T E Lawrence – the Palestinian problem ……… 13

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In June 1909, he took a steamer to Beirut, studied Arabic at the American Mission School in Jebail, then set off, initially with a guide and horse, then on foot, to visit the crusader castles of northern Palestine.
After so much anticipation, he found the Holy Land disappointing.
He had imagined glorious public buildings, well-engineered Roman roads, and the lush landscapes of Renaissance paintings.
Instead he found arid and strikingly poor land, scattered broken remnants of Roman columns, and the fading outlines of Roman roads lying helter-skelter amid “dirty, dilapidated Bedouin tents.”

In Syria Lawrence adapted to the cuisine of labneh (sour milk) and greasy bulgur (boiled wheat) and found the stark lives and generous hospitality of the Arabs he met a striking contrast to the world he had known in Oxford.
“When I go into a native house,” he wrote home, the owner salutes me, and I return it and then he says something to one of his women, and they bring out a thick quilt, which, doubled, is laid on the rush mat over the floor as a chair: on that I squat down, and then the host asks me four or five times how my health is; and each time I tell him it is good. Then comes sometimes coffee and after that a variety of questions, as to whether my tripod is a revolver, and what I am, and where I come from, and where I’m going, and why I’m on foot, and am I alone, and every other thing conceivable…. I am asked about my wife and children, how many I have etc. I really feel a little ashamed of my youth out here…. They mostly put my age as fifteen, and are amazed at my traveling on foot and alone. Riding is the only honourable way of going, and everyone is dreadfully afraid of thieves: they travel very little.

He walked from one crusader castle to the next, from the huge and beautifully preserved hilltop Crac des Chevaliers to the ruined castle at Athlit on the Mediterranean coast. Finally, out of money and with his boots walked to pieces, he set off for home, confident that he had the material for his thesis, and delighted with his newfound rapport with the Arabs. On the way back he briefly worked in Port Said, coaling ships. The worlds of castles and medieval romances and the Arabs of Syria had become more attractive to Lawrence than the solitary undergraduate world at Oxford and the cultures of the military, business, and government to which so many of his contemporaries were headed. He did not question the core political values of late Victorian culture, the mantle of empire, or the hubris of the colonial mission of civilizing the world, but he had begun to shape his world as a kind of Puritan dream, antinomian in its morality, divided between the nobility of native Arab dignity and the shallowness and corruption of the Kultur and civilization of Europe.

At one point during his visit to Syria in 1909 Lawrence traveled from Nazareth to the crusader castle at Athlit on the coast of Galilee, before walking fifteen miles north to Haifa, and then on to Acre.
The kaiser had passed through Athlit on his triumphant way to Jerusalem a decade earlier.
The castle was in ruins, lacking the imposing grandeur of the great crusader castle at Crac des Chevaliers and not very useful for Lawrence’s studies, but it was on a spectacular site, jutting out into the Mediterranean—a perfect spot from which to conjure up images of crusader fleets, knights in combat, and the noble struggles of the Crusades era.
Although Lawrence admired the landscape in Galilee, especially the improved farmland developed by the Jewish settlements, he was probably not impressed by the arid lowland behind the castle at Athlit, interspersed with malarial swamps and on soils so unproductive that the native Arabs considered the land hardly worth cultivating.
Part of the land was thickly overgrown with tamarisks, and much of the rest was pocked with pickleweed and other halophytes; some bare patches were too brackish even for pickleweed.
If Lawrence had asked, the local Arabs would have told him that there had been cases of yellow fever in the area, and that the area had “bad water.”
Lawrence had no reason to suspect he was walking on another man’s dream.

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