Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

RE-DRAWING THE MIDDLE EAST: And re-visiting the film “Lawrence of Arabia”

In John Wilmot on September 3, 2014 at 8:38 pm

Recently I’ve been re-watching the classic 1960s film, Lawrence of Arabia.

It was much acclaimed at the time, winning a clutch of awards. It was directed by David Lean but backed by American money through Sam Spiegel at Columbia studios – and the US influence does tend to show through.

Much of it follows the heroic (and sometimes manic) actions of T.E. Lawrence (played by Peter O’Toole) attempting to unite the Arab tribes against the Turks during the First World War. Thus much of the action takes place in the scorching heat of the desert as the various tribes quarrel, unite, and then go on to score stirring victories over a disintegrating Turkish army. They manage to gain control of  Damascus just ahead of the British forces led by General Allenby.

But here Lawrence’s dream of creating an independent Arab state falls apart, as the various tribes once again quarrel amongst themselves, divide the loot, and leave the city.

ARTIFICIAL BOUNDARIES:

And we become aware of a sub plot to all this action. The major players had no intention of allowing the emergence of an independent Arab nation. Instead they had plans to divide the Middle East amongst themselves.

France was to be given what became Syria (further subdivided into Syria and Lebanon), whilst Britain would take control of Iraq.  And so, as they say, it came to pass.

The Middle East and much of North Africa was to be carved up between the European nations. France had much of Morocco plus of course Algeria, and now added Syria to its portfolio. Italy had already seized control of Libya in 1912 and it was to be administered as an Italian colony until 1943.  Meanwhile, Britain added Iraq and what was then known as Transjordan to its “sphere of influence” – that already included Egypt.

“A HOME FOR THE JEWS”:

It was of course a case of the imperial powers sharing out the booty. And, to complicate matters even further, under the “Balfour declaration” we also promised a “home for the Jews” in “the land known as Palestine”.

The declaration was contained in a letter sent by James Balfour, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, to Lord Rothschild in November 1917.

True, the declaration stipulated that respect should be paid to “the existing inhabitants” of Palestine. And, at the time, it was not intended that it should become effectively a Jewish state. But what the letter succeeded in doing was to spread both hope and mistrust amongst Arabs and Jews alike.

Meanwhile, Britain was given the mandate to govern Palestine by the League of Nations (fore-runner of the UN) which it fulfilled until the late 1940s.

The territory was handed back to the United Nations, which decided on partition as a solution to an increasingly intractable problem. The rest, as they say, is history.

A BITTER CONCLUSION:

The Arab nationalism that T.E. Lawrence had bought into so avidly endured until perhaps the 1950s. The notion that a better world, for all Arabs, could be built has now fragmented and sadly has been replaced by a divisive, sectarian, religious fervour that is tearing parts of the Middle East apart..  That sense of Arab identity still exists on paper in the form of the Arab League, but in recent conflicts it has proved to be powerless.

And maybe we can trace much of the conflict back to divisions created by the European powers at the end of the Firs World War. It’s said that we can learn from history (if we’re prepared to do so) – but sadly we can never wind back the clock.

by JOHN WILMOT

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