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Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Why have I never read T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars before?
This is obviously the summer to read it. It isn’t written in cinemascope, and Peter O’Toole doesn’t star in it. Actually, it is more like the English equivalent of the advice from the guerilla war experts to come – Giap or Mao. Lawrence thinks through the way to fight an organized state enemy in the desert on behalf of a non-organized entity, vaguely given the title of the “Arab Revolt.” I am sure his thought processes have gone through the minds of the insurgents in Iraq, unconscious as they no doubt are of the precedent. Lawrence figures out how to make a strength out of weakness – out of the inability to give battle. ‘We were to contain the enemy by the silent threat of the vast unknown desert, not disclosing ourselves till we attacked. The attack might be nominal, directed not against him, but against his stuff; so it would not seek either his strength or his weakness, but his most accessible material.” For Lawrence, railroads. In Iraq, oil pipelines. And this: “Battles in Arabia were a mistake, since we profited from them only by the ammunition the enemy shot off.”
But setting aside the excellence of the remarks on the landscape of struggle, there are also amazing passages of pure writing. I think that Lawrence’s account of the consequences of the murder of one of his men should be much better known – although perhaps I simply mean that I should have known it earlier. I was talking with my friend A.C. about this last week. He definitely knew the book, and he glommed onto the part about the murder in such a way that I thought, well, this must be a locus classicus.
Anyway – for those of you who haven’t read the book, what happens is this. Lawrence is suffering from a fever. He is out on an expedition with a pared down force. One of the men, Hamed, gets into an argument with another man and shoots him dead. There is a bustle in the camp as the victims relatives rush about, trying to find the killer:
“As I lay there I heard a rustle, and opened my eyes slowly upon Hamed's back as he stooped over his saddle-bags, which lay just beyond my rock. I covered him with a pistol and then spoke. He had put down his rifle to lift the gear; and was at my mercy till the others came. We held a court at once; and after a while Hamed confessed that, he and Salem having had words, he had seen red and shot him suddenly. Our inquiry ended. The Ageyl, as relatives of the dead man, demanded blood for blood. The others supported them; and I tried vainly to talk the gentle Ali round. My head was aching with fever and I could not think; but hardly even in health, with all eloquence, could I have begged Hamed off; for Salem had been a friendly fellow and his sudden murder a wanton crime.
Then rose up the horror which would make civilized man shun justice like a plague if he had not the needy to serve him as hangmen for wages. There were other Moroccans in our army; and to let the Ageyl kill one in feud meant reprisals by which our unity would have been endangered. It must be a formal execution, and at last, desperately, I told Hamed that he must die for punishment, and laid the burden of his killing on myself. Perhaps they would count me not qualified for feud. At least no revenge could lie against my followers; for I was a stranger and kinless.
I made him enter a narrow gully of the spur, a dank twilight place overgrown with weeds. Its sandy bed had been pitted by trickles of water down the cliffs in the late rain. At the end it shrank to a crack a few inches wide. The walls were vertical. I stood in the entrance and gave him a few moments' delay which he spent crying on the ground. Then I made him rise and shot him through the chest. He fell down on the weeds shrieking, with the blood coming out in spurts over his clothes, and jerked about till he rolled nearly to where I was. I fired again, but was shaking so that I only broke his wrist. He went on calling out, less loudly, now lying on his back with his feet towards me, and I leant forward and shot him for the last time in the thick of his neck under the jaw. His body shivered a little, and I called the Ageyl, who buried him in the gully where he was. Afterwards the wakeful night dragged over me, till, hours before dawn, I had the men up and made them load, in my longing to be set free of Wadi Kitan. They had to lift me into the saddle.

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