'Why Lawrence?'

Veteran diplomat Jacob Rosen is one of the top 10 international collectors of works by and about the legendary British officer with the kaffiyeh, who left an indelible mark on the Arab world.

Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer
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Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer

I actually began this interview with book collector and diplomat Jacob Rosen some two years ago. It was in Amman, where Rosen was serving as Israel's ambassador to the Hashemite kingdom. I, a tourist who happened to be on King Talal Street in Amman's old center, stopped in front of a small store where colored glassware was sold. The shop's owner, Hagop Kokozian, a Jordanian of Armenian descent, told me a frustrating story. His sister, he said, lived in Jerusalem and was sick and old. Her daughter, Kokozian's niece, lived in Amman and all her requests to the Israeli Embassy that she be allowed to go to Jerusalem and visit her mother hit a wall of refusal.

Jacob Rosen with the poster, and paintings by his wife Annette. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

I promised to help. I wrote a personal letter to the ambassador in Mr. Kokozian's name, and asked him to intervene on the niece's behalf. Within a few days the niece received the visa. In my heart I registered Jacob Rosen's name as that of a good soul.

I was not surprised, therefore, when I eventually learned that, apart from being a senior official of the Zionist state, Rosen is also a great collector of books, and that the main subject of the works he collects is a manifestly non-Zionist person: T.E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia - the legendary British intelligence officer who inspired the Arab people to rebel against Turkey in the twilight of the Ottoman Empire, and was also to some extent present at the birth of several Middle Eastern states. I talked with Rosen a few times about coming to see his collection until, finally, two weeks ago, I arrived at his home in Jerusalem's Musrara neighborhood.

For the past year, Rosen has not been the ambassador to Jordan. He strongly longs for Amman, but knows that if he returns, the Jordanian authorities will surround him with bodyguards. So he is waiting to be forgotten there, he says, in order to be able to go there as a private person. His heart goes out, mainly, to Amman's bookstores where perhaps - who knows? - a new book in Arabic about Lawrence of Arabia awaits him. Such miracles did happen to him in Jordan.

Indeed, one time, when he lived in the capital's Sweifieh neighborhood, he found out by chance that his neighbor's father was one of Lawrence of Arabia's friends. The neighbor, a senior officer in the Jordanian army, had told Jordanian historian Suleiman al-Musa about the relationship with Lawrence. But what made Rosen most happy was that that neighbor had the first, rare edition of a book that Musa had written about Lawrence, which Rosen longed for. Finally he managed to tempt his neighbor into accepting four copies of the book's second edition in exchange for a copy of the first. It did not particularly matter to the man, but for Rosen this was tantamount to reaching the top of Mount Everest.

It turns out that Rosen is one of the top 10 Lawrence collectors ("There are 300 to 400 active ones" ) in the world; his specialty is books about and by Lawrence in Arabic. Last year, he loaned some of that collection to the Oldenburg Museum in Germany for an exhibition titled "Lawrence of Arabia, the Creation of a Myth." In April the show will move to Cologne.

Asked "Why Lawrence?" he quickly answers together with his Dutch wife, Annette, that he's simply been bitten by the bug (he uses the word juk, or cockroach, in Hebrew ).

Annette Rosen is a gifted artist in her own right, who paints in a hyperrealistic style, very physical and sensual. A portrait of her husband is displayed in the living room; there is a painting of their son's bare, broad and masculine back, at the entrance to the house. Apparently, being a collector of Lawrence means to touch, to some extent, the body of a person who was no less physical - someone who, as he himself related, had special sexual tastes that ran to enjoying being beaten by men. Rosen talks of Lawrence's sexual proclivities with a certain dryness, without embarrassment, without looking at me, and while checking his bookshelf. He pulls out a volume that he thinks started the debate about Lawrence being homosexual: a book by Phillip Knightley and Colin Simpson called "The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia." (Rosen then hurriedly showed me a Norwegian translation of it! ) And there is even a Japanese series of comics, in seven installments, about the sexual life of the man of Arabia.

Jacob Rosen's travels in the 1980s in search of books about Lawrence continued alongside his diplomatic career. It was in London where he first started collecting books for youngsters about the legend of T.E. Lawrence - the blue-eyed hero who used to wear a sheikh's garb and won the respect of the Arab people, who followed him and rebelled against the Turkish sultan. When Rosen moved to the United States he continued collecting American editions of books that seemed identical to the ones he already had, but his collector's instincts helped him detect differences and nuances. There, in New York, in the mid-1980s, he published an advertisement in The New York Times Review of Books, offering to buy any publication connected with Lawrence.

In 1988, when the world marked 100 years since Lawrence's birth, he spoke at a conference in Malibu, California, about the various ways in which the Arab world related to Lawrence's character. Rosen was particularly interested in the prefaces written to the Arabic translations of Lawrence's two main works: "Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph" (1922 ) and "Revolt in the Desert" (1919 ).

Since Lawrence's death, in the mid-1930s, the attitude toward him in the Arab world has not ceased changing from one extreme to the other, says Rosen. Sometimes there is great admiration and love for him; other times, there is suspicion. Sometimes he is regarded as a Zionist agent. Hostility toward him reached a peak in the Arab world when, in the mid-1990s, it was said that the U.S. Army recommended that its officers read Lawrence, so that if they were deployed to Iraq, they would know something about the Arab "mentality" and how to deal with it. This rumor spread quickly and all at once, Lawrence became the Arabs' enemy, and still is.

Rosen enumerates the tantalizing-sounding names of Cairo quarters, where he wandered in marketplaces and found Lawrence treasures: Ezbekia, Tahrir Square and Sayeda Zeinab. His thirst was not quenched and, with the help of local literary agents, he got hold of books that existed in countries which Israelis cannot enter - such as Syria, Lebanon and Iraq - where there are real repositories of Lawrence "gold." Through the Internet Rosen found out that Iraq's national library alone had 49 different books about Lawrence in Arabic, including the original definitive, and nearly forgotten, edition of the very first Arabic translation of "Seven Pillars."

He needed a good deal of patience to find a book about Lawrence in Yiddish, but finally succeeded. The National Yiddish Book Center in the United States, which contains a very comprehensive collection of publications in that language, informed him they had nothing. But five years later Rosen happened to go to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, where he read a testimony by a man whose brother perished in the war. Rosen found that the deceased had been the publisher and initiator of a series of popular booklets in Yiddish called Groschen Bibliothek. Among them, sure enough, was one titled "Lawrence the Mysterious Spy," adorned with a portrait of "der Arabischer sheikh."

The relatively new additions to Rosen's collection include "The Waters of Babylon" by David Stevens and "Dreaming of Samarkand" by Martin Booth. There is also a book about the complex relationship between Lawrence and Aaron Aaronsohn (a Zionist activist in the early 20th century, who spied on behalf of Britain ). Rosen: "He [Aaronsohn] couldn't stand him."

In Hebrew, the first translator of works by Lawrence was Jacob Koplewitz, aka Yeshurun Keshet, who translated "Revolt" in 1931. Sifriat Hapoalim publishers put out in 1972 a biography of Lawrence by Amram Scheyer, whom Rosen knew.

In 1908, notes Rosen, Lawrence sent his mother a letter from the shores of Lake Kinneret, after visiting the nearby farming community of Menachemia, which said, in so many words: Wherever Jews are, the scenery becomes green. Rosen explains that Lawrence indeed closely identified himself with the Arabs, and was incensed when the promises the West made to them were not fulfilled, but he also understood that Zionism and the Arab movement could complement one another. Such a sentiment was surely more common back in the days when it was not a person like Avigdor Lieberman who represented Zionism around the world, but rather Chaim Weizmann (who would become Israel's first president ), who had friendly relations with Lawrence. (Rosen did not say that, but I do. )

Rosen, for his part, did make an effort to answer my as-yet-answered question as to why Lawrence attracts him so much. "I love his systematic way of doing things," he says, and tries to explain Lawrence's contribution to such areas as guerrilla warfare, the development of hovercrafts (his original idea was to create rescue boats for pilots whose planes were downed over the sea ), as well as military intelligence and, of course, architecture. Lawrence was a pioneer in researching Crusader fortresses in the Holy Land. In fact, his book on the subject, which was actually his final paper for his bachelor's degree, is used by researchers to this day.

Then I got an answer to "Why Lawrence?" Rosen pulled out a huge, 50-year-old poster of the epic film "Lawrence of Arabia," starring Peter O'Toole. And then I reminded myself (after all, Rosen and I are approximately the same age ) that I, too, had dreamed of being a star in exotic desert sands, the embodiment of eternal youth, who rises to great heights and then one day disappears (in Lawrence's case, due to a motorcycle accident ). And we, or I, become a distinguished personage, an official representative of a problematic state. Lawrence in a kaffiyeh embodies a subconscious repository of what we, the respected people, must not be, under any circumstances. But to collect books, to write about them, to talk about them - that's fine.



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