Colonel Stewart Francis Newcombe was already a legend in the deserts of Arabia before he was joined in Cairo during the early months of the First World War by a group of extraordinary specialists in Middle Eastern affairs. One member of this group was T.E. Lawrence who went on to achieve worldwide fame. Colonel Newcombe's story, like those of other unsung figures in the Anglo-Arabian panoply, has been eclipsed by the legend of ´Lawrence of Arabia´, and has languished in the dusty recesses of regimental records, government files or in the elliptical words of Lawrence’s book Seven Pillars of Wisdom. However, S.F. Newcombe´s untold story is there to be told. IN THE SHADOW OF THE CRESCENT is a story of extraordinary exploits and courage, coupled with Newcombe's own legendary and inexhaustible supply of energy and of remarkable adventures under the very noses of the Ottoman authorities – full of danger, intrigue and perhaps more surprisingly, of romance during Newcombe's captivity in Turkey.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Some reading suggestions

Books by or about T.E. Lawrence would fill a fair-sized library. Recently, in  connection with S.F. Newcombe's involvement in the region and its politics, I have been exploring the Israeli narrative of the years that followed the end of the British Mandate - what is in fact an Israeli re-assessment and re-evaluation of the evidence that has brought the region to its current situation. The following is a suggested selection of books on Lawrence and on the region, past and present:   

LAWRENCE OF ARABIA by Jeremy Wilson, 1989, William Heinemann Ltd, 0-434-87235-0

This is the authorised biography of T.E. Lawrence, running to more than 1150 pages (with notes) and essential reading for anyone interested in Lawrence, the Middle East and the history of the Arab Revolt during the First World War. Jeremy Wilson continues to publish Lawrence material through his Castle Hill Press in limited editions, typeset to fine-press standards and printed by high-quality printers.

HERO: THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF LAWRENCE OF ARABIA by Michael Korda, 2010, Harper Publications, 978-0-06-171261-6

In contrast, this is the latest biography of T.E. Lawrence published at the end of 2010. It is aimed at a general audience but is nonetheless the first major biography of Lawrence for some years. At least one book on or featuring Lawrence has been published every year since he died in 1935, along with a handful during his lifetime. Korda's biography relies on previous biographies when narrating Lawrence's life story but also brings in other aspects, such as his role as a writer and publisher as well as an assessment of his political ideas for creating a post WW1 Middle East.

LAWRENCE OF ARABIA'S SECRET AIR FORCE by James Hynes, 2010, Pen and Sword Aviation, 978-1-84884-266-3 

This book has been discussed in a previous posting (26 August 2010) and was also published in 2010, continuing the consistent publishing history of books on Lawrence.

LIFE AT THE CROSSROADS: A HISTORY OF GAZA by Gerald Butt, 2009, Rimal Publications, 978-9963-610-39-6  

A comprehensive yet concise chronicle of Gaza's history from ancient times to the end of the 2008-2009 Israeli war against the territory’s Hamas-led administration. Newcombe knew the town well from before WW1 and praised the Rev. Dr. Sterling of the Church Missionary Society for his  medical work in Gaza where the CMS opened the first hospital in the Holy Land in 1907, continuing today as the Al Ahli Arab (Anglican) Hospital. Newcombe's raid behind enemy lines contributed to unlocking the stalemate over the Turkish held Gaza-Beersheba line prior to the Third Battle of Gaza. 

PALESTINIAN WALKS: NOTES ON A VANISHING LANDSCAPE, by Raja Shehadeh, 2008, Profile Books, 978-1-86197-899-8

Palestinian Walks was the winner of the 2008 Orwell Prize and covers seven walks that the author, a Palestinian lawyer and writer living in Ramallah, regularly took over a 27 year period, chronicling the different stages of Palestinian history. It is a story that is infused with the author's pain and anger without the excesses of pure polemic. Jimmy Carter wrote: 'Palestinian Walks provides a rare historical insight into the tragic changes taking place in Palestine.' Stewart Newcombe also walked this way - before, during and after the First World War. His experiences took him on paths that were often contrary to the direction of his own government. I would recommend that you walk with Shahedeh and Newcombe to discover an endangered landscape. 

The same landscape, this time 'uncovered' by an Israeli, is portrayed in:

SACRED LANDSCAPE: THE BURIED HISTORY OF THE HOLY LAND SINCE 1948, by Meron Benvenisti, 2002, University of California Press, 978-0-520-23422-2

Benvenisti was deputy mayor of Jerusalem from 1971 to 1978 and as a young man accompanied his father, a distinguished geographer, throughout the Holy Land charting a Hebrew map that would rename Palestinian sites and villages (sites and names meticulously charted by Conder, Kitchener, Newcombe and the Palestine Exploration Fund) to correspond with Israel's ancestral homeland. In doing so, Benvenisti's quiet outrage, combined with meticulous scholarship, makes this a formidable critique of the Zionist myth.

"Landscape is the work of the mind," wrote Simon Schama. "It's scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock."

In Sacred Landscape, Benvenisti explains how an Arab landscape, physical and human, was transformed into an Israeli Jewish state.