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Seven Pillars of Wisdom is a historical autobiography written by T. E. Lawrence. During the First World War, British instigated the revolt of Arabs against Turkey while she herself engaged Germany. The plan was for British to win the war from two fronts, though the idea was sold to the Arabs as a freedom campaign which Britain was apparently ready to support.
Lawrence was part of this revolt, fighting alongside Arabs even though he was aware that his government was being dishonest with the Arabs. Chapters 41 through 58 detail Lawrence’s expedition’s imminent arrival at Akaba.
Lawrence wrote that this story ought not to be read as the history of the Arab movement but as the history of him in it (Lawrence). The book therefore comprises of the feelings, experiences and reflections of Lawrence and all the other personalities around him who found themselves caught up in these historical moments.
Quite a number of significant players are to be found between chapters 41 and 58 of the book since the Arab revolt involved many people. Foremost, there is Lawrence himself, the Briton charged, on behalf of the British government, to lead the expedition to take Akaba. Lawrence is aware of the insincerity of the British government in its dealings with the Arabs. For this reason, he is guilt ridden and hopes to make the revolt work not only to satisfy British interests but also to ultimately free the Arabs.
Then, there are the Arabs, under the leadership of Auda Abu Tayi and Nasri. The Arabs are happy and excited at the prospect of freedom. They are painfully unaware of the immensity of the task they have undertaken and innocently trustful of the good intentions of the Britons. Unseen, but constantly felt, is the presence of the British government and the depth of its insincerity.
The chapters describe the passage of Lawrence’s expedition across the deserts and over the ranges of present day Saudi Arabia as it heads for Akaba. The town was deemed strategically important since it could hamper the approach of the British via the Mediterranean Sea as it portended a risk to the operations of the Suez Canal (Lawrence). Akaba, today known as Aqaba, is a strategic port town in present day Jordan, but was at the time under the control of the Turks.
These chapters vividly describe the fatigue experienced by the men from riding camels all day; the discomfort of being scorched by the desert sun; the distress of being caught in the sand whirling in the desert wind; the thrill of the constant threat of coming under attack from unknown enemies; and under all this, the knowledge by Lawrence that the whole affair was a lie.
It being an account of individual experiences, the most important occurrence in the chosen chapters is the deep and profound guilt that is felt by Lawrence. Since the Arabs are deemed distrustful of institutions, and could therefore not be prevailed upon under the mere assurance of the British government to go to war, it had fallen upon Lawrence to be the face of the British to the Arabs. He had strived, and succeeded, in gaining their confidence.
He however knew that the McMahon pledges and the Sykes-Picot treaty would come to naught once the war was won (Lawrence). In pushing forward with the expedition, he would be taking advantage of the trust the Arabs had in him, and by exploiting their thirst to free Syria and putting the lives of men at risk on the basis of false pretenses.
Having assured them that “England kept her word in letter and spirit” after which the Arabs fell in line behind him, he felt nothing but consistent and bitter shame (Lawrence). It is for the need to assuage this guilt that he endeavored to steer the Arab Revolt in such a fashion that it would become “its own success” and in so doing, Britain would be unable to deny the Arabs their moral earned rights (Lawrence).
After the liberation of Syria, The General Syrian Congress arrived at the following resolutions detailing the wishes of Syrians: “that the people of Syria wanted their independence to be recognized; that they rejected the idea of political tutelage; that they rejected any attempts to divide Syria; and that they would be appreciative of foreign assistance for a limited period of time” (Glubb 106-7).
France was however given the mandate to occupy Syria by the Supreme Council of Allies and the British army was soon replaced by that of the French. This was in spite of the fact that Syrians were strongly against foreign occupation. Consequently, Amir Feisal, who had fought in the Arab Revolt, received an ultimatum demanding his recognition of the French mandate in Syria (Glubb 109).
The contemporary significance of the events described in the chapters chosen arises from their causal relationship with the sequence of occurrences that followed. The areas in Syria that were occupied by the French happened to be the ones that had been promised to the Arabs in the Sykes-Picot Agreement (Glubb 112).
The fact that Britain went back on its word on this particular instance, in view of the ensuing political upheaval in Syria for the subsequent decade, ended up in the Arabs being consistently suspicious of the intentions of the British. Even though no such claims had been made by British, it was felt by the Arabs that the original intention behind the British actions was for Syria to be divided up between France and Britain.
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The French occupation of Syria resulted in the eventual adoption of Western political and cultural concepts. The eventual adoption of democratic institutions of governance, though of a rather primary kind, and the increased imitation of Western culture by young generation Syrians led to the neglect of significant cultural practices. For instance, the apparent gradual loss of the traditional politeness and manners that has previously characterized the Syrian tradition has been attributed to this contact with western culture (Glubb 187).
The events described in “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” are of great significance. Through them we get insights behind the complex relationship between Britain and Arabs. It could be argued that in Lawrence is to be found the incarnation of the British sentiment towards Arabs after the events in Syria. The dishonesty of the British in their dealings with Arabs resulted in the French occupation of Syria and a deeply ingrained suspicion of Britons by Arabs.
The British might not have been able to go against the occupation of Syria by France. What matters however, is that they had conspired to dishonor their promises to the Arabs even prior to the French entry into the equation. This suspicion reinforced by other historical occurrences, still characterizes how Arabs view not only the British but the whole of the Western world.
Glubb, John. Britain and the Arabs: A Study of Fifty Years 1908 to 1958. London: J.B.G Ltd, 1959. Print.
Lawrence, Thomas. “Seven Pillars of Wisdom.” 2011. Web. Project Gutenberg.