lawrence put it: the most opened are your eyes when you dream, the most dangerous you become, especially when you are neither the only nor the lonely dreamer.

"Live in danger!" advised Nietzsche. Was it to put this idea into practice that Lawrence has acted? Yes, he did, answers A. Malraux: he was "Nietzsche becoming Zarathustra"! (x) Yet, what struck the author of " La Condition Humaine" was more the religious and metaphysical dimension of the personage than his political involvement, as it seems.

We know that Malraux was preparing a biography of Lawrence, for he thought that nothing sound had been written yet as far as that moment. Unfortunately, his book has never seen the day for the original manuscript had been lost during the war. However, a lost essay entitled "Lawrence and the demon of Absolute" has been published.

That both men share something common is beyond any doubt. The author of "L’espoir", "La voie royale", and other famous titles, who was also one of the best interlocutors of General de Gaulle, had nothing to envy to the legendary Lawrence. He too was born adventurer, and spent his life between the "maquis" and the archaeological sites. Nevertheless, when they met once in the bar of some hotel in Paris, according to Malraux - Lawrence did not drink! - they " were not equal"!

"He, said Malraux, had already into his pocket the Seven Pillars, the collaboration with Churchill during the Peace Conference, the break-up with the world, and that halo of mystery provided by the Intelligence Service. Of course, the real mystery was not there. I had some doubts about it by the time. As to me, I was a young French writer who had just a ‘prix Goncourt’ into his pocket. It was light. He was extraordinarily elegant. His elegance did not belong to his time but rather to ours. A rolled collar pullover for instance, with a kind of nonchalance and distance. I have some difficulties to recall the subjects we had discussed. I remember only that he was fond of motorcycles and boat’s engines. It was relatively short time before his death. Did he want to die? I have often wondered without finding an answer."

Now, when and where exactly did Malraux meet Lawrence? We do not know. If we exclude the time of the Peace Conference, there is no record of any sojourn of Lawrence in Paris, shortly before his death!

Moreover, Malraux says: " But there is a point which must be highlighted. When he killed himself on his motorcycle, it seems that he was going to the post office with a dispatch. I have told myself that it was a singular document. It read: ‘Say no to Hitler’.

No for what? And who said no? Anyway, the lacuna is quite representing Lawrence."(xi)

It is clear that Malraux was completely outside the picture: First, because Lawrence’s accident did not happen when he was going to the post office, but rather on his return from it. Second, there is no mention whatever of Hitler in the telegram sent by Lawrence to his friend Williamson. The text of the telegram read:


Malraux has obviously misquoted the information, unless he had been misinformed. It was Williamson who had mentioned Hitler, not Lawrence; and he did it to explain why Lawrence had invited him to his cottage. He said: "The new age must begin: Europe was ready for peace; Lawrence was the natural leader of that age in England. I dreamed of an Anglo-German friendship, the beginning of the pacification of Europe. Hitler and Lawrence must meet. I wrote this to him, shortly after he had left the R.A.F. He replied immediately by telegram, asking me to come the next day..."(xii)

In the short essay he contributed to Lawrence's controversial biography, the French writer could say:

"Lawrence, one of the most religious spirits of his time, though by religious spirit we intend he who feels till the bottom of his soul the anguish of being a man; Lawrence... who called the Karamazov a fifth gospel, has not written fifty lines about Christianity... He appeared as one of those who, Jesus, eternally on the cross, snatches amongst all others from the last loneliness. Yet, he believed no more in the religion of his peers than he did in their civilization. Inside him there was an anti-Christ in first spot: He did not expect his own deliverance from another, but himself. He did not seek an appeasement but a victory, a conquered peace. (Somewhere there is an absolute, nothing counts but this: and I cannot reach it. Hence, this impression of being purposeless.)"

" The absolute, states Malraux, is the last instance of the tragic man, and the most efficient; for alone it can burn - although with the whole man being- the deepest feeling of dependence, and the remorse of being oneself.”(xiii)

According to Jean Lacouture, when he attempted a comparison between Malraux and Lawrence, the former interrupted him saying: " Beware! The difference that distinguishes us consists in the fact that Lawrence has always said to me that he was persuaded of failure in all his enterprises, whereas I have always believed in my success. I have acted to win..."(xiv)

Can we believe Malraux when he put such despaired words in the mouth of a man who had carried on his "frail" shoulders the burden of the Arab Revolt, who had fought with such a conviction in victory, notwithstanding the fact that the Revolt did not reach its initial goals? (At least from the Arab point of view).

Here we ought to distinguish between two periods of Lawrence’s life: The first, let’s say "optimistic", when he was fighting in the desert; and the second, "pessimistic"- and later on nihilistic - in the aftermath of the war. Malraux seems concerned by the second period, when Lawrence was bitter for he had "discovered" that he had been manipulated and deceived, not to say trapped, albeit nothing can confirm that he had acted to fail when he was in the desert. So, one should show some reserve as to what Lawrence might really have told Malraux.

Nevertheless, it sounds incomprehensible that Lawrence, who was just doing his duty, as any officer of the Intelligence Service has to do, identified himself to the Arabs, to the point of feeling that their failure was his own.

Why should a clever man feel so sentimental? The simplest answer consists to say that he was a masochist. For Anthony Nutting, Lawrence learned " that he was no risen prophet, no Son of God, but a rabid masochist, whose happy endurance of pain disclosed a perversion of the flesh rather than a triumph of the spirit.”(xv) However, the problem is perhaps more complicated.

Almost the majority of his biographers admit his masochism as something that explains "fully and definitely" his behaviour. Thus, they may easily catalogue him into a pathologic pattern, which suits perfectly and reassure the Western mind. Besides, the man had aroused all sorts of jealousies in his life, and even after his death. In fact, he had complicated the Western Intelligentsia so deeply that the model he represented called either for followers and disciples or for destroyers and foes.

However, though he identified himself to the Arabs somehow, he had never been one of them. He was actually a "free" man just trying to protect his moral and intellectual integrity. And if he seemed nearly mesmerized in some of his acts, it was Britain that had tied him and bounded his spring; hence his trouble, then his rebellion against the West. He was perhaps too ambitious for some of his compatriots. Anyway, he might have felt that his acts could endanger some people. So he tried to have his tracks lost and he undertook a real campaign of misinformation about himself... in vain, for too many witnesses were around him. And he found himself advocating " for the devil"! Was he the object of a silent conspiracy? He could very well have considered this topic. For he had taken the Arab Revolt as a personal matter. Anything - or anyone - that could harm it, would also harm him. Who can believe seriously that he was more Arab than the Arabs themselves, or at least some of their leaders who, although deceived and even betrayed by their allies, accepted what was handed to them and "forgot" the initial purposes of their uprising? Yet, albeit he knew perfectly what were the rules of the game, he played it as if he was above them. That was hardly forgivable, for it was the man of the system who denounced it from inside, as an outsider would do. Really, he could have wished more a fair position towards the Arabs, but some of his compatriots might as well have resented it, and/or wondered: Why should he show such zeal? Why should he use his knowledge and fame to denunciating his government- the British- and through it the allies, although he knew that an officer must respect the hierarchy and be obedient and loyal? Was he not exerting some sort of blackmail?

Obviously, these questions are not easy to answer. Unfortunately for the Arabs who were dreaming of union after the war, their friend could not change the course of the events, for he was too small or too light to weigh of any weight on them. Whether he was sincere at the start or not doesn't really matter, since anyway he was remorseful. But it was too late. As he failed to readjust his position moderately, he gained more enemies than he sought. Days went by while he was looking at himself with pity: He was powerless. Bewildered and disillusioned, he withdrew into a sort of shell made of resentment opposite the West: " In my case, the efforts for these years to live in the dress of Arabs, and to imitate their mental foundation, quitted me of my English self, and let me look at the West and its conventions with new eyes: they destroyed it all for me.”(xvi)

In fact, Lawrence was not lost to the British and the West, but maybe much more to the Arabs whom he tried to gain. Yet, he did it awkwardly, like a man who believes that it is the dress that makes the monk! He should have known that some imitations are rubbish, and that he risked to be suspected, mistrusted, and rejected since he did not convert to Islam - actually, the real criterion in the Bedouin society-; he who had stated that the imitation for the English people is always a parody. But he could not step beyond his Christian heritage and embrace another faith despite what might think Malraux of his so-called anti-Christianity.

In the introductory chapter of S.P.W. we can read this sentence:

" In these pages the history is not of the Arab Movement, but of me in it.”(xvii)

This is rather to put us on the tracks of a leadership. No doubt was being left about the motives driving him across that perilous wandering between London and the Middle East. Like in the play of Pirandello, " Six personages in quest of an author", he was trying to find a part for himself. He was already the "hero", even before anything started on the "stage".



Chapter 1: The Outsider.



(i) David Thomson: England in the Twentieth Century. Penguin Books. 1973. P31.

(ii) Idem. PP33-34.

(iii) Seven Pillars Of Wisdom. T. E. Lawrence. Penguin Books. 1985. P26.

(iv) Idem. P27.

(v) Idem. P28.

(vi) Idem. P28.

(vii) Nikos Kazantzakis: Report to Greco. Bantam Book with Simon and Schuster, Inc. 1966. P261.

(v iii) S.P.W. Op. Cit. P29.

(ix) Idem.

(x) Jean Lacouture : Malraux. Une vie dans le siècle. Le Seuil. 1973. Points. 185.

(xi) Idem. P188.

(xii) Phillip Knightley and Colin Simpson: The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia. Thomas Nelson. 1969. P270.

(x iii) Lacouture. Op. Cit. P191.

(x iv) Idem. P192.

(xv) Anthony Nutting: Lawrence of Arabia. In: Peter Brent: T.E. Lawrence. Ed. Elizabeth Longford. Weidenfeld and Nicholson. London 1975. P158.

(x vi) S.P.W. Op. Cit. P30.

(xvii) Idem. P22.