Finding the real Arab prince from ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ fame

04/20/2014 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:23 AM

“Faisal I of Iraq” by Ali A. Allawi (Yale, $40)

If Americans know anything at all about an Arab prince and king named Faisal, it’s likely because of a movie.

In “Lawrence of Arabia,” Alec Guinness portrayed a wise and melancholy leader of desert nomads who turn to a British officer for inspiration as they fight the Turks. The on-screen Faisal is a father figure to a much younger Peter O’Toole in the title role (in reality, Faisal and T.E. Lawrence were only a few years apart in age). And Faisal is only a supporting character.

The movie doesn’t do justice to the real Faisal, a complex, sometimes heroic, sometimes tragic figure whose vision of an expansive Arab state was unrealized. Nor does it do justice to the Arab rank-and-file who fought the Ottoman Empire in World War I and for a national identity, a diverse group that included city dwellers and the well-educated.

Ali A. Allawi’s “Faisal I of Iraq” provides a more nuanced, in-depth and balanced view of this notable leader and of Arabs. It offers plenty for a hard-core student of history as well as a casual reader who enjoys a good tale.

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