Dances with Camels: the true story of T.E. Lawrence


posted to on April 18, 2003


It should come as no big surprise that dozens of articles in Lexis-Nexis look at the war in Iraq through the prism of an earlier campaign in the region, namely the one led by the legendary T.E. Lawrence.


The March 14, 2003 Financial Times proffers Machiavellian advice to the new imperial power they serve as elderly counsel: "Lesson 3: Do not impose a leader from outside. Britain installed a foreigner as king - Faisal, who accompanied Lawrence of Arabia in the fight against Ottoman rule."


Meanwhile Maureen Dowd is repelled not only by the current campaign, but that led by Lawrence as well. Referring to David Lean's 1962 film in an Apr. 9 Op-ed piece in the NY Times, Dowd conveys the sort of revulsion some sectors of the liberal media felt toward this one-sided blood-letting:


There is an unforgettable scene in "Lawrence of Arabia" when an agonized Lawrence resists as a British commander in Cairo presses him to return to the desert to lead the Arabs revolting against the Ottoman Turks.


Lawrence: "I killed two people. One was yesterday. He was just a boy, and I led him into quicksand. The other was . . . well . . . before Aqaba. I had to execute him with my pistol, and there was something about it that I didn't like."


General Allenby: "That's to be expected."


Lawrence: "No, something else."


General Allenby: "Well, then let it be a lesson."


Lawrence: "No . . . something else."


General Allenby: "What then?"


Lawrence: "I enjoyed it."


With these sorts of references in mind, I took a look at Lean's film for the first time in years, some of Lawrence's writing, and books by various writers who find the legend of T.E. Lawrence (cultivated mostly by himself) eminently resistible.


Since recent scholarship views large swaths of "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" and "Revolt in the Desert" as products of an overheated imagination, it is not so surprising that they lend themselves to a wide-screen spectacle treatment from the director of "Bridge Over the River Kwai" and "Doctor Zhivago". Clocking in at 227 minutes, filmed with the recent innovation called Cinemascope, and incorporating lushly orchestrated overture and intermissions from Maurice Jarre, it seeks to shock and awe the viewer with one panoramic desert scene after another.


What separated this film from the run-of-the-mill spectacle of the late 1950s and early 60s was the sheer eccentricity of the central character, played by the 30-year-old Peter O'Toole. In my benighted small town, many people had the same reaction. They thought it was a good action film--even though the battle scenes paled in comparison to something like "The Young Lions" or "Battle Cry"-- but Lawrence of Arabia's sexual ambiguity was off-putting. Long before Stonewall, many in the audience must have wondered if Lawrence was queer. The discomfort would have only deepened with the pivotal scene, when Lawrence was beaten and then presumably raped by a Turkish officer.


Other aspects would satisfy conventional expectations, especially for viewers weaned on Tarzan movies. With his corn silk blond hair and penetrating blue eyes, O'Toole's Lawrence is in vivid contrast to his swarthy Arab devotees, who are played mostly for laughs. Except for Omar Sharif, no leading actor is an Arab, nor are their characters complex. Anthony Quinn seems to be reprising "Zorba the Arab," while Alec Guinness's King Feisal is a wizened elder constantly uttering profundities like a Moslem Obi-Wan Kenobi.


The film is relatively faithful to T.E. Lawrence's line of march, which pitted him and his Bedouin followers against the rotting Ottoman empire. Although we are supposed to cheer for the underdogs, who ride camels against armored Turkish trains, there is an underlying sense of futility. With such an obviously childish people as the Bedouin, the burdens of civilization and statehood will be impossible to meet.


In Lawrence's writings and in Lean's epic the desert Arab comes across as a kind of noble savage. A good part of Lawrence's legend is his transformation into a White Bedouin himself, starting with his garb. It is entirely likely that the American audiences of the early 1960s had very little idea that Arabs lived in big cities and got as near to a camel as the average sub-Saharan African gets to a giraffe. This sort of stereotypical thinking was akin to Zionist mythology about turning the desert into a garden. In Michael Asher's generally sympathetic debunking of T.E. Lawrence ("Lawrence: the Uncrowned King of Arabia; Viking, 1998), we learn what kind of Arab Lawrence preferred:


"He despised Arab Nationalists like Nasib al-Bakri who believed in development and modernization: he had fallen in love with the 'Old Syria' and hated the thought of change: he wanted the East to remain the mystical, romantic land he had encountered in 1909, but without the oppressive government of the Ottoman Turks. He admired the Bedu and the semi-nomadic or tribal peasants such as Dahoum and Hammoudi — these were the 'real' Arabs. The 'fat, greasy' townsmen of Syria and Palestine were, he considered, of a different race, despite the fact that they were linguistically, culturally and racially homogenous. He perceived the East through a set of highly romanticized - and therefore ethnocentric — ideas. His idea of 'self-determination' was in reality determination by certain traditional and reactionary elements — the Bedu, the Hashemites, the conservative Sheikhs and Islamic elders - who represented his own romantic idea of what the East should be like: not the 'will of the people', but the superimposition of a romantic structure of his own."


Notwithstanding T.E. Lawrence's desire to escape civilization, the contribution of these nomadic tribes of the Sahara to civilization is substantial. Just as the horse played a key role in the expansion of trade and culture in Europe and central Asia, so did the camel in North Africa and the Sahara. With the ability to store water in its hump as well as provide meat and milk, the animal was as ideally wedded to its environment as the bison was to the northern plains in the USA.


When the Roman Empire was in its ascendancy, the Arabs used camels to carry valuable incense from southern Arabia to markets in Syria and the Mediterranean coast. As early as the 4th century, Berber tribesmen in the south of Morocco created depots at oases for the transportation of gold from the African interior to the Mediterranean. By the end of the 8th century, the Arab Omayyad caliphs operated a series of caravan routes across the Sahara. The flow of commodities and culture made sub-Saharan Africa and Europe part of a single economic system that endured until the 15th century when mercantile penetration of West Africa and the growth of chattel slavery created a contrary economic dynamic. (For more on the role of the camel in the rise of civilization, see Jack Weatherford's "Savages and Civilization: Who Will Survive?")


Most of part one of "Lawrence of Arabia" is taken up with the long march to Akaba, a seaside fort that the Turks defended against naval incursions. They never considered the possibility that a camel-riding cavalry could attack the city from the rear, which was Lawrence's inspiration--at least on his say-so. In reality, King Feisal and the various sheiks loyal to him had been hatching such a plan long before Lawrence showed up.


Played as a buffoon by Anthony Quinn in Lean's film, Auda Abu Tayeh was far more of a leader than Lawrence. In one of the most critical battles leading up to the storming of Akaba, Lawrence by his own admission accidentally shot his own camel to death and remained unconscious throughout the battle. "As for Auda, he emerged unscathed even though his horse was killed underneath him and his clothes were riddled with shots in six different places." (Suleiman Mousa, "T.E. Lawrence: an Arab View")


Giving the devil his due, Lawrence did seem to have some facility with dynamite, which he used liberally against Turkish trains. But of far more importance was his control over the purse strings of the Arab Revolt. His boss General Allenby, who is played with frosty reserve by Jack Hawkins in Lean's film, doled out 200,000 pounds, which was a huge sum in those days. After Lawrence's death, Sir Reginald Wingate wrote, "There can be no question of his personal pluck, gallantry and resources, but the money with which I was able to supply him in such large quantities had much more to do with the success of the Arab operation than is realized." (One is tempted to surmise that the US dollars lavished on commanders of the Republican Guard might have had a parallel effect in the most recent Mesopotamian campaign.)


The film and Lawrence's various writings play up his adoption of Arab mores and dress. In a key scene, O'Toole dances rapturously on a bombed out Turkish train in his flowing white robes and headdress. While one might get the impression that Lawrence had gone through a conversion of the sort undergone by Kevin Costner in "Dances With Wolves," the reality is far less romantic.


While an undergraduate at Oxford, Lawrence belonged to the Round Table, a study group that stressed the need for British imperialism to succeed by adapting to the local terrain along the lines of "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."


Round Table member John Buchan wrote an essay called "Lodge in the Wilderness" that outlined key ideas. A summary can be found in Phillip Knightley and Colin Simpson's "The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia":


"It describes a group of imaginary people born within the political and social pale (some of the prototypes are obvious), who are hand-picked by a hero modelled on Rhodes for a house-party on an escarpment in East Africa. They represent the whole range of empire builders, politicians, pro-consuls, traders, men who can pass as natives or stay impis [Zulu armies] with a word. They spend the day shooting lions and visiting chieftains, but as soon as night falls settle to the real business of their meeting, which is to decide how to fire the empire with their spirit. 'The average man [says one of them], may be described as a confused imperialist. He wants to make the most of the heritage bequeathed to him; his imagination fires at its possibilities; but he is still very ignorant and shy, and he has no idea how to set about the work. The first of imperial duties is to instruct him'."


Lawrence cultivated a mystique of himself as more Arab than Arab. Journalist Lowell Thomas (played by Arthur Kennedy as Jackson Bentley in the film) and Robert Graves, his official biographer did much to bolster this image. Working with an uncompleted script by Alexander Korda, Lean's scriptwriter Robert Bolt does nothing to undercut this image. Indeed, one gets the impression from the film that that he acted, in Roger Ebert's words, "less out of patriotism than out of a need to reject conventional British society and identify with the wildness of the Arabs." In other words, he was a counter-cultural figure who yearned to make a connection with the racial Other--an early version of Jack Kerouac wandering around a Negro neighborhood longing to fit in.


To find out T.E. Lawrence's real attitude toward the Arab, it is best to avoid his own large-scale works and turn to the Arab Bulletin, a journal geared to British 'specialists', where he wrote:


"Go easy just for the first few weeks. A bad start is difficult to atone for, and the Arabs form their judgements on externals that we ignore. When you have reached the inner circle in a tribe, you can do as you please with yourself and them. . .


"Wear an Arab headcloth when with a tribe. if you wear Arab things, wear the best. . . . Dress like a Sherif, if they agree to you… wear Arab things at all, go the whole way. I eave your English friends and customs on the coast, and fall back Arab habits entirely. . . But the strain of living and thinking in foreign and half-understood language, the savage food, strange clothes, and stranger ways, with the complete loss of privacy and quiet, and the impossibility of ever relaxing your watchful imitation of the others for months on end, provide such an added stress to the ordinary difficulties of dealing with the Bedu, the climate, and the Turks, that this road should not be chosen without serious thought. Religious discussions will be frequent. . .


"The beginning and ending of the secret of handling Arabs is unremitting study of them. Keep always on your guard; never say an unnecessary thing: watch yourself and your companions all the time: hear all that passes, search out what is going on beneath the surface, read their characters, discover their tastes and their weaknesses, and keep everything you find out to yourself."


This has much more in common with Machiavelli than Jack Kerouac, to say the least.


In part two of the film we witness the capture and torture of Lawrence by Turkish troops. There is also a clear implication that he was raped by the commanding officer, who is played by José Ferrer. On the other hand, "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" leaves nothing to the imagination:


"He began to fawn on me, saying how white and fresh I was, how fine my hands and feet, and how he would let me off drills and duties, make me his orderly, even pay me wages, if I would love him.


"I was obdurate, so he changed his tone, and sharply ordered me to take off my drawers. When I hesitated, he snatched at me; and I pushed him back. He clapped his hands for the sentry, who hurried in and pinioned me. The Bey cursed me with horrible threats: and made the man holding me tear my clothes away, bit by bit. His eyes rounded at the half-healed places where the bullets had flicked through my skin a little while ago. Finally he lumbered to his feet, with a glitter in his look, and began to paw me over. I bore it for a little, till he got too beastly; and then jerked my knee into him."


For most filmgoers, the visual cues were sufficient to convey the same exact impression as Lawrence's prose, that of a deviant and sexually voracious Turk on the prowl. This is the same kind of Turk who turns up in 18th century operas and "Midnight Express" alike.


Not only is this crass Orientalism, it is false. Based on investigations by Knightley and Simpson, the Bey of Deraa never touched T.E. Lawrence. He was a heterosexual, of whom his own words and independent testimony paint an entirely different portrait. Hacim Bey told his son that he never met T.E. Lawrence, nor even knew what he looked like. In the Bey's diaries, there is no reference to his capture, but there are frequent references to women: "We spent the night in Damascus and enjoyed ourselves with…" (A list of girl's names follows.) Another entry refers to his contracting gonorrhea. His nephew told the investigators: "There is no one in the family who did not know his weakness for women." Turkish novelist Yakup Karaosmanoglu, who was very close to the Bey as a youth, said that if he were gay, he certainly would have known about it.


Since the film explains Lawrence's subsequent bloodthirsty assaults on Turkish soldiers as a function of this assault, it amounts to a subtle form of homophobia. When Lawrence kills wounded Turkish soldiers later in the film, it is natural that 1960s audiences might accept this as a tit-for-tat.


Although I am no Freudian, Lawrence's confabulations about homosexual rape might be understood as a projection of his long-standing sadomasochistic desires, which were satisfied in a long-term relationship with a bouncer named John Bruce whom Lawrence persuaded to join the army with him. Over the years, both in uniform and back in civilian life, Bruce collected birch branches with which he would whip Lawrence. Lawrence would also pay him a few quid and say, "Thanks! Good job."


Although it is hard to have much sympathy for Lawrence, one wonders what kind of mark he would have made on the world if he had been as open about his sexuality and as sincerely devoted to the struggles of the oppressed as Roger Casement, who was executed for participating in the Easter Rebellion. By contrast, Lawrence spied on IRA sympathizers when in the army.


That being said, Lawrence was complex enough of a character to have become a great admirer of Casement. In a letter to Charlotte Shaw, the playwright's widow with whom he maintained a long-term correspondence and filial affections, he wrote:


"I say, don't you think you could some day, when G.B.S. was sleeping in the Garden, whisper to him that he should write a life of Roger Casement? The drama of the man's life was so beautiful. . . his early Congo work, his difficult Putamayo work. . . his life in Germany, his trial and death. Those diaries . . . provide all the man's very words and thoughts. To mirror him properly calls for a Cervantes-of-the-first-part-of-Don-Quixote. Not the official life, of course, in two volumes: but just a living portrait of a queer knight..."


Lean's film concludes with a triumphal march into Damascus, which begins to sour almost immediately because the Bedouins are too backward to run a modern city, including the electrical generating plant. When Lawrence visits the local hospital, which is without water or electricity, he recoils in disgust. The clear message is that the natives are not ready for self-rule. In the final chapter of "Seven Pillars of Wisdom," Lawrence sizes up the situation in Damascus in terms quite similar to those being expressed by the US military brass in Baghdad:


"We passed to work. Our aim was an Arab Government, with foundations large and native enough to employ the enthusiasm and self-sacrifice of the rebellion, translated into terms of peace. We had to save some of the old prophetic personality upon a substructure to carry that ninety per cent of the population who had been too solid to rebel, and on whose solidity the new State must rest.


"Rebels, especially successful rebels, were of necessity bad subjects and worse governors. Feisal's sorry duty would be to rid himself of his war-friends, and replace them by those elements which had been most useful to the Turkish Government. Nasir was too little a political philosopher to feel this. Nuri Said knew, and Nuri Shaalan.


"Quickly they collected the nucleus of a staff, and plunged ahead as a team. History told us the steps were humdrum: appointments, offices, and departmental routine. First the police. A commandant and assistants were chosen: districts allotted: provisional wages, indents, uniform, responsibilities. The machine began to function. Then came a complaint of water-supply. The conduit was foul with dead men and animals. An inspectorate, with its labour corps, solved this. Emergency regulations were drafted."


While Lawrence ends on this guardedly optimistic note, we know from history that things went down rapidly. To understand the impact of British victory, which was always uppermost in Lawrence's mind despite his public stance on behalf of the "Arab Revolt", we have to start with the goals professed in a letter to his biographer Robert Graves:


"I want you to make it quite clear . . . how from 1916 onwards and especially in Paris I worked against the idea of an Arab Confederation being formed politically before it had become a reality commercially, economically and geographically by the slow pressure of many generations; how I worked to give the Arabs a chance to set up their provincial governments whether in Syria or in Iraq; and how in my opinion Winston Churchill's settlement has honourably fulfilled our war-obligations and my hopes."


Or a letter to his parents:


". . . the Arab Movement is shallow, not because the Arabs do not care, but because they are few—and in their smallness of number (which is imposed by their poverty of country) lies a good deal of their strength, for they are perhaps the most elusive enemy an army ever had, and inhabit one of the most trying countries in the world for civilized warfare. .  . Talk about Palestine or Syria or Mesopotamia is not opportune, when these three countries—with every chance—have made no effort towards freedom for themselves."


Minutes taken at the Eastern Committee meeting of the British Privy Council on December 5 1918 are even more revealing:


"Colonel T E Lawrence stated that there had been much talk of self-determination, although he believed that in many ways it was a foolish idea. He went on to say that Britain might well grant people who had fought alongside British forces the right to self-determination. But he believed that people such as the Mesopotamian Arabs, who had fought against Britain, did not deserve the right to self-determination. He concluded that the situation would be in a state of perpetual flux."


The Mesopotamian Arabs referred to above are the ancestors of the modern inhabitants of Iraq, who never lent themselves to British manipulation. Under the terms of the Sykes-Picot Treaty, Iraq became a protectorate to be ruled by Lawrence's ally King Feisal who ruled from afar in Damascus. Lawrence's victory set the pattern for British and US imperialism for the rest of the century. Relying on the most backward elements of Arab society, control over precious resources would be maintained through a combination of feudal social institutions and colonial military expeditions.


The first province to rise up was Iraq. In 1923, the people of Iraq got a taste of what would await them time and time again. In the words of Sven Lindqvist's "A History of Bombing":


In Baghdad in February of 1923, the newly arrived staff officer Lionel Charlton visited the local hospital in Diwaniya. He had expected diarrhea and broken bones, but was instead suddenly and surprisingly confronted with the results of a British air raid. The difference between a police baton and a bomb was brutally obvious.


Had it been a question of war or an open rebellion, he as an officer would not have had any complaint, he writes in his memoirs, but this "indiscriminate bombing of a populace ... with the liability of killing women and children, was the nearest thing to wanton slaughter." He became more and more doubtful about the methods with which "an appearance of law and order" was maintained in Iraq.


Soon a new sheik had stirred up a rebellion and had to be punished. But from 3,000 feet it was not so easy to target him specifically. When the bombs exploded without warning in the crowded bazaar, innocent and powerless subjects would be killed along with their oppressors.


All in all, the story of T. E. Lawrence in Arabia remains a compelling one. Like Colonel Gordon of Khartoum, Lawrence was a man of enormous political and sexual contradictions. Lean's spectacle has some similarities with the 1966 "Khartoum" that starred Charlton Heston as the ill-fated British colonial administrator of the Sudan. With a five-minute overture and abundant doses of Orientalism, "Khartoum" has very little insight into the Muslim character or aspirations. Perhaps if David Lean had not fired his original screenwriter, the film would have turned out differently.


Lean had asked Michael Wilson, a blacklisted American screenwriter then living in Paris, to write the screenplay. According to Joel Hodson, the author of a 1994 Cineast article titled "Who Wrote Lawrence of Arabia?: Sam Spiegel and David Lean's Denial of Credit to a Blacklisted Screenwriter", the two diverged over what elements of Lawrence's career should be emphasized:


Lean's comments suggest that a principle reason for the falling out of the two formerly successful collaborators-apart from Wilson's exasperation with Lean's exacting demands for continual rewrites-seems to have been that each wished to pursue a fundamentally different approach to the subject. Lean's interest in Lawrence was primarily psychological-" I've always been fascinated by these 'English nuts.'- Lean explained, "and Lawrence was a nut, of the most wonderful kind"-whereas Wilson wanted to situate Lawrence's exploits within the broader political context of Anglo-Arab and other international relations of the WWI period. As a filmmaker, Lean had never been interested in social and political themes and Wilson's script contained numerous politically charged scenes, including an Ottoman execution of Syrian rebels in the presence of Prince Feisal. Given his political orientation, Wilson may have been reluctant to eliminate such scenes, or to focus on a psychological character study at the expense of what he felt were more important socio-political aspects of the larger historical drama.


Now that the Arab Revolt is taking shape once again, new heroes will emerge. No matter how much imperialism endeavors to cast itself as the Great White Father to the Kurd, the Shi'ite or the Sunni, their own stories with their own heroes and heroines will command the attention of Arab artists or non-Arabs who respect the truth.




"Seven Pillars of Wisdom" is online at:


Articles on "Lawrence of Arabia", including the Cineaste article referred to above, can be found at


T.E. Lawrence Society:


Arab Gateway page on Lawrence:


Suleiman Mousa, "T.E. Lawrence: an Arab View" (Oxford Press, London, 1966)


Phillip Knightley and Colin Simpson, "The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia" (Nelson Press, London, 1969)


Michael Asher, "Lawrence: The Uncrowned King of Arabia" (Viking, New York, 1998)