Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Don't shoot your camel and other 7 Pillars lessons

Lawrence himself!

Finally finished Seven Pillars of Wisdom by TE Lawrence, also known as Lawrence of Arabia. It details his campaigns in the middle east and every possible piece of minutia along the way.

It took a long time- a long book, written in a style I'm not accustomed to, and then, a lack of interest on my part in getting familiar with every bush and rock formation in the middle east.

But there were quite a few interesting passages.

The one that made me laugh the most was the part where Lawrence described how he unfortunately came to be leading a charge down a hill to attack a train station. His camel was bigger and faster, so while he didn't start out in the lead, he soon found himself up front, where he didn't want to be.

But being the good soldier, and feeling all eyes upon him, he took to the role. As he flew down the hill, pistols blazing, he suddenly found himself flying over the front of his faltering camel. He relates thinking as he was flying in the air, "I'm going to get trampled" and musing that perhaps that was better than getting shot as he led the charge. Then he was knocked unconscious. As he came to, he realized that the camel had saved him from being trampled- everyone had to go around the camel to continue the charge, and that by then, the raid was complete, and folks were working their way back with all the loot they could carry.

As he pieced together the sequence of events he took a look at his prize camel to see what brought her down.

It turns out he had shot her in the back of the head.

In previous posts I've quoted King Feisal's notes about how hard it was to lead his group of barely unified tribes, and how similar the politics here seem now.

Here's another passage which reflects the challenge of creating unity in these communities:

p. 627 Book X, Chapter CXVI.....

As he arrived in a new area...

"The morning airs flashed the olive-yards to silver, and men from a great goat-hair tent on the right called us to guest with them. We asked whose camp it was. 'Ibn Smeir's' they replied. This threatened complications. Rashid was an enemy of Nuri Shaalan's, unreconciled, chance-met. At once we sent a warning to Nasir. Fortunately Ibn Smeir was absent. So his family would be our temporary guests, and Nuri, as host, must observe the rules.

It was a relief, for already in our ranks we had hundreds of deadly enemies, their feuds barely suspended by Feisal's peace. The strain of keeping them in play, and employing their hot-heads in separate spheres, balancing opportunity and service that our direction might be esteemed as above jealousy-- all that was evil enough. Conduct of the war in France would have been harder if each division, almost each brigade, of our army had hated every other with a deadly hatred and fought when they met suddenly. However, we had kept them quiet for two years, and it would be only a few days now."

That is the type of thing I think of when the fights break out in the barracks here- something starts it, and inevitably it devolves into folks from one tribe or region against folks from another. And it very much details some of the challenges of the current political scene in the country as well.

Tooling on the cover of the first public printing, showing twin scimitars and the legend: "the sword also means clean-ness + death"

Lawrence had considerable expertise and understanding of the Arabic culture given his extensive experience living and working among the people. As he preparaed the final stages as the conquering forces took over Damascus, he was concerned about how the British would interact or interfere with what he hoped would be an Arab process:

"My head was working full speed in these minutes, on our joint behalf, to prevent the fatal first steps by which the unimaginative British, with the best will in the world, usually deprived the acquiescent native of the discipline of responsibility, and created a situation which called for years of agitation and successive reforms and riotings to mend." (p. 636)

And here we are, almost 100 years later. Who is unimaginative, now?

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