Lawrence of Arabia

Daily Prompt Ballerina Fireman Astronaut Movie Star When you were 10, what did you want to be when you grew up? What are you now? Are the two connected?

David Lean’s film, Lawrence of Arabia, came out when I was ten almost eleven years old. That was it for me. I wanted to grow up to be Lawrence of Arabia. I realized that there are problems with that aspiration, not the least of which is that Lawrence of Arabia already WAS Lawrence of Arabia, but I was undaunted.

I was also aware that Peter O’Toole was not REALLY Lawrence of Arabia, and I wanted to find out who WAS. This became my life’s first research project. 🙂

I was in between the years of little girl dress-ups and young woman dressing up. In sixth grade, I took a bed sheet to school with a rope from a rope toss game and wore the sheet on my head and so… Yeah. Under the lid of my desk were pictures of T. E. Lawrence. Other girls had The Beatles.

I was regarded as “odd” and “flamboyant” back then and that was all right with me. When my Home Economics teacher asked us how we would decorate our future homes for Christmas, I said I would have a gold brocade table cloth, white dishes trimmed in gold and white napkins. She accused me of being a show-off and asked why I picked those colors. I explained they were “Lawrence of Arabia’s colors.” I can only imagine what went on in her mind. She looked at me and I looked at her. It was a standoff. She had her motives; I had very different ones.

Lawrence of Arabia propelled me into a completely new level of reading — I had to read HIS book, right? So I read Revolt in the Desert (the abridged version of his magnum opus, Seven Pillars of Wisdom) because it was all there was in our little town’s library. Later, looking through the book case at home — my parents’ bookcase — I found my mom’s old book club edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom. I read that. It was tough going, but I persisted. At the time I tried living on dates and water.

This is extreme reading for the eleven and then twelve year old I was then. Lawrence was not a simple man and his ideas of things were iconoclastic, to say the least. I learned about the joyful imprecision of spelling in Arabic from Lawrence’s notes on the spelling of his camel’s name. I learned that (ideally) urine is sterile and can be used for cleaning wounds. I learned that Lawrence was sad about something, but I had no idea what he was sad about. I learned later that the Treaty of Versailles and his role in the sharing out of “bits” of the Arabian Peninsula made him a betrayer of vows he’d made to his Arab allies and a betrayer of vows he’d made to the British government. I understood he, himself, felt used and betrayed by the British. And, like everyone else, I don’t know the whole truth behind that — only that events in Arabia during WW I led us to the horrific situation in the middle east with which we live now.  A good biography — that looks exactly at this question — was written by John E. Mack , The Prince of Our Disorder.

Now that I’m long beyond the sheet on the head and the pictures on my desk first crush with a hero period of life, I wonder what Lawrence would think of the chaos in Syria today? The great moment of the Arab Revolt was the re-conquering of Damascus, taking it from the Turks. Lawrence’ push was to get the Arab army there before the British army so that it would — again — be an Arab city. How did he feel about the ambiguity of his situation, a British serving officer leading an Arab army? He wrote, and I felt it was to me:

Pray God that men reading the story will not, for love of the glamour of strangeness, go out to prostitute themselves and their talents in serving another race. A man who gives himself to be a possession of aliens leads a Yahoo life, having bartered his soul to a brute-master. He is not of them. He may stand against them, persuade himself oa a mission, batter and twist them into something which they, of their own accord, would not have been. Then he is exploiting his old environment to press them out of theirs. Or, after my model, he may \imitate them so well that they spuriously imitate him back again. Then he is giving away his own environment: pretending to theirs; and pretences are hollow, worthless things. In neither case does he do a thing of himself, nor a thing so clean as to be his own (without thought of conversion), letting them take what action or reaction they please from the silent example.

In my case, the effort 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. At the same time, I could not take on the Arab skin: it was an affectation only.

In plainer English, Lawrence knew he had lost himself and hurt those he’d sought to help. He saw his own failure and had few resources remaining to rebuild the infrastructure of himself. His death on a motorcycle has been thought by some to be suicide.

And so, from Seven Pillars of Wisdom, I learned that a person must be true to himself.

I also learned about religion and how three of the world’s foremost religions came from the same place — the desert — and how they were linked to each other, related to each other, offspring of each other, acting in different geographical regions, all disseminating a message that Lawrence explained had come from the borderline of the settled and fecund Semitic world and the desert.

It was significant that this wrack of fallen religions lay about the meeting of the desert and the sown. It pointed to the generation of all these creeds. They were assertions, not arguments; so they required a prophet to set them forth. The Arabs said there had been forty thousand prophets: we had record of at least some hundreds. None of them had been of the wilderness; but their lives were after a pattern. Their birth set them in crowded places. An unintelligible passionate yearning drove them out into the desert. There they lived a greater or lesser time in meditation and physical abandonment… The founders of the three great creeds fulfilled this cycle…

This was the first time I had ever read anything that questioned Christianity. My dad was a skeptic, an agnostic, but my mom was not and I’d been raised in the Baptist church. I really liked the Bible and I liked church and everything related to it, but suddenly I had big questions in front of me exactly at the moment I was expected to — and did — “go forward” to accept Christ as my personal savior. Only later did I fully comprehend that my acceptance of Christianity was more the acceptance of the existence of God, not any particular faith.

You see, from Lawrence I had also learned that Islam, Judaism and Christianity were family members. In spite of his warning NOT to abandon my culture and my world, Lawrence of Arabia, in the words he’d written, had drawn me out of my culture and my world.

So yes; I am Lawrence of Arabia. 🙂

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9 thoughts on “Lawrence of Arabia

  1. Sort of like Garry wanting to be Cary Grant. Many tactical issues including race and that the job was already taken. A few compromises had to be made and instead of Hollywood, he wound up in news. It’s funny where these early aspirations lead. I think we all wound up where we belonged.

    • I like Garry. I wanted to be Willie Mays (when I was 13) and then Wilma Rudolf (when I was 14 and ran extremely fast quarter miles and hurdles). I don’t think I noticed anything about those people except that they did incredibly well at what I was attempting to do well. Willie Mays wall catch? I watched it on TV when it HAPPENED. And I NEVER missed Home Run Derby when he was up ($40 a pop!) And Wilma? My GOD! Wow…. But now we have to look at skin color when we dream. 😦

    • Basically at the Treaty of Versaille, the allied powers split up the region between them. Of course, no one at the time knew what oil would mean to the different nations, though I think they knew it was there. It was the beginning of the nation/state of Israel. Iraq didn’t even exist before that — it was Mesopotamia. Crazy.

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