With Lawrence in Arabia

The lure of the desert is something that strikes a chord in all of us. The legendary adventurers of bygone ages have left us a record that tries to capture something of that attraction – the vast emptiness, the terrifying vulnerability of travelers venturing across it.

With Lawrence in Arabia





The so-called Arab Revolt that threw off the Ottoman yoke played a crucial role in supporting in the outcome of the First World War, a series of roving desert raids as European armies slugged it out in the trenches of the Somme.


 


Max Scott


 


The lure of the desert is something that strikes a chord in all of us. The legendary adventurersof bygone ages have left us a record that tries to capture something of that attraction – the vast emptiness, the terrifying vulnerability of travelers venturing across it. Explorers such as Burton, Thesiger, Doughty and Lawrence were all driven to chart the experience and their mesmerizing accounts were often the first reports the world had ever really had of this uncharted territory.



The most brilliant of all those early accounts must surely be what came to us from T.E. Lawrence, or “Lawrence of Arabia” as he was commonly known. In April 1917, as Woodrow Wilson was declaring war on Germany and Lenin was making his triumphal entry into Petrograd, this controversial British colonel was out in the Saudi desert trying to stir Arab tribal revolt against the lingering Ottoman presence. A born writer, he drew upon his experiences in the desert to write Seven Pillars of Wisdom. This book, one of the best ever written on Arabia, achieved levels of description that bordered on poetry. Whether plodding along on treks through endless sands or galloping to attack a Turkish outpost, Lawrence somehow managed to absorb the color, the detail, the mood of the moment and later recreate it in clear and lovely prose—such as this account of a raiding party’s return to camp after a raid on the Hejaz Railroad at Hedia, some 170km up from Madinah:



This storm lasted for eighteen minutes, and then leaped forward from us as suddenly as it had come. Our party was scattered over a square mile or more, and before we could rally, while we, our clothes and our camels were yet smothered in dust, yellow and heavy with it from head to foot, down burst torrents of thick rain and muddied us to the skin. The valley began to run in plashes of water, and Dakhil-Allah urged us across it quickly.



The wind chopped once more, this time to the north, and the rain came driving before it in harsh sheets of spray. It beat through our wollen cloaks in a moment, and moulded them and our shirts to our bodies, and chilled us to the bone....



It was very dark; a pure night enough, but the black stone underfoot swallowed the light of the stars, and at seven o’clock, when at last we halted, only four of our party were with us. We had reached a gentle valley, with a yet damp, soft, sandy bed, full of thorny brushwood, unhappily useless as camel food. We ran about tearing up these bitter bushes by the roots and heaping them in a great pyre, which Auda lit. When the fire grew hot a long black snake wormed slowly out into our group; we must have gathered it, torpid, with the twigs. The flames went shining across the dark flat, a beacon to the heavy camels which had lagged so much to-day that it was two hours before the last group arrived, the men singing their loudest, partly to encourage themselves and their hungry animals over the ghostly plain, partly so that we might know them friends. We wished their slowness slower, because of our warm fire.



Lawrence goes on to describe how he and his companions laid mines beneath the sleepers of the railroad, scurrying to retreat and watch the impact of the explosion – scenes captured vividly in David Lean’s epic film, Lawrence of Arabia. One account tells of their horror as they realize the oncoming train is full only of women and children, southbound pilgrims to the holy cities, and their relief as the mine fails to detonate. Long hours through the night are spent searching for the hair trigger mechanism amongst 100 yards of clinker beneath the track. Success is realized as they hear the distant detonation the following morning from Bir Rubi’aan, and later learn of the destruction of a train carrying engineers and replacement sleepers. As Lawrence later says:



Some of the evil of my tale may have been inherent in our circumstances. For years we lived anyhow with one another in the naked desert under the indifferent heaven.



The wild empty spaces that Lawrence describes still holds us in thrall. The passing century since the events related in The Seven Pillars has not dimmed our fascination with this land. It is a space that to this day we enter at our peril, for all that we may be bolstered by technology and science, and that danger, coupled with a rugged beauty, can be relied upon to continue inspiring travelers and writers for many years to come. — SG