Sections

Was Lawrence Gay in Arabia?

Share on TwitterTweet
Share on Facebook
Subscribe

Don’t miss our updates:

W.W. NORTON & COMPANY
W.W. NORTON & COMPANY

Among the innumerable highly regarded T.E. Lawrence biographies, Anthony Sattin’s new work, "The Young T.E. Lawrence," is noteworthy in deftly capturing the pre-World War I intellectual and emotional development of one of the 20th century’s great sexual enigmas.

Since Lawrence’s 1935 death in a motorcycle accident, there has been no shortage of lively debate over his sexuality — or asexuality. Sattin writes, “There continues to be a widespread belief that Lawrence was homosexual, either in practice or in thwarted desire.”

Sattin offers nothing new in sketching the specifics of Lawrence’s sexual practices, but he presents compelling evidence in understanding the depth of his same-sex feelings and what seems unmistakably to have been his love affair with an adolescent Syrian boy.

New biography explores Briton’s emotional, intellectual journey in pre-World War I Middle East

Sattin acknowledges the daunting challenge of fully probing the psyche of the man posthumously catapulted to even greater fame than he had in life as Lawrence of Arabia: “He has been hailed as a hero and denounced as another imperialist out to exploit the less fortunate, both championed and derided as a homosexual, and dismissed as a self-publicist, a fantasist, a fake.”

Sattin illustrates the great renown Lawrence achieved based on his contribution to the defeat of the Turkish army during World War I, writing, “The show that opened in the Royal Opera House [in London] in 1919 and packed theatres around the world in the 1920s was originally titled ‘With Allenby in Palestine,’ before being changed to ‘With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia’ when it became clear that crowds wanted to see Lawrence: more than 4 million people world-wide went to see the lecture and screening.”

In the 95 years since then, competing views on Lawrence have grown abundant. Widely tagged as an Arabophile who sought to unify a fragmented Arab world into an independent state in the heartland of the Islamic Middle East, Lawrence also wrote, “The sooner the Jews farm it the better: their colonies are bright spots in a desert.” He promoted Zionist immigration to Palestine, and one failing in Sattin’s volume is the lack of a nuanced treatment of Lawrence’s views regarding political Zionism and the prospects of a Jewish state.

Born in 1888, Lawrence left Oxford to help unearth the remains of the great Hittite empire, which reached its zenith in the 11th century BC. His archaeological work from 1910 until 1914 largely involved the ancient city of Carchemish, situated in what are today southeastern Turkey and the nearby Syrian town of Jerabulus.

In Sattin’s telling, the young Lawrence became enamored of a water boy during an excavation in northern Syria. Lawrence met Salim Ali (whose name has elsewhere been rendered as Selim Ahmed) when the boy was either 13 or 14. Ali’s light complexion prompted the nickname Dahoum, which means darkness and was likely coined by his fellow Syrians as a kind of ironic wordplay.

The volatile Syrian-Turkey border region is now a major conduit for Islamic State combatant penetration into Syria, and what this reporter witnessed last year in cross-border violence and instability contrasts sharply with the romanticism about a non-radical Islamic period that Lawrence brought to his writing.

“We were there for 4 years and it was the best life I ever lived,” Lawrence said. In a 1912 letter to his parents, he wrote, “Really, this country, for the foreigner, is too glorious for words.”

Lawrence and Dahoum shared — one could argue — a partnership that would instantly be recognizable to gay men today. They were, according to Sattin, inseparable in the summer of 1913. “I would like to bring Dahoum back with me for conversation purposes,” Lawrence said, an announcement about which Sattin wryly comments, “Whatever Lawrence wanted with Dahoum, it was far more than mere conversation."

The deep affection between Lawrence and Dahoum unfolded during a period when the British government’s criminalization of same-sex relations was a policy aggressively pursued. The sodomy prosecution in London of the great gay Irish writer, playwright, and poet Oscar Wilde began in 1895, culminating in his incarceration and then his tragic death in 1900. It’s hardly surprising, then, that Lawrence would employ coded language in talking about his love for Dahoum, who died a premature death in 1916. Typhus robbed the young man of what could have been a bright future, aided by his older companion, in post-World War I Syria.

When Lawrence, in 1922, published his autobiographical masterpiece “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” it was dedicated to “S.A.” in a poetic preface that read, in part:

I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands

And wrote my will across the sky in stars

To earn you Freedom, the seven pillared worthy house,

That your eyes might be shining for me when we come.

Death seemed my servant on the road, till we were near

And saw you waiting

When you smiled, and in sorrowful envy [death] outran me

And took you apart: into his quietness.

Though Lawrence never explained the initials, his biographers and other experts have, not surprisingly, speculated they stood for Salim Ali, Dahoum’s real name.

Lawrence’s language in discussing his feelings for Dahoum were typically opaque, but Sattin does not shrink from being explicit in characterizing them. Jeremy Wilson, the world’s leading Lawrence scholar and his authorized biographer, described Lawrence’s relationship with Dahoum as one based on “almost fatherly concern,” but in Sattin’s view, “there was more than paternal care; there was love.”

A “wanderer after sensations” was Lawrence’s phrase for his time in Syria. This innocence would melt abruptly when he suffered sexual assault at the hands of Turkish soldiers in a garrison in the Syrian town of Deraa in 1917. Lawrence scholars continue to feverishly debate the specifics of what happened at Deraa, but his own description in “Seven Pillars” of his torture, including as many as a hundred lashes on his backside as well as rape, is a chilling read.

In the post-Deraa period, Lawrence felt he “was not going to last out the game much longer.” In the stiff upper lip fashion of post-Victorian England, Lawrence remarked, “I am getting shy of adventures.”

Intimates among Lawrence’s contemporaries also lend credence to the conclusion he was homoerotically inclined.

His supervisor at the archaeological site, Leonard Woolley, claimed Lawrence had “Dahoum to live with him and got him to pose as model for a queer crouching figure which he carved in the soft local limestone.” Woolley, who was knighted in 1935 for his role in modernizing the field of archaeology, wrote, “To make an image was bad enough in this way, but to portray a naked figure was proof to them of evil of another story. The scandal about Lawrence was widely spread and firmly believed.”

Sattin notes that a crude form of payback may lie behind Woolley’s allegations, since Lawrence had mocked his former supervisor in his writings. Woolley later seemed to pull back his characterization of Lawrence as a homosexual, without tempering his anti-gay rhetoric. Lawrence, he wrote, “was in no sense a pervert; in fact, he had a remarkably clean mind. He was tolerant, thanks to his classical reading, and Greek homosexuality interested him, but in a detached way, and the interest was not morbid but perfectly serious.”

Gay novelist E.M. Forster, a post-Great War friend of Lawrence, is also marshaled by Sattin in his examination of Lawrence’s relationship with Dahoum. “Personal emotion entered,” Forster wrote. “He became intimate with Dahoum, to whom he was passionately devoted.” In a 1927 letter to Forster, Lawrence wrote, “I’m so funnily made up, sexually."

If Lawrence was circumspect about his affection for Dahoum, the Syrian youth was similarly oblique. When Lawrence’s Arabic teacher Fareedeh el Akle asked Dahoum about his apparent unconditional commitment to the Briton, he replied, “You ask why we love Lawrence? And who can help loving him? He is our brother, our friend and leader. He is one of us, there is nothing we do he cannot do, and he then excels us in doing it… we love him because he loves us.”

Is the use of the third person “we” simply a reflection of the lack of a Western sense of individual identity among rural Syrian tribespeople or was Dahoum nervous about revealing the nature of his relationship with Lawrence? Here, Sattin could have delved more deeply. It’s clear the two men’s lives were profoundly intertwined. A famous photograph of Lawrence has him wearing what is believed to be Dahoum’s clothing, and pictures of the two of them are full of blissful expressions.

It is hard to accept the conclusion of Vyvyan Richards, a Lawrence classmate at Oxford and biographer, that Lawrence was “sexless” and “unaware of sex.” In fact, Richards revealed he was madly in love with Lawrence: “It was love at first sight. He had neither flesh nor carnality of any kind; he just did not understand. He received my affection, my sacrifice, in fact, my total subservience, as though it was his due. He never gave the slightest sign that he understood my motives or fathomed my desire.”

Lack of reciprocation is not necessarily the same thing as lack of feeling, and it’s difficult to see Lawrence’s relationship with Dahoum as purely platonic.

Sattin’s otherwise fine biography could have benefited from scrutiny of Lawrence’s gay masochistic sessions at home in England after the war. In his 1969 book “The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia,” John Bruce, a fellow soldier in the Royal Tank Corps, described floggings he administered to Lawrence. Much of Bruce’s story about Lawrence has been debunked, but on the matter of whippings, both Lawrence’s youngest brother, Arnold, his literary executor, and Jeremy Wilson, the authorized biographer who administers the T.E. Lawrence Studies website, offered confirmation. On “about eleven occasions,” Wilson wrote, Lawrence “arranged secretly to have himself beaten in ritual related to the events at Deraa. He also appears also to have suffered during these years from less extreme forms of masochistic disorder.”

What, if any, connection was there between Lawrence’s “masochistic disorder” and his carnal inclinations? That question is left unexplored by Sattin. “The Young T.E. Lawrence,” however, does tease the reader with mention of the fact that Lawrence burned his book documenting his pre-war life in the Middle East out of concern over the “indiscretion” it betrayed about his life.

There are competing camps on whether Lawrence was gay. Wilson, his authorized biographer, noted that “a number of controversial biographers” concluded Lawrence was gay but that “neither of Lawrence’s major scholarly biographers” — himself and Harvard psychiatry professor John E. Mack — shared that view.

Key to the debate is precisely how one defines being gay. Does clear evidence of a deep abiding affection and intimacy — that ran the gamut from dressing in each other’s clothing to penning a posthumous poetic tribute of love — mean that Lawrence was gay? Or is the biographer or historian required to produce unambiguous evidence of physical lovemaking?

In a book that over-relies on the clinical term “homosexual” rather than the modern word “gay,” Sattin doesn’t find the evidence that perhaps “Lawrence’s major scholarly biographers” demanded.

The opacity of Lawrence’s own language in describing his affectional history recalls Oscar Wilde’s famous line about getting behind appearances: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

Lawrence’s mask may have been the Victorian-era code language he came closest to moving beyond in his touching dedication to S.A. in “Seven Pillars of Wisdom.” The relationship Sattin describes between Lawrence and Dahoum was a gay bond, whatever physical form it took. Lawrence, we learn, was gay in Arabia.

THE YOUNG T.E. LAWRENCE | By Anthony Sattin | W.W. Norton & Company | $28.95

336 pages

Benjamin Weinthal reports on LGBT communities in the Middle East for the Jerusalem Post and is a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @BenWeinthal.

Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
Today’s news:
Share on TwitterTweet
Share on Facebook
Subscribe

Don’t miss our updates:


Reader feedback

Rami says:
It isn't true that Benjamin Weinthal "reports on LGBT communities in the Middle East." What he does is to write propaganda for Israel and in support of Israeli policies, using the fights and struggles of LGBT movements in the Middle East to feed his propaganda. He works for an organization whose only purpose is to build up support for Israeli repression and militarisations. If you want to read more about his "reporting" and how it discredits and insults LGBT movements in Egypt, you can read a recent analyzis here: http://paper-bird.net/2014/11/26/egyptian-activis.... Unquestionably someone like Weinthal would love Lawrence of Arabia, because he wants to put the freedom struggles of the Arab peoples -- struggles that still continue in Palestine -- within a colonalist and imperialist agenda. It is a pity that Gay City News publishes this propagandist, while it has NEVER given space so far as I can see to an Arab queer activist, and NEVER allowed LGBT movements from the MENA region to speak in their own voices.
Nov. 29, 2014, 6:20 am
paulschindler says:
Rami, the "so far as I can see" is a good qualifier. You are wrong about Gay City News not giving Arab queer activists the chance to speak for themselves.
Dec. 3, 2014, 1:22 pm
Rami says:
I am wrong? It seems that you have given Ben Weinthal a page at least half a dozen times to spout his anti-Arab hasbara propaganda. Can you name a single time that Gay City News has given similar space to a queer activist in the Middle East? Can you name any queer activist in the Middle East who you have given space half a dozen times to talk about their actual work and concerns, instead of filtering it through somebody like Weinthal who knows nothing about the Arab World? I will wait for the answer.
Dec. 3, 2014, 10:32 pm
long leather coat says:
I absolutely am impressed after reading your article. It is really fascinating and you clearly have writing experience. The jacket is of top quality and this long leather coat is available best in this online store.
May 28, 2015, 12:29 am
Pedro says:
That really put me into thinking.
April 19, 2016, 1:28 pm
Joca says:
Very interesting point of view como investir no tesouro direto
April 19, 2016, 1:29 pm
Dick Benson-Gyles says:
Lawrence wasn't gay and didn't have a homosexual relationship with Dahoum. Read my book, The Boy in the Mask, and you will see that Lawrence loved an Arab woman. Dick Benson-Gyles.
Sept. 5, 2016, 11:52 am
João says:
The great truth is that everyone wants, but few have the courage, willingness and focus to save and invest. And the few who have them, take most of the wealth: http://investidordesucesso.net/qual-a-diferenca-e...
Jan. 17, 2017, 9:01 pm
Segredos da Sedução says:
The Best. I Love article.
Jan. 17, 2017, 9:04 pm
Segredos Lotofacil says:
My dream is to win the lottery.
Jan. 17, 2017, 9:05 pm
veja mais aqui says:
Very good biography, I have had the opportunity to read and recommend to those who have not read it read, I'm sure they will like it very much.
Jan. 23, 2017, 8:08 am
veja meu site says:
I have not read such a good biography for a long time, I really liked it and recommend it to those who have not read yet and are in doubt to read.
Jan. 26, 2017, 6:48 am
aqui says:
Very good book, excellent biography, I highly recommend
June 20, 2017, 9:10 am
visite aqui says:
For those who like to read biographies as I like them very much, I recommend this, very good to read.
July 7, 2017, 9:36 am
icloud login says:
After you have actually altered your Apple ID, reset your iPhone iPad. As soon as you turn your tool back on iCloud will motivate you once again to enter
Sept. 22, 2017, 6:59 am
mais aqui says:
Esse texto me fez refletir muito, foi maravilhoso ler esses post me encantou e informou ao mesmo tempo ,parabéns eo excelente trabalho.
Oct. 12, 2017, 7:41 am
rootexplorers says:
offer connect consents to this android application.online without demand of outsider applications.
Oct. 14, 2017, 6:49 am
Merry says:
Amazing article. Thanks for sharing such a beautiful article with us. Merry Christmas Images Download
Dec. 6, 2017, 8:12 am
conquistar um homem says:
very good
Dec. 10, 2017, 9:45 pm
josefa says:
Very good book
Dec. 21, 2017, 2:10 am
appvnapkdownload says:
You could likewise download and install paid applications from the shop totally free as well as conserve some money. There you'll locate mostly all of the popular apps.
Dec. 22, 2017, 1:08 am
Aprova Enfermagem says:
Grande revelaçao!!!
Feb. 7, 2018, 6:49 am
Renan Candido says:
Much good article, congratulations on delivering to us.
March 8, 2018, 11:20 am
candidiase tem cura says:
This biography must be very interesting, I would very much like the opportunity to read, I was very curious now.
April 16, 2018, 3:02 pm
MyBKExperience says:
Then your orders of past month, from Burger King and Quick Solution Dining establishment are identified.
May 24, 2018, 12:16 am
monicageller2018s says:
nice post icloud login
July 2, 2018, 12:24 pm
monicageller2018s says:
nice post https://spinrewriter-8.com/
July 2, 2018, 12:40 pm
monicageller2018s says:
nice post Make Google My Homepage
July 2, 2018, 12:57 pm
monicageller2018s says:
nice post Cvs myhr
July 2, 2018, 1:14 pm
jayy gupta 2018 says:
nice post man getkahoot
July 5, 2018, 11:17 am

Comments closed.

Classifieds

Schneps Community News Group

Don’t miss out!

Stay in touch with your community. Subscribe to our free newsletter: