Letters From Saudi: Lawrence in Cairo’s Shadows

This is the sixth and last part in a series about travels in Saudi Arabia, along the line of the Hejaz railway.


The Camp David Accords, 1978: A painting on display in the National Military Museum in Cairo, showing Present Anwar Sadat, President Jimmy Carter, and Prime Minister Menachem Begin signing the agreement. Peace, however, has eluded the Middle East since the partitions after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I.

To reach Ain Sokhna (a Red Sea port near Suez) from Yanbu required about thirty hours of sailing. Only near Sharm el Sheikh did the Splendida approach the shore.

The sun was warm, but the breeze kept the temperature cool in the shade, and I spent the day shifting my deck chair around to stay in a temperate zone. I had always imagined the Red Sea as a languid body of warm water, but on this particular day it was dotted with white caps and ocean swells.

I decided to end my Lawrence of Arabia search in Cairo, where in 1916 he was first posted as a junior officer in World War I and where five years later, as a peacekeeper, he helped redraw the maps of the Middle East—gerrymandering a hundred years’ war across the troubled region.

The 1921 Cairo Conference

Without detouring (as I had hoped) to the town of Suez, at the southern entrance to the canal, I decided to use my free afternoon in Cairo to make sense of the 1921 Conference that Winston Churchill convened, with Lawrence and Gertrude Bell, among others, to sort out the borders of the new Middle East, at least those pertaining to the British Empire.

It was in Cairo also that Churchill and his cohorts came up with the money-saving idea of maintaining colonial rule in Iraq by having the Royal Air Force bomb any insurgencies that might spring up—as opposed to keeping boots on the ground. (The idea worked no better than did American drones eighty years later.)

To track down the locations of the 1921 Cairo Conference I hired a bicycle and a guide, and gave him the co-ordinates of various waypoints, such as Shepherd’s and the Semiramis Hotel, where the meetings often took place.

I thought that on an expertly-guided bicycle I might avoid Cairo-by-taxi, not one of life’s more enlightening experiences, but instead all I got was a comedy of errors.

Along the Nile by Bicycle

The first two bikes I was offered were broken, and the third, on which I rode, had a defective saddle that felt like an instrument of torture.

The guide decided to ignore my suggestions for a Cairo Conference ride, and only took me to places that interested him, which mostly involved Cairo streets with deadly traffic.

To imagine the 1921 conference I had to make do with accounts in my books, including this one in Michael Korda’s biography of Lawrence, Hero:

Churchill not only was impressed by the young colonel, but would go on to become Lawrence’s lifelong supporter. Perhaps nobody would describe better the effect Lawrence had on his contemporaries than Churchill at the forthcoming peace conference: “He wore his Arab robes, and the full magnificence of his countenance revealed itself. The gravity of his demeanor; the precision of his opinions; the range and quality of his conversations; all seemed enhanced to a remarkable degree by the splendid Arab head-dress and garb. From amid the flowing draperies his noble features, his perfectly chiseled lips and flashing eyes loaded with fire and comprehension shone forth. He looked like what he was, one of Nature’s greatest princes.”

Betraying Pan Arabism

In their biographies of T.E. Lawrence, both Robert Graves and Korda make the point that the Cairo conference resolved some of Lawrence’s painful personal sense of betrayal for promising the Arabs independence and then delivering them up to the fate of Sykes-Picot and other colonial masters.

Graves, in particular, emphasizes this point, quoting at length from a letter Lawrence sent to him describing how the Cairo conference assuaged some of his war guilt:

I want you to make it quite clear in your book, if you use all this letter, how from 1916 onwards and especially in Paris I worked against the idea of an Arab Confederation being formed politically before it had become a reality commercially, economically and geographically by the slow pressure of many generations; how I worked to give the Arabs a chance to set up their provincial governments whether in Syria or in Irak; and how in my opinion Winston Churchill’s settlement has honourably fulfilled our war-obligations and my hopes.’

Lawrence added: “I take most of the credit of Mr. Churchill’s pacification of the Middle East upon myself. I had the knowledge and the plan. He had the imagination and courage to adopt it.”

When Korda quotes the same passage, he concludes: “This was, as it happened, a bold but accurate claim: Lawrence had a central role in shaping the borders of the modern Middle East and in placing Hashemite monarchs on the hitherto nonexistent thrones of Iraq and Jordan.” As Lawrence elsewhere wrote to Graves:

My object with the Arabs was always to make them stand on their own feet. The period of leading things could now come to an end. That’s why I was at last able to abandon politics and enlist. My job was done, as I wrote to Winston Churchill at the time, when leaving an employer who had been for me so considerate as sometimes to seem more like a senior partner than a master. The work I did constructively for him in 1921 and 1922 seems to me, in retrospect, the best I ever did. It somewhat redresses, to my mind, the immoral and unwarrantable risks I took with others’ lives and happiness in 1917-1918.

Of course Irak was the main point, since there could not be more than one centre of Arab national feeling; or rather need not be: and it was fit that it should be in the British and not in the French area. But during those years we also decided to stop the subsidies to the Arabian chiefs and put a ring-wall around Arabia, a country which must be reserved as an area of Arabic individualism. So long as our fleet keeps its coasts, Arabia should be at leisure to fight out its own complex and fatal destiny.

Incidentally, of course, we sealed the doom of King Hussein. I offered him a treaty in the summer of 1921 which would have saved him the Hejaz had he renounced his pretensions to hegemony over all other Arabic areas: but he clung to his self-assumed title of “King of the Arabic Countries.” So Ibn Saud of Nejd outed him and rules in Hejaz. Ibn Saud is not a system but a despot, ruling by virtue of a dogma. Therefore I approve of him, as I would approve of anything in Arabia which was individualistic, unorganized, unsystematic.

Unfortunately, for both Lawrence and the Middle East at large, the region devolved into a patchwork of artificial constructs whose borders no more represented nationalities on the ground than other lines drawn in the sands of Africa.

Hollywood’s Middle East

After my bike ride, I walked through Coptic Cairo and took a taxi to the Citadel and the Egyptian Military Museum, so that I could inspect some cabinets devoted to the 1956 Suez Crisis and see if there might be some material about Lawrence and the Hejaz Railway (there was, but only in passing).

Because it was a Sunday, many families were out strolling, although downtown Cairo is a traffic pinball machine. I did walk to the riverside location of the first Semiramis Hotel, which has been reincarnated as an Intercontinental hotel that looks more like a corporate filing cabinet.

It was the closest association I could find in Cairo for Lawrence, Churchill, and their conference. In fact, when I later looked up the locations where the Cairo scenes of the film Lawrence of Arabia were shot, I discovered that they were in Seville, Spain.

The movie ends with the Arabs in Damascus waving tribal banners in a makeshift parliament, foreshadowing the dysfunction that would dominate inter-Arab politics for the next hundred years, and Lawrence motoring away from the war, worn out from the fighting.

In World War I, the shelf life of junior field officers was generally about six weeks, but Lawrence managed to stay close to the front lines for almost two years.

When in the 1920s he enlisted in the RAF under an assumed name and took a physical, the doctors had some doubts about his denial of prior military service (in keeping with his alias) when they inspected the some twenty wounds he endured in the campaigns.

Lawrence’s Social Network

The movie makes no mention of Lawrence’s postwar literary associations, but they were extensive. He met Siegfried Sassoon and then Graves, John Buchan, Thomas Hardy, Bernard Shaw, and Joseph Conrad, among many others. Korda writes:

If Lawrence could inspire Churchill—a hardened politician; a former soldier himself who had ridden with the Twenty-First Lancers in the last major cavalry charge of the British army at the Battle of Omdurman in 1893, Mauser automatic pistol in hand; and the grandson of a duke—to gush like a smitten schoolgirl, it is hardly surprising that lesser men were bowled over even before Lawrence’s legend took hold. Apart from Churchill, Lawrence made an instant and lifelong friend of Edward (“Eddie”) Marsh, Churchill’s devoted and brilliant private secretary. Through Marsh, Lawrence met many of the literary figures who became his friends over the years, including Siegfried Sassoon. For somebody who already had the reputation of being reclusive, Lawrence had a genius for friendship—he was a master of what would now be called networking, and an indefatigable correspondent.

Elsewhere Korda writes: “The notion of Lawrence as a lonely man is belied by his letters—he wrote to Edward Marsh, to Lord Trenchard, to Sir Edward Elgar, to C. Day Lewis, to Siegfried Sassoon, to John Buchan, to Lionel Curtis, and to Robert Graves. He met and liked Noel Coward (after being taken to a rehearsal of Private Lives), and sent Coward the manuscript of The Mint to read, a gesture of great intimacy and trust.”

Lawrence of Ireland

It interested me to read in Korda and Graves more about Lawrence’s “self-identification” (as we would now say) with Ireland, although he would never visit the country where his father had lived in “a lordly fashion”.

In the 1920s, experimenting as he was with identity, Lawrence spoke of himself as being Irish, which brought him some public rebuke, although not from Graves, who wrote (as is quoted in Korda) that his friend embraced “the rhetoric of freedom, the rhetoric of chastity, the rhetoric of honour, the power to excite sudden deep affections, loyalty to the long-buried past, high aims qualified by too mocking a sense of humour, serenity clouded by petulance, and broken by occasional black despairs, playboy charm and theatricality, imagination that overruns itself and tires, extreme generosity, serpent cunning, lion courage, diabolical intuition, and the curse of self-doubt which becomes enmity to self and sometimes renouncement of all that is most loved and esteemed.”

One of the postwar job offers that came Lawrence’s way, which he declined, was to work for—as Korda writes—“the newborn Irish Free State, where his experience with guerrilla warfare, demolitions, and armored cars would no doubt have come in handy.”

According to Korda, in the postwar period Lawrence also flirted with the idea of writing a biography of Sir Roger Casement, a figure every bit as daring as Erskine Childers. Korda writes:

From time to time he was tempted by further literary projects, among them a life of Sir Roger Casement, the Anglo-Irish British consular official who had been among the first to expose and document the atrocities that were committed in King Leopold of Belgium’s Congo Free State—the background and subject of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness—where it was routine to chop off the right hand of any native who was slow to collect or carry ivory and rubber.

Given Lawrence’s own affection for Joseph Conrad, I am not surprised that he was drawn to someone whose identity was as confused as that of Mr. Kurtz or that his own last years would be as shadowy as that of Lord Jim (of whom Conrad wrote: “Men act badly sometimes without being much worse than others…”).

Home Away From Home

In the end, Lawrence’s last book would be a prose translation of Homer’s Odyssey, which came out in 1935, the year that Lawrence died. I might have thought that Lawrence would have been more drawn to translating the Iliad, a story of war, much closer to his own experiences in Asia Minor and Seven Pillars of Wisdom than the Odyssey, that of postwar wanderings, a search for family and tranquility. But Lawrence went with the latter, as he says in his Forward: “The shattered Iliad yet makes a masterpiece; while the Odyssey by its ease and interest remains the oldest book worth reading for its story and the first novel of Europe.”

When Lawrence was working on his translation, in the mid-1920s, he was closer to Odysseus—lost in the Royal Air Force as if at sea, searching for an imagined home—than he was to Achilles or Ajax, at war with the Trojans. No wonder Lawrence warmed to the author who could declaim near the end of the Odyssey:

Now that royal Odysseus has taken his revenge,
let both sides seal their pacts that he shall reign for life,
and let us purge their memories of the bloody slaughter
of their brothers and sons.

As it happened, my own flight home from Cairo to Milan flew directly over Ithaca, once home to Odysseus, who needed ten years to come home from the Trojan wars and who, like Lawrence, never managed to break the shackles of his own Middle Eastern batt les.

Last in the series. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.