Lawrence of Arabia in Lahore

June 14, 2020

Dr Ajaz Anwar remembers British military strategist Thomas Edward Lawrence’s visit to Lahore and the movie being a distorted account of history

If one were to believe Majid Sheikh, the legendary yet mysterious (to the extent of being almost a myth) British archaeology scholar and military strategist Thomas Edward Lawrence aka Lawrence of Arabia once came to Lahore and stayed at the Nedou’s Hotel (where later the Avari Hotel was built).

He reportedly married the daughter of Michael Nedou, albeit briefly. When Lawrence left her, the “man for all seasons” in Kashmiri politics, Sheikh Abdullah, was considerate enough to marry her in 1933.

Lawrence died in a road accident in 1935. This dispatch is more about the Hejaz Railway, around which the 1962 English classic, Lawrence of Arabia, was set. In Lahore, the movie was screened at one of the most modern cinema halls of the city, Rex, on Nicholson Road/Bhorrwala Chowk. The cinema house is long gone, and so are the four ancient banyan trees that stood majestically around it. (The Plaza cinema too is likely to come down through controlled demolition, because there appears to be no likelihood of a protest from the civil society).

Rex was the first cinema equipped to screen 70mm films. Earlier, Hollywood’s Can-Can (1960) was also exhibited here. The movie set the cash registers ringing. It was supposedly an ‘Adult’ movie. Lawrence of Arabia was the next box-office blockbuster. It had been backed by a huge publicity campaign in pre-TV days. Tongas displaying hoardings, and men carrying ‘stills’ from the movie paraded the city roads. The few Arab students in Lahore chose to keep mum in the post-Suez canal/Port Saeed imbroglio, but the Turks vehemently staged a protest for the exaggerated propaganda against them and the betrayal of Arabs in the World War I. The film was banned in most Arab countries but allowed to be screened in Egypt, because Gamal Nasser saw Arab nationalism in it.

Lawrence of Arabia was a big-budget film, and its box-office collections were massive. It was also one of the best productions that eventually clenched the year’s top honours. The cast included actors of such calibre as Peter O’Toole (who was introduced in this movie), Omar Sharif and Anthony Quinn. Pakistani artist Zia Mohyeddin also appeared in a role.

Lawrence…’s story was a fictional account of history. Call it distortion of history. Even some of the chosen locations were in Spain and not Egypt and Syria as presented. The movie was more of a propaganda venture against the Turks focusing on the betrayal of Arabs against the Ottomans during the WW I. Its central theme was how the Arab tribes sabotaged the newly built Hejaz Railway because they had been made to believe that it would deprive the camel caravan owners of their traditional source of income, especially during the Hajj season.

Preceding two centuries before the Great War, as it was called, is a period of the Great Game involving the Ottomans, the British, the French and Russians. The Ottomans were dragged into the conflicts continually. The Crimean War of 1853-56 was the first where the then most modern technologies were used — i.e. railways, steam boats, telegraph, photography and explosives. Russia suffered defeat and its economy lay in tatters. The Ottoman Empire had already suffered territorial losses over the period. Later, its European possessions were lost due to local uprisings and independence movements. Egypt had become somewhat independent, Algiers was occupied by the French, the Russians were supporting the Greek Orthodox Church, and the Western Europe supported Roman Catholic Church with a claim over the Holy Lands which were under the Ottomans. There was also a movement for the creation of the Promised Land for the Jews under the Balfour Declaration.

The Ottomans had tried to create a vision for pan-Islamism in the garb of Islamic Caliphate, which was recognised by various independent as well as colonised Muslim states stretching from Indonesia, China and British India as a religious obligation. But they were not given any assistance in their urgency. Thus, in 1789, Tipu Sultan’s emissary, seeking help against the British, was told that the Ottomans were too busy fighting the Russians and therefore could not help. Similarly, the Chinese Muslims who had fiercely resisted imperialism in the Far East were told by the Caliphate to make peace. In this way, the Ottomans had been using the Caliphate to their own ends.

The Armenians were encouraged to create trouble internally. It must be kept in mind that Ottoman Sultanate was multi-ethnic (to some extent) and there were many non-Muslims in the Ottoman forces. Hence, it was convenient to carry out sabotage activities. Earlier, the Armenians had collaborated with the Russians on the Van front. In 1905, an assassination attempt by Armenian Revolutionary Front (ARF) was made on Sultan Abdul Hamid in which about 90 men were killed and many injured. The otherwise very punctual Sultan had arrived late by a few minutes and thus escaped unhurt.

It might be interesting to note that in the University of Antwerp, in June 2013, an international workshop was held about the above mentioned incident. Presentations were published under the title, To Kill a Sultan. It was part of the Armenian genocide propaganda.

For the contesting parties it had become imperative to wipe out the Ottoman Sultanate which had existed for some 600 years, stretching from Eastern European countries to Yemen and Basra. Phrases like the “Sick Man of Europe” and “White Man’s Burden” were coined during this period.

Even with dwindling economic resources and loss of territories, it had the capacity to survive. Work on Turkish Railways was started as early as 1860s on different lines, namely the Rumelia (European stretch), Anatolia and Baghdad. The Hejaz Railway was opened in 1908. It connected Damascus to Medina, despite opposition from Arab tribes. Electricity was installed in Medina on this occasion.

Lawrence of Arabia revolved more around espionage activities of TE Lawrence who was an archeologist, a photographer and an army officer under various pseudonyms, and tasked to probe the Ottoman/Arab lands. He was also reported to have some command over Arabic language, which may not be true.

He wasn’t the first one on such a mission. Around the 1850s, while the Ottomans had been fighting alongside the British against the Russians on the Crimean front, one Richard Burton, claiming to have command over several oriental languages, is said to have visited Mecca and even performed Hajj, disguised as a Muslim.

Peter O’Toole as Lawrence acquitted himself brilliantly in the film. He had to undergo rigorous training in horse/camel riding, though many of the more demanding scenes were performed by stuntmen.

Desert topography has been filmed meticulously, and so are the cultural activities of the Arabs. Hejaz Railway’s rolling stock — train bogeys and locomotive engines — shown being blown up and lying abandoned or burnt are factually from the years 1916-18. These have overgrown vegetation around them or are half buried in shifting sands.

Hejaz Railway was built up till Medina only. It saved travelling cost and time and ensured the security of the travellers. Earlier, some 20 percent of the intending hajis used to die in the intense heat and sandstorms. Some were robbed by the Arabs on the way. This was a very challenging feat of engineering in a very treacherous environment surrounded by unfriendly populace. It provided access and security to the Sultanate’s remote provinces. Water which has always been a scarce commodity was made available at its various stations. Local labour got jobs as construction workers.

Soon thousands of camel caravans were needed to bring the produce of the lands. Earlier, the camel caravans took two months to take pilgrims from Damascus to Medina, now this journey had become far more comfortable and it would only take four days and was a lot cheaper.

As the news spread, the pilgrims started converging in Damascus from Russia, Central Asia, Iran and Iraq. In the year 1912, there were some 30,000 pilgrims. The number had swelled to 300,000 by 1914. The British contingents bombed it and, for the first time in history, a moving train with passengers was sabotaged. Thus, pilgrimage through train was declared dangerous because the Arab bandits would attack it. This locomotive was also a freight train and brought phosphate from Aqaba. Moreover, electricity and telegraph were installed.

Turkey had an air force that served during the Great War (as shown in the film). Local tribal leaders had helped dynamite the tracks under supervision of the British army, only to severe links with the Ottoman forces. TE Lawrence joined only later. The various tribes had hoped that the train tracks would be rehabilitated after the cessation of hostilities, but that was not to be. One justification or urgency for the breaking up of the Ottoman Empire was the discovery of oil. The locomotives also run on shale gas. A steam engine built by Germans as early as 1898 is still functional. While the Hejaz Railway tracks were being laid out the Arabs used to steal its wooden planks to burn in cold desert nights.

The Turks managed to retrieve their Anatolian and Edirne territories under the fierce leadership of Mustafa Kamal and abolished the Caliphate which had only served to implement the designs of the imperialist powers. The Khilafat Movement, supported only for political point-scoring by Gandhi, was not favoured by Jinnah who had great political foresight. Lord Kinross, in the biography of Ataturk, makes no mention of Lawrence or the Hejaz Railway. Arabs, meanwhile, remain victim to the miseries of their own making to this day. These are points not shown in Lawrence of Arabia. As Damascus was lost to the Turks in 1918, Arabs entered it. Sharif Feisal gifted the bronze gilt wreath plucked from the tomb of Salahuddin Ayubi to TE Lawrence.

(Note: The writer travelled to some of the Hejaz tracks, which he has promised to discuss in a future dispatch)

(This dispatch is dedicated to Sheikh Abdullah)


The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at [email protected]

Lawrence of Arabia in Lahore