The Modern Middle East

Review :

This is a fascinating book, for the most part well written. While the key character is T. E. Lawrence, the book is formally structured as an examination of the roles of and sometimes interaction among four characters: T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), Curt Prufer (umlaut over the u), Aaron Aaronson, and William Yale.

A brief note about each. Lawrence began World War I on an archaeological expedition--and ended up as a celebrity. Prufer was a German who worked for German interests in the Middle East. Aaronsohn was a Zionist and an agronomist trying to enhance agriculture in Jewish areas. He also developed a spy network as World War I broke out. Yale was of the family after whom the college was named. He was, at the outset of WW I, an official for Standard Oil of New York (now Mobil) seeking access to lands that might be rich in oil. During the war, he became a representative of the United States' foreign policy apparatus.

The book provides considerable depth to each of these persons--but Lawrence is at the center. He is portrayed as somewhat enigmatic, someone who was almost a tragic character. While he fought for Arab independence, he knew of nefarious schemes by the English and French to be dominant forces in the Middle East after the war's end. He was a decent person who ended up tolerating acts of violence (such as watching as prisoners were killed after surrendering). The author suggests that, after a period of time at war, he became someone afflicted with Post traumatic stress disorder.

Aaronsohn, too, was an important figure. He tried to advance Zionist ideals and saw that working with Great Britain might be the best pathway. He developed an espionage network in the Middle East, with his sister as a key player. It took a great effort to get the British officials in the Middle East to pay attention. The spy network suffered greatly for his vision. The story also tells of the tension between Aaronsohn and a key leader among Zionists--Chaim Weizmann.

Other important actors are portrayed as well. The Hussein family, whose father and sons became important leaders in the Middle East after the war, albeit compromised in many respects by the English and French. Then, the ibn Saud family (ultimately becoming the rulers of Saudi Arabia).

The book does a very good job of outlining the complex interactions among countries, the cynicism of European powers in the Middle East, the negative results of this cynicism. The development of the Middle East was perverted by European efforts at domination, as the end of the book attests.

One final feature of note--the discussion of the fates of the major characters in this drama.

All in all, this is a fine volume, and one well worth looking at if one wishes to understand the roots of some current dysfunction in the region.


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