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Suleiman Mousa, 1919-2008

[Blog posting by Jeremy Wilson, 10 June 2008]

Suleiman Mousa, author of T. E. Lawrence, an Arab View, died in Amman yesterday. He was 88.

It is not easy, today, to imagine the perception of Lawrence and the Arab Revolt prevalent in the English-speaking world in the mid-1960s, when Suleiman’s Mousa’s book on Lawrence was first published.

At that time, European perceptions of the Arab world were still deeply coloured by the attitudes of racial and cultural superiority that had given Victorian imperialism its veneer of moral respectability. In Britain, the "Wind of Change" that was dismantling the Empire was, for most people, accompanied by resentment. There was no balanced reassessment of the ex-colonial peoples. There was also (among other things) resentment over Suez and Algeria, worry about the security of Israel, increasing concern about Soviet influence in the Arab world, and unease about future oil supplies from the Middle East.

So far as Lawrence was concerned, neither his admirers nor his critics had given much thought to the Arab contribution to the Arab Revolt. The film Lawrence of Arabia, released in 1963, reinforced, rather than correcting, racial misperceptions. Its portrayal of Arabs would hardly have seemed out of place in late-Victorian England. Even today, Western audiences seem unembarrassed by that fact. In the Arab world, however, the film was naturally - and rightly - resented.

No less unpardonable was the film's assertion that popular support for the Arab Revolt had evaporated by late 1917, and that the Arabs reached Damascus only because Lawrence hired villainous mercenaries to continue the fighting. Through this deliberate lie, the film turned the Arab Revolt into Lawrence's revolt, pinning on him personal responsibility for everything that happened thereafter.

In my opinion, the "art" of making a great (and potentially profitable) film can never justify that kind of historical distortion, least of all when the lie diminishes a people and its achievements. If scriptwriters cannot work successfully within the framework laid down by events, they should not write scripts about history.

It's no excuse that the dramatic purpose of the lie was to undermine Lawrence, not the Arabs. A lie has to be judged by all its consequences. To much of the general public, the film's belittling portrayal of Arab staying-power seemed to be borne out by later well publicised events such as the disastrous Six-Day War and the collapse of Saddam Hussein's forces. But how dangerous it is to base reassuring conclusions on selected evidence! The counter-evidence was out there. Look at the Wahabite victories in the Arabian peninsula, or the Arab revolt in Mesopotamia after WWI. We really didn't need Hamas, Hezbollah and Al Qaeda to prove that an Arab political movement can be formidable.

In the early 1960s, Suleiman Mousa's Arab view of Lawrence was handicapped - as were Western assessments at that time - by the lack of contemporary written evidence. Oral evidence, alas, is as unreliable in the Arab world as it is elsewhere - for much the same reasons (including failing memory, self-justification, and judgements about what is it politic to say).

When Phillip Knightley put together a research team for The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia, Suleiman Mousa jumped at the chance to read the newly released British wartime files in the Public Record Office. It was during that period that I came to know him. His view of Lawrence gradually became more favourable - an experience shared by other Lawrence critics who have read the wartime papers. The change was evident in his later contributions to TV documentaries, most recently Lawrence of Arabia - the Battle for the Arab World.

Suleiman Mousa's work had a deep and lasting influence over T.E. Lawrence scholarship. It showed how different those events looked through Arab eyes, and taught us to question the assumption that things happened - only, or indeed at all - because Lawrence wanted them to happen.

I believe that, in the long run, Western and Arab historians will reach a common view of the history of the Arab Revolt, based on all the evidence that has survived. By challenging the accepted Western view, Suleiman Mousa played an important part in that process. For that he deserves lasting recognition.

I was still a research student at the LSE when I first met Suleiman. Like many others, I found him unpretentious, sincere and extremely likeable. I am grateful to a mutual friend and to Suleiman's family for making it possible for me to visit him in Amman shortly before he died. He was, he said, not really enjoying growing old - but the smile I remembered was still there.

Jeremy Wilson

This online obituary was reprinted in the Jordan Times and in a subsequent Arabic edition of Suleiman Mousa's biography of Lawrence.

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