Lowell Thomas (photographer) / Public domain
On the dedication page preluding the Seven Pillars of Wisdom is an enchantingly mysterious poem by TE Lawrence. It never appears in anthologies, is seldom quoted by non-Lawrence nuts and is only ever discussed to identify the intended recipient. You can read it here.
The initials ‘SA’ have been a riddle no scholar or inspired amateur has ever been able to unravel. Some say those two solid letters signify the Arab people; others, that they refer to Salim Ahmed with whom Lawrence worked with at an archaeological dig. No one theory has accomplished a consensus. The essence of the Lawrence myth remains an enigma. His personality eludes our assumptions, provokes disagreements and ultimately repels any attempt at understanding what drove him out of bourgeois obscurity and into global mythology. But perhaps part of the truth about Lawrence is hidden under the lines of his puzzling poetry.
TE Lawrence was born in Wales in 1888. At Oxford he gravitated towards archaeology and was soon peddling furiously across the Mediterranean hunting for crumbling castles to study. He was a highly intelligent and imaginative young man, a loner who looked for grand architectural exponents of vanished times to humble himself before the mighty presence of history. It was the excitement of immersion into another era that made the practice of archaeology so enjoyable, and ultimately in Syria, where he met Salim, he found the satisfaction he had been seeking. His adventures and campaigns in that part of the world converted his character into legend. An earlier legend, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, said ‘I wish to remain an eternal enigma to myself and to others.’ It was an aim Lawrence shared, an aim he achieved by omitting much in the accounts of his experiences. This concealed purpose to his mysterious poem is indicative of his usual approach to a public audience.
The poem began its life as a letter which he gave to the poet Robert Graves. Graves heavily edited the message and translated the tender opacity of Lawrence’s prose into poetry. It consists of four stanzas and is freely versed. Death, Love, the earth and other elements, emotions and events pervade its passages, creating surprising progressions that halt on the verge of contradiction. It is not an easy read, but as T.S. Eliot said of the significance of communication before understanding, the central expressions of this furtive poem are clear – love, loss and the ensuing futility of life.
Several candidates have been proposed for the identity of “SA”. The most common is Salim Ahmed. Salim, known as Dahum or “the little dark one”, was a water boy working at the Carchemish dig in Syria where Lawrence was excavating. He and Salim became inseparable. Lawrence improved his Arabic under his tutelage and Salim received an education in mathematics and photography. When Lawrence returned to Oxford, he even brought Salim back with him and showed off his new exotic companion to his college contemporaries. After being separated for several years, Lawrence heard of Salim’s death before the taking of Damascus in 1918. He was deeply troubled by the news and later when asked about his incentives in the Arabian conflict said, “I liked a particular Arab very much, and I thought that freedom for the race would be an acceptable present”. It is speculated that Salim even modelled for a naked sculpture Lawrence carved. Graves wrote that Lawrence and Salim had ‘a sort of blood-brotherhood’ though Lawrence himself explained to Graves that his letter was addressed more to “an idea than a person”. He at times answered questions about the matter by saying that it was a blend of person and place. “S” being a village in Syria and “A” being a personality. It is common to change your mind about the meaning of a poem after its completion. Your understanding of what you have written inevitably evolves, you gain a deeper insight into what you were conscious of but did not fully comprehend at the time of composition.
Another nominee is the Syrian Protestant Fareedeh el Akle who taught Lawrence Arabic at Jebail. Graves endorsed this postulant but Fareedeh denied that she was “SA” saying that despite her adoration for TE he “never fell in love with any woman”. She believed “SA” simply signified Syrian-Arabia and that the poem was a lamentation for a place and its people. Lawrence’s practised vagueness means we will never be able to definitively say who or what or where is meant by SA. Though it does seem probable that his intense feelings for his friend Salim Ahmad flowed through his private affections and into his public allegiances; a love of people does compel a love of place.
It is possible that layers of influences, impressions and invocations accreted in Lawrence’s imagination to become SA. That several friends like Sherif Ali and Fareedeh, along with Salim Ahmed, make up one letter. The nation of Syria, towns within its boundaries, or Arabia as a whole, make up the other. We will never know. What we will, however, always be reminded of when we open the first pages of Pillars of Wisdom is that he felt a deep deprivation and a significant failure. A failure that immediately transforms the aura around TE Lawrence’s reputation, urging its reader to condole his tenderness rather than respect his toughness.