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Fame and Its Political Uses

Lawrence returned to Britain to face two additional struggles: a political struggle for Arab independence and a personal struggle with sudden fame. His campaign for Arab independence was initially waged through letters and articles in the major English newspapers, in letters to and meetings with British officials, and in a much discussed audience with King George V. Lawrence refused some medals the king was prepared to present because, he said, of his guilt over the British failure to support the Arab cause. Lawrence attended the Paris Peace Conference at Versailles in 1919 — officially as an advisor to the British delegation, unofficially to support Prince Feisal and Arab aspirations. At the conference France was indeed given a “mandate” over Lebanon and Syria, much to Feisal’s and Lawrence’s chagrin. Britain would rule Palestine.

Lawrence’s fame may initially have been greater in the United States than in Britain. Lowell Thomas’ multimedia shows debuted in New York in March 1919 with a focus on Allenby in Jerusalem and Lawrence in Arabia. The romance of the desert and of this blond, camel-riding “sheik” not only mesmerized audiences; it left a deep imprint on American culture and led to art that gloried in the “exotic orient,” including Rudolph Valentino’s great success with “The Sheik” and similar films.

“While the British Government had been well aware of Lawrence’s achievements, at the end of the war he was almost unknown to the general public. That changed in the summer of 1919 when an American journalist, Lowell Thomas, arrived in London.”
—Jeremy Wilson, T.E. Lawrence Studies

Thomas’ show then opened in London in August 1919 to full houses, which included the royal family, the prime minister and his cabinet, and the young Winston Churchill. With close to a million killed in the war the British had special reason to enjoy this American journalist’s celebration of one of their own. “When we reluctantly see the last picture fade into darkness and recover something from the spell laid upon us,” a critic writes of Thomas’ show in London’s Daily Mail, “we return to the everyday world convinced that we English are a chosen people.” The notion that the Arabs required a blond Englishman to lead them was well received by jingoistic elements in the English press and by jingoistic elements in many English minds. Lawrence, a frequent guest of Thomas and his wife in London, helped him with his show — posing for new pictures in Arab dress and supplying Thomas with information. But Lawrence also recoiled from Thomas’ misstatements and romantic oversimplifications, and what he called his own transformation into “a sort of matinee idol in fancy dress.”

Lawrence was able to use his reputation to help convince the British Foreign Office to create a separate Middle East Department. Winston Churchill, the colonial secretary, was in charge and quickly appointed Lawrence as his advisor. This gave Lawrence an opportunity to lobby, successfully, for the political independence that he had promised to the Hashemite Princes, the family of Arab leaders with whom he had fought the Turks. Although Prince Feisal could not govern Syria which came under French control, he became king of another new country carved out of the old Ottoman Empire: Iraq. Lawrence also helped create the Arab Kingdom of Transjordan, with Feisal’s brother Abdullah eventually on the throne. Lawrence played a major role at the Cairo Conference in 1921, where these borders drawn across the Middle East were finalized — borders that have inspired conflicts that still rage today.

“When I want a thing, I’m prepared to lose everything to get it. Hence I succeed, when I want to. But that is, fortunately for my peace and comfort, seldom.”

—T.E. Lawrence