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Perspective: Himmet Umunç on Lawrence

Excerpt from Himmet Umunç’s “Us and Them: The Idea of Otherness in T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom and F.R. Atay’s Zeytin Daǧi,” February 1999.

“During the war, this early prejudice of his against the Turks was replaced by an implacable sense of hatred, which pervaded his account of the Arab revolt in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and which he never felt the need to conceal. For instance, in a letter he wrote to his mother on 1 July 1916, he praised the Arab Revolt and added:

I hate the Turks so much that to see their own people turning on them is very grateful (Letters 84).

It may still seem puzzling to many of us today why he stereotyped the Turks negatively and depicted his cultural encounter with them in scathing terms. Part of the answer may lie in his study of medieval history at Oxford, which aroused in him a lasting romantic fascination with troubadour poetry, French chansons de geste, romans d’aventure, medieval chivalric life, and in particular, the Crusaders (Mack 38, 41-55; Allen 7-33). Of course, we know that medieval chronicles and histories about the Crusaders’ campaigns in the Middle East are mostly characterized by an anti-Turkish and anti-Islamic discourse (cf. Joinville 211 ff., 286-287 passim). As we learn from Mack (41-47) and Allen (51-72 passim), at the University, Lawrence read these chronicles and histories with great ecstasy and unfailing interest. Obviously, he was so carried away by the history of the Crusaders that, during the Arab Revolt, he thought of himself as a modern follower of the Crusaders and dreamed of the liberation of Syria through the implementation of the strategies he had learned from them:

I felt that one more sight of Syria would put straight the strategic ideas given me by the Crusaders (Seven Pillars 282).

More fantastically, he may have projected himself into a self-sacrificing Arthurian knight, like, for example, Sir Galahad, set on an arduous quest for the Arab holy grail of liberation and independence. We make this comparison because the one book, which he was reading on the eve of the Arab Revolt, was Malory’s Morte d’Arthur (Seven Pillars 113), which, as Mack has pointed, out, he ‘carried with him throughout the Arabian campaign’ (42).”

Read Umunç’s entire paper (PDF).