I saw the picture below in some online publication, and it struck me that quite likely, very few people know where Iraq came from. The picture shows the delegation of Emir Feisal at the Versailles conference post-Great-War; the fellow just over Feisal's left shoulder, with two bands around his kaffiyeh, is T.E. Lawrence, a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia. And therein hangs a hell of a tale.

Faisal and party, including Lawrence, at Versailles

What happened was, Theodore Edward ("Ned" to his family) Lawrence was a promising young archeologist who had worked here and there around the Middle East, and when the War broke out he got himself attached to British military intelligence in Egypt. The British were grappling with the problem of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, which while corrupt and decaying still ruled basically all of the Arab world except for North Africa; there was serious reason to believe that the Turks might roll over British Egypt. British attempts early in the War to invade via Mesopotamia (what we'd call Iraq now) fizzled out nastily. Iraq had been part of the Ottoman empire for hundreds of years at that point.

The Arab hereditary prince of Mecca, a fellow called Hussein (no relation to Saddam), was apparently willing to rebel against the Ottomans if fueled with sufficient quantities of British gold and munitions. However, he was an elderly, eccentric, whimsical low-grade tyrant and showed no signs of military genius. Lawrence was sent on a mission to evaluate Hussain's sons as alternative leaders, and it became obvious that Faisal, the fellow in the picture, had charisma, brains, energy, and integrity, and he was selected as the recipient of British largesse. Lawrence attached himself to Feisal's forces as paymaster, assistant evangelist, and explosives expert.

The combination of decent British generalship, Feisal's charisma, and Lawrence's co-ordination turned out to be a winner, and the British and Arab forces, after the daring guerilla capture of Aqaba, rolled through Jerusalem, Damascus, and by late 1918 were pushing at the borders of Turkey. One of the casualties was the Ottoman Empire.

T.E. Lawrence · This story is worth reading more about, and the best place to read it is in Lawrence's own Seven Pillars of Wisdom, for my money one of the great books of all time. It's not the easiest reading in places - Lawrence had an occasional tendency to Victorian over-writing - but in other places it's fabulous, full of midnight raids, heroic dashes cross the desert, low tribal humor, undecorated bitter death, and really colorful personalities.

If, like me, you find this writing extraordinary, you might want to check out Lawrence's other books - The Mint is a memoir of his postwar life in the R.A.F., The Forest Giant is a translation of an overwrought French romantic novel, and there's a rather good prose translation of the Odyssey. Crusader Castles, an academic monograph on the subject, is not worthwhile even if, like me, you're a Lawrence enthusiast and have visited quite a few of those castles.

If all this makes you start to wonder about what kind of a person Lawrence was, there are any number of biographies, some quite good, but a much better way to find out would be to read his Collected Letters, which are available in several editions. The volume of letters is astounding - Lawrence wrote almost as many letters as today we write emails - typically several per day. Lawrence was deeply weird personally, sexually, and politically, and quite possibly one of the most fascinating humans ever to have lived. A final sidenote on Lawrence: selections from his letters suggest he was also one of the world's first audiophiles and one of the world's first great aficionados of the motorcycle; his writings contain some passionate outpourings on both of these loves.

Oh yes, Iraq · How does this get us to Iraq? Well, after the war, the British found themselves in a difficult situation. Consistent with their ruthless, vicious, Machiavellian imperialist style, they had cut deals with basically anyone, promising them basically anything, to get the help they needed in the War. They'd cut the Sykes-Picot deal with France, giving them modern Syria and Lebanon. They'd issued the Balfour Declaration, promising to help the Zionists build a Jewish Homeland in Palestine.

Meanwhile, Feisal and his victorious army were ensconced happily in Damascus (capital of Syria), and expecting to stay there, since he had a father and older brother who expected to go on ruling Arabia. The British solution to this was to offer Faisal the kingship of the hastily-made-up new nation of Iraq, with the understanding that he would play the role of the good little colonial and not get in the way of British exploitation of the oilfields.

Faisal managed to pass on his rule to his son, but this silly patched-up monarchy ended at that point, and Iraqi politics have been mostly downhill from what was already a bad start. It is well past time that the Iraqis experienced an external intervention that was concerned with something other than Imperial ambitions or petroleum extraction. Will this be the time?

And Lawrence deserves some credit; his anguish over his masters' duplicities as regards the Middle East is starkly palpable in his writings, and explains some of his extremely eccentric postwar behavior.

(Postscript: I have followed the example of my mentor Lawrence in being cheerfully inconsistent in the spelling of Arabic names; they just don't map cleanly onto our alphabet, deal with it.)

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March 05, 2003
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