The Turks knew how to run the Middle East

March 09, 2003|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

One of my favorite films is Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean's epic production about the eccentric Briton who led a Bedouin army against the Turks during World War I, with the vision of an Arab nation that turned out to be an illusion.

I watched it last week and thought it had some interesting lessons.

The film, released more than 40 years ago, pretty much survives the test of time. The scenery is magnificent. Peter O'Toole stars in his first big Hollywood role as Col. T. E. Lawrence - and he is perfectly cast. Jack Hawkins is marvelous as Gen. Sir Edmund Allenby, whose army liberated Jerusalem and Damascus from the Turks. Claude Raines is perfect in the role of political strategist and cynical manipulator of events to advance the interests of the British empire. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz could learn a thing or two from Raines' character.

The film's only flaw may be in its use of Westerners to play the parts of the major Arab characters: Feisal, the Hashemite prince, is played by Sir Alec Guinness, of all people. The Mexican-born Anthony Quinn plays Auda abu Tayi, a fierce chieftain of the Howeitat tribe, and he is fitted with a sharply hooked nose for the role. The Egyptian-born Omar Sharif plays a character named Sheik Sherif Ali ibn el Kharish.

The film, which is based loosely on Lawrence's autobiographical account of the Arab revolt against the Turkish empire, offers some worthwhile instruction for those who would make war and pacts with or against the Arabs in their own land. Both the Arabs and the British learned something of each other in that experience which neither side - certainly not the Arab side - has forgotten.

Simply, the British wanted the Arabs on their side against the Turks because the Turks had made the mistake of allying themselves with the Germans in World War I. The Arabs were being used by the British, but they thought the reverse was true. The tribe governing Mecca and Medina, the holiest cities of Islam, were Hashemites then. They had their eyes on Damascus and Baghdad, which were in the hands of the Turks. There was not much interest in Jerusalem. The House of Saud, which rules Mecca and Medina now, was not the dominant tribe.

Lawrence led this army of Arab tribesmen in one bloody victory after another from Aqaba, in what is now Jordan, to Damascus. There the story closes with the tribal leaders arguing among each other, much as they did last week at the Islamic summit. Feisal realizes that the British and the French have carved up the Middle East to serve their own interests, rather than his.

To Lawrence, he says: "There's nothing further here, for a warrior. We drive bargains, old men's work. Young men make wars, and the virtues of war are the virtues of young men - courage and hope for the future. Then old men make the peace, and the vices of peace are the vices of old men - mistrust and caution."

To be fair, having carved up the region, the British later put Hashemites on the thrones of kingdoms they created in Syria, Iraq and Jordan. Only one of the dynasty survives as a monarch: King Abdullah II of Jordan.

I confess that I am an avid admirer of Lawrence and even once rode camelback with some British soldiers who were retracing his route near Petra and Aqaba. The scenery at Wadi Rum, with its coral-hued cliffs set against a desert backdrop, has not changed much since Lawrence encountered the Bedouin there.

His dream, if he really believed it, was to create Arab unity under a single flag for the people who fought the Turks alongside him. He did not have in mind the carving up of Arabia by the British foreign office, as Winston Churchill, then colonial secretary, did in a cavalier and occasionally tipsy way.

The more time I spent in the Middle East in the 1970s and the 1980s, the more I came to think the region might have been better off if the Ottoman empire had been left intact.

More than 20 years ago, Rashid al-Shawa, an aging sheikh in Gaza told me, "We were far better off with the Turks." Al-Shawa was not pleased with the Israeli presence in Gaza, but neither was he pleased with the presence of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees on land that his family had been cultivating for a long time before they arrived.

"You know," I recall him telling me, "when the Turks were here you could drive all the way from Alexandra [in Egypt] to Alleppo [in Syria], without being troubled by a single border post."

The Turks were corrupt, of course. But they were not religious fanatics. They had a sense of place about the Middle East which was different from the British in their time (the British were in charge there for less than a century; the Turks were there for centuries.) The American sense of place, now that the United States plans to invade and occupy one of the oldest countries of the region, will be different in its own way, probably painfully so.

One wonders how a Turkish administration might have dealt with the likes of Osama bin Laden. He would be in a cave all right - with an Ottoman guarding the entrance.

The fanatic fundamentalists who scare the heck out of many a Middle Eastern potentate probably would not be running amok. There would not be democracy, as we know it here in America. But the idea of putting democracy in place has only recently been a topic of serious consideration.

Lawrence certainly did not have it in mind.

"The Semites' idea of nationality was the independence of clans and villages, and their ideal of national union was episodic, combined resistance to an intruder," he wrote in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his autobiographical account of the Arab revolt. " ... They were fighting to get rid of empire, not to win it."

That was a long time ago, of course. Much has changed since Lawrence fought the Turks. Much has not, as America may soon discover.

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