What I’m Reading: The Seven Pillars of Wisdom

Wow. I’m finally done with The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, by T.E. Lawrence, i.e., Lawrence of Arabia. Yes, these are his memoirs, upon which the famous movie is based, and I feel like I’ve been reading them for months. I have been reading them for months. Too good to put down, too intimidating to pick up for reading before bed, I’ve read it only when I’ve had an unbroken block of 30-60 minutes.

Lawrence had studied archeology in college, I think, and had spent time on digs of crusader castles in Syria, where he perfected his Arabic and spent much time traveling around, familiarizing himself with the land and its people. When World War I broke out, he was a perfect prospect for joining British intelligence in Egypt. The British thought it might help their cause to encourage a rebellion among the Arabs against their Ottoman overlords in Turkey, who were allied with Germany, and sent Lawrence for the job.

Lawrence’s first task was identifying which of old, doddering King Hussein’s three sons would be a good leader for a rebellion, and found the ideal man in Prince Feisal, a calm, fair-minded, Turkish-educated natural leader of men. Together Lawrence and Feisal led a motley collection of Bedouin tribesman and local Arab peasants from Jeddah on the Red Sea coast up to, eventually, Damascus and the ultimate defeat of the Turks in Arab lands.

Lawrence himself becomes a legend in Arabia through the course of the book, a strange blue-eyed figure, a non-Muslim and a clean-shaven man, both great rarities in the desert, yet acting as a sheik and a military leader, with the authority and white robes of Mecca, and a gold Meccan dagger presented him by Prince Feisal himself. When he arrives in an area where he hasn’t been before, the locals all come to see this odd sight firsthand, though of course they already know him by reputation. And he strives to live up to their expectations, living the same hard life as a Bedouin, and even going out of his way to learn words in local dialects and details of local clans, so that he can greet a stranger and ask him of his family on first meeting. Quite an incredible man!

I’m naming this book as one of  my Shortcuts to Smartness, by which I mean a book that so expands your knowledge and understanding in so many areas it’s like a college class in and of itself. But in this case, I’m also including a caveat, which is that this book is so huge and mighty, and much of the knowledge provided so esoteric–the different types of sand in the desert, how to coax a she-camel to travel when she is mourning a lost calf, the difference in what the English and the Arabs conceive of as hunger, and on and on–that it takes a reader truly willing to accompany Lawrence on his journey, including all the immensely interesting, though often lengthy, digressions.

In fact, if you think the movie is long, it is only the thin outer layer of the fruit. I think my favorite part is learning about how to feast in the Bedouin tradition, with goat and camel meat roasted and presented steaming (rude to wait until it cools–too bad for your fingers!), and an elaborate hierarchy of who gets to eat from the common dishes first, who eats second after the best parts are taken, and who gets the bones and other remains.

Or maybe the history of Auda, the old desert warrior who becomes a general in the Arab army, who has killed more than 70 Arabs with his own hands in his life, and so many Turks he doesn’t even know (because who counts Turks?), and who describes to all who will listen the adventures of his life in the most heroic terms.

But these are just two of the many, many interesting descriptions and stories–hundreds, not dozens–sprinkled throughout the main narrative. This book may not be for all, but if you have the will, the desire, most of all the time, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom is worth your attention.

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