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An icon who lost his own identity

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IT WAS while working as an archaeologist in Mesopotamia that he began to step out of his own culture, and into the dream of another. After only two months of digging at Carchemish, he wrote home: "All Syria has heard of me!" Remarkably, five years later, this son of church-going parents was a leader in the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire.

A white man embracing Arab culture with such iconic visibility and passion is a pipe dream now. Today’s Islamic fundamentalists would have executed T. E. Lawrence by the roadside in the third month of his stay. But things were different then. He saw himself as a "kingmaker" who transformed the raw energies of Arab frustration and idealism into an effective guerrilla movement of national liberation.

In turn, they gave to him an identity and a glory that an illegitimate child craved. His parents may have been pillars of the local church, but they never married. Lawrence’s mother was the family nanny with whom his father had eloped. Lawrence felt the shame on behalf of both his mother and himself.

Lawrence was fantasy and shame. His fantasy of himself was "as a kind of contemporary armed prophet to the nomadic Bedouin tribes". But his heady idealism was shot through with a deep sense of inferiority and shame.

He joined the Arab ranks "determined not to be any more respectable, with an inclination towards ground level, a little wish to make myself more human". In time, this became exaggerated into a powerful need for penance, and expressed through degradation and humiliation.

By the time he returned to England in 1919, he was a broken man, and had a compulsive desire to be whipped, which meant weekly trips to London.

He had been vigorous in his work for a peaceful settlement of the Syrian question at the Paris conference of 1918. Daily, he had worn Arab headdress, a symbol of identification. But the cause of Arab self-determination did not fare well there, and when his "cause" turned against him afterwards, Lawrence had no personal sense of identity with which to cope. His cause removed, he was just an empty shell of self-disgust.

As the contemporary Muslim boxer Amir Khan symbolically holds high the Union flag, thereby linking faith and nationhood, I hope, for his sake, that he knows himself beyond the symbols.

True icons know who they are, regardless of the cause they espouse and the followers they attract. True icons are at no one’s beck and call: knowingly separate, and gladly relating. Lawrence managed one out of two of them.

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