The Arab Revolt against the Turks in World War I was, in the words of T.E. Lawrence, "a sideshow to a sideshow." As a result, the conflict was shaped to a remarkable degree by four men far removed from the corridors of power. Curt Pruefer was an effete academic attached to the German embassy in Cairo, whose clandestine role was to foment jihad against British rule. Aaron Aaronsohn was a renowned agronomist and committed Zionist who gained the trust of the Ottoman governor of Palestine. William Yale was the fallen scion of the American aristocracy, who traveled the Ottoman Empire on behalf of Standard Oil, dissembling to the Turks in order gain valuable oil concessions. At the center of it all was Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence. In early 1914 he was an archaeologist digging ruins in Syria; by 1919 he was riding into legend at the head of an Arab army, as he fought a rearguard action against his own government and its imperial ambitions.
Based on four years of intensive primary document research, Lawrence in Arabia definitively overturns received wisdom on how the modern Middle East was formed. Sweeping in its action, keen in its portraiture, acid in its condemnation of the destruction wrought by European colonial plots, this is a book that brilliantly captures the way in which the folly of the past creates the anguish of the present.
Justifying this addition to the mountain of works on T.E. Lawrence, fabled war correspondent Anderson (The Man Who Tried to Save the World) reasons that "Lawrence was both eyewitness to and participant in some of the most pivotal events leading to the creation of the modern Middle East... a corner of the earth where even the simplest assertion is dissected and parsed and argued over." Too many biographers of Lawrence, he suggests, have let political biases and academic hobbyhorses overshadow their work. Anderson's own experience in some of the world's most chaotic places allows him to speak with authority in his portrayal, at once critical and appreciative, of Lawrence and other larger-than-life individuals who left their mark on the region. A flair for the dramatic makes even the dullest historical moments redolent of palace intrigue and imperialist hubris. Readers seeking to understand why turmoil has been so omnipresent in the Middle East will benefit from Anderson's easy prose, which makes liberal use of primary sources and research, but reads like a political thriller. The central message seems as relevant today as it was a century ago: revolutions whose success is dependent on the patronage of external powers come at a high price a "loss of autonomy" and an influx of foreign carpetbaggers who show little concern for the inhabitants of the newly "free" land.