Revolt in the Desert
A Blessed Companion Is A Book.
by George H. Doran Co. 1927. 8vo. xx+328 pp. Illus. $3.00.. New York:
IT is a sober fact that since God’s prophet, Mahomet, consolidated the Arab tribes thirteen centuries ago no man till Colonel Lawrence has been able to bring them together. And yet the whole history of Arabia might be read in the light of attempts to do this very thing. Mahomet was an epileptic camel-driver (as Oric Bates used to say), and Lawrence a young Oxonian archæologist. The Turks were to be driven out. Lawrence deliberately went in search of a native who possessed the qualities of a leader and made him king. In his book he does not suggest for a moment that this could have been done without the consent and the very active coöperation of British high commissioners, admirals, general officers, and political agents on the spot. But at the same time it is very improbable that it could have been brought about without Lawrence. The Turk was beaten by Allenby and a score of other greater soldiers than our author, but Feisal was chosen and made king by Lawrence.
Perhaps it was no less an achievement to persuade the British Staff in the Near East that his scheme was sound than it was to guide Feisal in winning the allegiance of the tribes and subtribes in Arabia. But at least British word, once given, was to be trusted, and help, when promised, was usually sent. But Arab oaths were not always so literally kept, and sheiks proved more temperamental than British officers. Of what came at the end of the war, when politicians took the place of officers, this book does not tell. That was a bitterness which we shall never know, and which must have been worse than the bitter waters that Lawrence drank when he lighted from his fast she-camel by the stinking wells of Sirhan.
But what his book does tell us, better perhaps than any other book that ever was written, is about intrigue and hand-to-hand fighting under conditions as romantic as any that are left on the globe. The very names of the places are soulsatisfying mouthfuls. To be a Cook’s tourist in the valley before Akaba would be bliss, but to have taken part in the fight there must have made a day that no soldier could forget. And yet how little Lawrence is the typical soldier is shown by one extraordinary paragraph which comes near to describing the indescribable. I think no one has ever attempted it in English before. They were lying about, spent after victory, and wondering if it was worth while to cook dinner, ‘for we were subject at the moment to the physical shame of success, a reaction of victory, when it became clear that nothing was worth doing and that nothing worthy had been done.’ ‘The physical shame of success’ is, of course, masterly. In fact the whole book is lighted by such flashes. He describes men as he does his own moods: ‘Feisal was a fine hot workman, whole-heartedly doing a thing when he had agreed to it’; and at the same time he manages to give you insight into the strange mixed meaning of the whole campaign: ’During two years Feisal so labored daily, putting together and arranging in their mutual order the innumerable tiny pieces which made up Arabian society, and combining them into his one design of war against the Turks. There was no blood feud left active in any of the districts through which he passed and he was Court of Appeal, ultimate and unchallenged, for western Arabia.’
Desert and sky, nomad horsemen and the interiors of council tents and starry night rides, are pictured in a way that makes even the drawings of Augustus John, which adorn the volume, seem almost superfluous; though these drawings are as offhand and as slangy as the writing itself. But do not for a moment be misled — the writing is not offhand, nor is it the work of a delightful amateur. It is flat, flagrant art, as Kipling said, and so was the war that Lawrence made when he wrapped himself in a live Arab skin to go looting Turkish trainsand sit spitting-and picking his teeth and belching after a full meal in a king’s tent.