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Episode 1

Rory Stewart examines the writings of Lawrence of Arabia, and learns that the warrior hero himself later questioned the very nature of his intervention in the Middle East.

In the First World War, TE Lawrence helped to unite feuding Arab tribes into a formidable guerrilla army which helped to topple the Ottoman Empire. But today Lawrence has an extraordinary new relevance. His experiences of defeating a foreign military occupation, and of leading an insurgency, have led to him being held up as the man who cracked fighting in the Middle East.

Harvard professor Rory Stewart is a former soldier, diplomat and governor of two Iraqi provinces. Rory has spent many years living and working in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has been fascinated with Lawrence since his childhood. In a two-part documentary, he examines the legacy of Britain's First World War campaign in the Middle East, and draws parallels with British and American interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan today.

Rory's journey takes him across the Middle East and Europe in the footsteps of Lawrence - he treks on a camel through the breathtaking desert scenery of Wadi Rum; he wanders the streets and souks of Damascus - the ancient capital Lawrence hoped to make the centre of a new Arab nation; he spends an evening in a Bedouin tent with relatives of the warriors who fought alongside Lawrence; he goes on foot patrol with the US Army around Baghdad; and he visits the Palace of Versailles where Lawrence fought for Arab Independence.

But for Rory, Lawrence's story has a much darker message than is normally portrayed - Lawrence might have won his war in the desert and been hailed a warrior hero, but the politics that followed fatally undermined his success. Lawrence had aimed, he said, 'to write his will across the skies' and build a new independent Arab nation, but Rory shows how Lawrence felt his dream ended in catastrophe and shame.

Drawing a comparison between Lawrence's experience and today, Rory explains how Lawrence came to the conclusion that foreign military interventions in the Middle East are fundamentally unworkable. He concludes, 'Looking at Iraq and Afghanistan today, I believe very strongly that Lawrence's message would not have been do it better, do it more sensitively, but don't do it at all.'.

1 hour

Last on

Mon 18 Sep 2017 22:30

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Role Contributor
Presenter Rory Stewart
Producer Iain Scollay
Director Iain Scollay
Executive Producer Ross Wilson
Assistant Producer Tony Nellany


BBC Radio 4: Archive on 4

BBC Radio 4: Archive on 4

Allan Little considers the man and the myth of Lawrence of Arabia.