Setting the Desert on Fire: T. E. Lawrence and BritainŐs Secret War in Arabia, 1916-1918 by James Barr

Norton & Company 2008  352 pp.

Copyright © Steven E. Alford

The theater of World War I looms large in the Western imagination: trenches, gas, stalemate.  Yet, alongside this seemingly pointless exercise in useless slaughter ran another conflict whose level of romance and complexity can scarcely be exaggerated, the Revolt in the Desert.  James BarrŐs Setting the Desert on Fire takes on the British-sponsored Arab opposition to the German-allied Turks, giving us a story of governmental intrigue, betrayal of the Arabs, and, best of all, the image of T. E. Lawrence astride a camel, galloping across trackless sands to harass the Turk in the service of an ultimately illusory Arab freedom.

BarrŐs story covers the war years of 1916-1918 and begins in the withering blast furnace of the Hijaz, a stretch of desert from Aqaba in the north to Medina in the south.  Punctuated by the tribal rivalries and banditry of the indigenous, roaming Bedu, this stretch of desert also was home to the Hijaz railroad. Opened in 1908, it brought the wandering tribes in contact with the Turks and, over time, the British, whose interests also included the Suez Canal.

To stave off threats to the canal and to harass the Turks, British officers in Cairo and India developed a plan to use the Bedu to foment an Arab rebellion in the region.  What they didnŐt know was that Lawrence of Arabia would succeed, not only beyond their expectations, but beyond the scope of a secret agreement with the French that directly contradicted promises made to the Arabs.  This infamous agreement was known as the Sykes-Picot agreement. 

British intelligence officer Francis Stirling explains: MP ŇMark Sykes É formed a compact with the French É whereby Beirut and the entire littoral northward of there should be under French administration and that Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo should be allowed to fall to the Arabs É but should be under French influence.Ó

Concurrently, the British were promising Husein ibn Ali, emir of Mecca, kingship of the Arab world in return for assisting the British.  Husein and his sons, along with other tribal leaders such as Auda abu Tayi of the Huwaytat, formed a guerilla force led by Lawrence and others that successfully severed the Hijaz railroad, cutting Turkish power in the region in pieces.  Ultimately, they conquered Aqaba and finally the jewel of the region, Damascus.

In 1917, in the middle of the conflict, British foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour declared that Palestine should be the home to the Jewish people, and, assisted by Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann sought to make his declaration a post-war reality.

The evident complexity of these relations cannot be overstated.  The Bedu hated the Turks, who hated the British, who mistrusted the French, who were being criticized as colonialists by the Americans, who supported the Jews, who were tolerated by the Bedu, who were enemies with fellow Arab Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, the Wahhabist extremist who would go on to form modern Saudi Arabia.

Barr handles this detailed story with admirable competence, although itŐs also up to the reader to pay attention.  Less successful is BarrŐs recurrent references to his own recent journey to the region.  While the trip may have been helpful to him in the composition of the book, it adds little to the story.

A substantial portion of the book is properly devoted to Lawrence, and fans of his magnificent Seven Pillars of Wisdom (or, for that matter, David LeanŐs movie) will find BarrŐs objective perspective bracing.  Barr examines LawrenceŐs sexuality without prurience, employing his discoveries to solve the mystery of a period in 1917 when Lawrence went missing.

The craven and seemingly routine betrayals of the Arabs by the British might be admired as Realpolitik were it not for our own knowledge of how their cartographic horse trading, alongside the disgraceful actions of our current government, have created such misery in the region. Those interested in an up-close view of a decisive moment in this explosive meeting of East and West will find Setting the Desert on Fire exciting and instructive.