An Ordinary Effort

"I had dreamed, at the city school in Oxford, of hustling into form, while I lived, the new Asia which time was inexorably bringing upon us.
Mecca was to lead to Damascus; Damascus to Anatolia, and afterwards to Bagdad; and then there was Yemen.
Fantasies, these will seem, to such as are able to call my beginning an ordinary effort."
— T E Lawrence, epilogue to Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Everywhere there is emptiness. Everywhere there is solitude.

The desert was created by the Lord as a proving ground for faith for there is nothing to covet in the wilderness except a love for God and a trust in Him for deliverance.

This then is our battlefield: by wadi and jebel; by rough tracks hewn by multitudinous camels for half of time itself; by tower walls lining the route to the Hajj crumbled too by time; by the harsh glare of the Nefud and the brackish coastal airs of the Sinai. In waterless riverbeds, within billowing tents, the faithful touch their heads to their mats and beg for salvation for the devil himself dwells in such dry places to tempt the prayerful into madness and despair. So Araby is a mantle of iron desolation, lifeless and heartless: a wasteland of infernal beauty where the silk merchant and the date eater are equal in death.

There is no greater shame than for the wolves to become the sheep. My Bedwy are in close communion with the primeval land as the locust to the field. A multiplicity of single-mindedness. Ferocious to the core in determination. Born before the sour winds from the interior, the desert has not bent them to its will but they go about as they please, like quicksilver, full of superstition and fiery wonder, articulating their creed with oaths and swords. The Lord hath given them to this place that they may be lean and pure.

Not for those tempered by the sands is the palace or the souk: cities are seen as prisons for the corpulent and the corrupt (water-sellers and profiteers all, they spit). They survive in their migrations from ancient watering holes of black water and those thelul grown too aged or feeble to be beasts of burden anymore; the journey's issues washed away with copious pourings of coffee as dense as the camel stew and as dark as the well depths. Sleeping in a sea of canvas as the night descends like an eagle over the country to awake with the dawn's early light and steal away with a cry.

Yet there is no uniformity to their militantcy: they are a patchwork of vulpine loyalties and deep-rooted suspicions where one tribe will set upon another even to the tenth generation. Such is my caravan, my soldiers of fortune. Swelling and falling away like waves on a vast ocean as vicissitudes demand. What the Lord has provided they will protect with the gun and the blade. What the Lord has offered up to them in the ruins of towns they will keep safe in their shining money chests.

Wisdom hath, they say of her, hewn a house of many pillars in which the wise may become wiser and the just more judicious. After the setting of the sun, rippling orange on the hard plain before it creeps below the ridge of the mountains, flitting silently over the sleeping murmurers at the mouth of the valley, the morning brings a different kind of truth — the only one it can — that another day is broken.


I knew from the way his expression froze the idea had failed to take root. "No man can cross the Nefud."

Behind him the crimson banner of the Rifaa fluttered in the breeze almost taunting his defiance with its carefree motion. It was well feared, An Nafud — 180 miles long and almost as wide — brimming with lunate dunes and sudden violent winds. Into this crucible I wanted to take his best. "We're not men. We're Prince Feisal's soldiers."

"Your Colonel Brighton, I believe," the Sharif said softly, "would classify that as 'pure sophistry'."

"That's an uncommon phrase."

"For an Arab?" he asked, quickening to momentary anger — the wings of his moustache about to take flight.

"For any man."

His hand pulled at the reins of his camel. As it wheeled around his eyes were cold diamonds. "Now you patronize me, English." He rode off, hitting his charge with a cry of hut-hut-hut, causing a great cloud of dust to billow up and catch my throat. For all my calling out his activities as barbarous there was a strong noble streak to his character. I had allowed myself no doubt that he would return nor that his pride would fail to match the challenge of this queer little Nazrany flung out of upper Egypt by his superiors. Without his agreement there would be no hope of Aouda's involvement and without Aouda's Howeitat our attack on Aqaba would amount to little more than a flea bite on the rump of a camel.


"No Hashemite would choose sand over green pasture," Ali said. "Only mad Englishmen love the desert." His boots made the flint underfoot crunch. "Like Burton." Perched on the edge of the outcrop he surveyed the dark field of tents on the valley floor. "Or Doughty." He threw his arms wide as a muezzin at call-to-prayer and quoted, purely for my benefit, "'Ay, wellah. The sooth indeed!'"

I kept my counsel and hoped he had come forward to throw in his lot with my plans.

"But madness is infectious, is it not?" He tapped me on the shoulder with his camel stick. "We will go to Aqaba, you and I. And may God take pity on our madness."

I watched as his black silhouette trudged down the crumbling rill to rejoin his fellow Harith and wondered why, out of all the souls in the Hejaz, his could haunt me so. As if to punctuate my thoughts there came from the far side of the camp a great bellow from a she-camel.


Ali was kneeling down by the leg of his beast, face a study in misery. All the Bedoiun have an umbilical link to their caravan. No horror strikes home harder than the knowledge of lameness for every camel carries its owner's trinkets and none have spare capacity for their brothers in arms. If his animal could no longer be ridden then he had no option but to turn aside from our path.

"Sharif Ali, if she will not go on it would be my pleasure for you to take mine in her place."

Fingers danced in the matted fur of a fetlock. "Only God can survive in the burning land," he murmured. "Any man can walk into An Nefud but no man can walk out again." He pursed his lips. "On foot God will surely damn you as crazy and us with you."

"Look," he said, and parted the hairs to show two small puncture marks.

"A snake."

"Yes." The discovery actually seemed to please him. "See how close the wounds are together? It is a juvenile and the poison will not be strong." He stood, literally hopping with delight and seized my startled hands in his. "By all that's holy, English. I am beginning to think God smiles on this venture of yours."


"Yes, English. Tomorrow we go down into the Nefud. And perhaps if we pray hard enough we will leave it also."


"You! You crossed that?" The old man's hand pointed beyond the mountains into the flat wasteland.

"Yes, Aouda. We did. The Harith, and the Rifaa." Ali reeled off the list of tribes and septs of the fifty-odd who had accompanied us. "And one Englishman."

"You?" A glare of incredulity at me. "You are the Englishman who crossed the uncrossable?"

"Is the great Aouda Abu Tayi so ancient that his eyes betray him?" I dared. "The Aouda I heard of would not have dismissed the skills of his Arab countrymen so easily. Why should the warriors of the desert be limited to only what the Turks can accomplish?"

His eyes narrowed into slits. "You have the tongue of a serpent, English." But I seem to have stirred his mettle. "How are you styled, English?"

"My name is Lawrence."

"It is a silly name. And not fit for its purpose." He considered for a moment. "I will give you a Bedoiun name that you may accompany us and not have us shamed. "'El Aurens'."

"I prefer the simpler 'Aurens'."

He ignored me. "Tonight you will be guests of the Howeitat, and tomorrow, El Aurens, we will find more suitable attire for you."

Ali leaned over and put his lips close to my ear. "I told you the man is a brigand. Don't leave any coin in your trousers for when he comes to sell them."


Aouda's hospitality knew no bounds. For the remainder of the evening we were treated to procession after procession of dishes fresh from the cauldron — carrots fried in samn (butter), steaming piles of mutton topped with the sheep's head lying on a bed of temmn (rice). Sweet dates to glue our greasy fingers together. Not a single one of us would retire that evening and not feel replete. Throughout the long meal I was cognisant of the Sherif's lowered brow upon me and wondered aloud if I had offended.

"You do not use your left hand." It wasn't an accusation.

"Is that not the custom?"

"Yes, but few Englishmen hold to it." He rocked on his crossed legs as if thinking deeply. In the flickering candle light the lines on his face were etched in charcoal. "You wear our traditions like a keffiyeh." The sheep regarded him with a glazed expression, tongue lolling out of its mouth as he dug into the pyramid of meat beneath it. The poor beast looked more wretched than it had in its miserable life: hair matted with congealed fat, the ears half-singed. In relief I saw Ali pluck an eye from the socket and chew on it. It was an honourific I was happy for him to claim.

Later under the stars I was to reflect on that moment and decide he had actually noticed my unease for afterward he playfully offered me the second orb and insisted I partake of half the accolade.


In the morning he shouldered Aouda's protestations and chose my new garments himself. A shining white robe that made a counterpoint to the Sharif's dull ebony. The keffiyeh was crowned with a knotted gilden rope that glimmered like the sand's mica under the morning sunlight. It was to prove entirely impractical in the smouldering ruins of Aqaba's coastal defences but made good theatre. Moreover the wearing of it cemented Ali's good humour and Aouda's aid.

"You are every inch a Prince of Arabia," Ali laughed as I paraded this way and that, feeling a freedom in the robes my desert fatigues were missing. "It is good."

Aouda refused to join in the levity. "You pair prance like women." He spat at the ground harshly. "It is good that you fight like men." His mood was not improved when Ali and I fell about in hysterics and he strutted off like an ostrich, in search of a rifle to fire and reassert his manly ways.

Presently Ali sat down in the soft ground, and put his head into his hands. "He is right. It is not dignified for us to be behaving in this manner." His sides were still quaking with mirth.

"We English have a saying — 'Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.'"

"That is an Arab saying too." Tears had streaked down his face giving his countenance the semblance of an oriental Pierrot. "I think, Aurens, our peoples have more in common than we would think."

"Yes, Ali. I believe so too." And we laughed again until the clarion sounded for prayers.


The pool had warmed by day and now under the glare of the moon it gave off a little of itself as the temperature plunged. My reflection dappled and silvered I bathed in the low waters as best I could, trying not to alert the sleeping guards with loud splashes. It was an imperfect wash yet though grubby with dirt the liquid was cooling on my burned skin. For the first time in months I missed the practicalities of Cairo.

I stiffened as footsteps crept up behind me.

"Who is it?"

"Be at peace, Aurens," said a familiar voice dropping its soiled clothes by the bank. "It is only me.". As silent as a snake his brown body crouched into the pool and began to scoop up water in his hand to ladle over his shoulder.

As I moved to leave and give him privacy he stopped my arm. "Shh. You'll have half the camp over here." Presently he knelt down to wet his stomach and chest. He looked at me with an intensity that made me understand he'd never seen a naked white man before. "I see you have something else in common with us."

I felt myself beginning to shake and willed the moment to be over soon. All British soldiers know what the Arabs and Turks do to other men. I expect the Arabs and the Turks also say the same about the British.

"They do this thing in England too?"

"Yes," I said, forcing the word out of my numb lips.

In the semi-darkness his eyes were hooded. "It is a covenant with God so that he may know the faithful." A chuckle. "However I think I have found the snake that so worried my camel."

I must have visibly shied away as water from his cupped hand cascaded down my back for he said quickly, "This is making you uncomfortable?"

"Yes, Ali."

"Then as we are friends I will not mention it again.

"Thank you, Ali." I let him continue to wash my back and did the same for him when the time came. Part of me ached to have the ease at which the ranks discussed these matters; to have the strength to let go. But all that was broken in me in an earlier age, and scattered, so that the parts could never again be made whole. I think too, in that moment, though our friendship would deepen over the coming months, that Ali had seen in me those flaws that diminish the brilliance of the diamond. I became mortal.

He threw a rough towel at me that had lived through many summers and smiled, water droplets falling off the corners of his moustache. "Now we will sleep the sleep of the just and when the call comes, at dawn, we will take up our guns and mount our camels and, God willing, rout the damned Ottoman out of our lands forever!"

"That we will do," I replied, straightening my head dress. "I have no fear of that."


The battle was bloody, as battles go, and deliciously unexpected on the part of the Turks. So many prisoners we took that the gaol itself could keep but a twentieth of them.

"We have won, El Aurens. What say you?" the old man asked, casting a dark eye in my direction as a hawk-keeper might to his charge.

The violet light clinging to the rooftops was as beautiful as any English daybreak. It brought home my weariness and the joyous promise of a rude bath free of dust and the all-pervading smell of the beast. A sanctuary from the road. "There is no God but God and Jesus is His prophet."

He laughed, after a while, then shook his head in sorrow. "It is an everlasting pity you were not born a Howeitat."

And with that the great Aouda Abu Tayi, scourge of Aqaba, drew close his cloak the better to kick his horse, and made fast his exit down the steep slope to the town.



Berenice, as the Greeks styled her — Bride of the Red Sea. Sacked by and surrendered to: Edomites, Nabataeans, Praetorians, Ptolemaics, Fatmids, Mameluks… We had now appended our own name to the list of forced suitors, adding our victory speeches to those of times ancient echoing down the old Via Nova Traiana towards Memphis. She is a town of squat white buildings with only the minarets attached to the mosque attempting to escape the encroaching embrace of the massif guarding her rear by soaring skyward towards heaven; and with her tresses dipping into the lustrous pond of the Sinus Arabicus.

Only the sea gives escape, for Aqaba straddles the fault between the Nefud and the Negev, guarding the route northwards to the Suez Canal, safe in the knowledge no being would dare the furnace of two deserts to attack her from landward. But this I did, in the name of the idea called the Arab Revolt.

It was a beginning. Yet wracked with doubt after the lust of the battle, when the waterfront ran slippery with used cordite and the foam of the Gulf turned pink with Turkish blood, I fled back to Egypt and the comfort of regimentation and uniformity. Fearful of what I had kindled I abandoned my beautiful ally to his own, ever ready to prefer guilt over regret.

I had thought then never to see him again. Never to sit side by side under the stars curling our bare toes into the spill water from the kella. Never to see his lips twist and white teeth segue from a cuss to a smile at my peculiar antics. Never to see the cords on his arm straining to hold back a bad tempered mount as we wound through one wadi to another. Never to look into his black eyes and catch reflected the reason for his ambition.

We are not formed, in the ranks of British men, to stand above the crowd and proclaim our dispossession from the ordinary rule. No general or major is more novel than his predecessor. No military manoeuvre so unforeseen its antecedents cannot be guessed at. I dared to be different. I dared and lost, and dared, and lost once more.

If I had turned about, with no will but instinct, Ali, then you and I may have blazed brighter than the noon sun, a brief Roman candle of destruction, before my regrets snuffed out our hopes, and my unwillingness to surrender, our future. Yet that might have been preferable to what I did. Ignoring your manifest honour I offered you gold to fight on in the certainty I would be further lessened in your mind and what you wanted — what I must subconsciously have ached for — could no longer be brought to fruition.

So from that moment, my mind steeled and fortified, I marched under the pennant of the villain, that our deeds may outlast myself the man, and the men we were, once inseparable, now clave and shewn as individuals.

The sword also means clean-ness and death.



A foundling child of two worlds is this — firstly the film: Ali is purely fictitious and as such I have perhaps taken more liberties with his character than I may have done with Aouda (who is real, or as real as anything else Lawrence wrote). Neither did Lawrence actually cross the awful Nefud Desert — at one stage he wished to take a shortcut through a small corner of it but was dissuaded by Aouda as 'not necessary' — so the band of motley tribesmen came to Aqaba by an entirely different route. Also Peter O'Toole is far taller than Lawrence was in life — whose poor growth was put down, perhaps apocryphally, to a leg-break when young — so my leading man is slightly shorter. To spice up the text and have fewer repetitions of 'sand' and 'camel' I have borrowed a few choice words from Doughty whose grammar-tortured tome [pot, kettle] is a masterpiece on how not to patronize an entire culture as backward and savage [ditto?]. From a twenty-first century perspective he is nothing less than monstrous but as a saving grace he does have the most fabulous descriptions of the landscape of Arabia Deserta.

Wadi. Dry riverbed.
Jebel. Mountain.
Hajj. Annual Islamic pilgrimage.
Nefud/An Nafud. One of the most feared deserts.
Souk. Marketplace.
Thelul. Camel [
a favourite of Doughty's].
Nazrany. Nazarene i.e. Christian.
Bedwy. Bedoiun.
Date Eaters. The poorest-of-the-poor who exist on only what they can forage. There is little nutrition in a date.
Keffiyeh. Arab headdress.
Berenice. Old Greek name for Aqaba.
Sinus Arabicus. Gulf of Arabia - Red Sea.
Kella. Fortified well tower.
Clave. Archaic form of cleft/cloven/cleaved.
Shewn. Archaic form of 'shown' and Lawrence's own spelling.