Disclaimer: I have no claim whatsoever to these characters.
Written for jacklemmon (Bonster). I decided, last minute, to try for a Yuletide pinch-hit. Didn't get one, but when Bonster's request for Lawrence-Ali fic went by I knew I had to get writing. Realized, in fact, that I'd been wanting to write something along the lines of this story for twenty years. And that I fan things Lawrence as much as I've ever fanned anything, and hadn't even noticed. More notes at the end of the story.
Warning: Contains non-explicit discussion of (canon) sexual assault.
Ali of Finghington Bluff
by Helen W.
The English countryside rolled past, as devoid of green as any desert, though the occasional bare tree told that this was not an arid land. Farmland, the lorry's driver had said, all farmland, and Ali had nodded, though his knowledge of farming…
Equaled his knowledge of carpet salescraft. Though he expected that he would learn his trade-to-be quickly, and be able to stretch the income from the lorry's contents' sale until he knew Yorkshire well enough to find another way to occupy himself.
Ali smiled. Provided the driver received a decent percentage of the fee he'd paid, driving seemed a viable option for after the rugs were gone. Yes, maybe he'd try driving lorries next.
Prince to rebel to king to exile to merchant to lorry driver. Would anyone recognize the king when he was simply "Mr. Ali"?
He rubbed the telegraph in his overcoat's left pocket. Terse, but kind: a small cottage overlooking the North Sea, Lawrence had written. Comfortable. A million miles from his kingdom…
He'd done his best. Nobody could say he hadn't. Whether what he'd done would survive, or be wasted by that fool ibn Saudi, only time would tell. If he hadn't actually claimed the title of king in his father's stead, perhaps he could have stayed and kept his life, even a bit of influence. But he had, and he couldn't.
The title had been good for safe passage to Istanbul, though, for an interview that had set in motion the chain of events that had landed him here, in this frozen wasteland.
The bluff wasn't as high as he'd imagined, and the cottage, disassembled, would almost fit into the lorry. An especially modest dwelling considering how much of the structure would be given over to the carpets. But he'd lived far, far rougher. And of course there was the promise of indoor plumbing! And the smoke rising from the chimney was almost certainly from the modern, coal-burning furnace. Such were the comforts one wished for as one aged.
And in the doorway stood Lawrence, flanked by two other men who were bundled, as he and the driver were, against the cold. Lawrence, by contrast, wore a light uniform of the same sort - or nearly so - as when they'd first met. As seemingly untouched by the weather here as in Arabia. Hair still the color of wheat, but with a complexion much paler than Ali remembered.
Idly, Ali wondered if he, too, would come to look this way.
The men, it seemed, were there for the rugs, and set about removing them into the cottage while Lawrence and the driver spoke in an English different from the one Ali had set about learning properly months before. So English, too, had dialects; he hadn't known.
Then the lorry roared back to life, and the driver and other men were gone, and he was standing on soggy English ground looking at Lawrence.
"Well, come in," said Lawrence; Ali had forgotten how soft his voice was.
They entered a small parlor, Ali supposed it might be called. Empty, except for the rugs, which were in a disordered heap, occupying more than half the space.
"I didn't know where you'd want them," said Lawrence. "There are two bedrooms, perhaps you could fill one of them?"
"Perhaps," said Ali. "Rugs like these are meant to be used, though. I'll, as you say, sort it out."
"Your English is amazing, Ali."
"I have not had much to do since October except study it. You know I speak Arabic and Farsi as well as my tribal language. What is one more?"
He lowered himself onto the one of the rolls; it was surprisingly comfortable. "Have a seat," he said, and Lawrence, with that shy smile that Ali had never known when to expect, joined him.
He might as well get it out, he decided. There was no use in reforging a friendship if what he was going to say would destroy it. "I need to tell you this first, Lawrence," he began.
He couldn't do this in English; he switched to Arabic. "I've been to see Nahi."
Lawrence's face drained of the scant color it had displayed; Ali was glad they were already seated. "God, Ali, why?" he asked.
"I had always wondered what happened the night in Deraa. Beyond the beating. I have always wondered what more I could have done to help you."
"There was nothing, Ali. You were perfect."
"I saw you safe; I bandaged you, I made you eat, I made you sleep. But if I had known… that there had been wounds that I could not see... Perhaps I would have known to go to Jerusalem with you." He paused, but Lawrence did not speak, so he continued, "Something happened to you in Jerusalem. Some door that was opened in Deraa - your superiors in Jerusalem stepped through."
Lawrence shook his head, then asked, "What did he say? What did Nahi tell you?"
"He told me that his men had sodomized you. He particularly wanted it known that he had not, and would not have, though you begged him to. Apparently he has something of a reputation of a rapist, though of women, which he holds dear. Is this true, Lawrence, that you were sodomized?"
"I have written… you can read what I have written…" He lowered his face into his hands.
"I had thought, those thieves and bandits you employed after Deraa, they were because you were afraid. I thought they were your personal guard. But that wasn't it, was it? You hired them because you could, because no… sense of right remained."
Lawrence raised his head, turning to look more directly at Ali than he had since his arrival. "I thought I was as a God, Ali. I did not need to bother with right or wrong."
"A vengeful God."
Lawrence nodded. "Or his prophet. What else could it mean?"
"But you were also deeply sad."
"It's hard to be a God, Ali. It's harder than being a man, and that's hard enough. And… I did not think I could be a man again, not after Deraa."
"But how could you hold yourself responsible for what was done to you?"
Lawrence shrugged. "I thought Nahi saw something in me, that he did what he did. And perhaps he was right."
"This - something - still troubles you."
"Not as much as it did."
"I am sorry, Lawrence."
Lawrence closed his eyes and nodded, and they sat in silence for several moments while the room grew dimmer. It couldn't be more than half past four - dusk, he'd learned the day before, came early to England in February.
Lawrence seemed to sense the growing darkness too. He rose and pushed a button on the wall, and the room instantly filled with light; Ali hadn't even noticed the glass hemisphere on the ceiling. Electricity had long since stopped being a novelty, but he hadn't expected it in a place this humble.
"So," said Lawrence, settling down again. "Would you like to see the house? Or perhaps tell me why you're here, instead of on the banks of the Tigris like the Foreign Office thinks?"
"And do what? Grow figs? Go to the parties your civil servants like to throw for their deposed monarchs? Lawrence, I have never fancied myself a God, but I have been many things, including a king. But never a normal man. If you can be one, perhaps I can, too. Perhaps I will like it."
He switched back to English. "Perhaps I will be good at it. You were just a man, and you became Lawrence of Arabia. Maybe I can be… what is this place called?"
"Are you serious? Ali of Finghington Bluff. Mr. Ali who sells carpets. I can be this person."
"You will still be you, though."
"Exactly, Lawrence! Now you understand."
* * * THE END * * *
Author's notes: This story, or something like it, has been in my head for two decades. I fell hard for Lawrence of Arabia in 1989, then zoomed through T. E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his beautifully written and illustrated account of his time in Arabia during the revolt. Mine is from the first large-scale printing, in 1935 (and I hunted down several others to give as Christmas gifts that year; it was a huge printing, and so they're not at all rare). I also read several Lawrence biographies.
And here's where things get complicated. Lawrence of Arabia is a rather loose interpretation of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, andSeven Pillars of Wisdom, apparently, is rather loose interpretation of reality. In particular, the character of Sherif Ali is a construct of the filmmakers, combining several Arab leaders Lawrence worked with, including Sherif Ali ibn el Hussein. The real "Sherif Ali" went on to succeed his father as king of part of what later became Saudi Arabia (including Mecca and Medina) for a little over a year. He then entered exile in Iraq 1925. In this story, Ali is as in Lawrence of Arabia, but I've given him a post-movie history that parallels Ali ibn el Hussein's somewhat.
Even more problematic is how to handle Lawrence's assault in Deraa by the Turkish Bey, named in Seven Pillars of Wisdom as Bey Nahi. It's a turning point in Lawrence of Arabia, though whether the viewer is supposed to understand that Lawrence was raped is somewhat vague. In Seven Pillars of Wisdom (at least my version), Lawrence is severely beaten, as well as fondled and toyed with. But here's the rub - some Lawrence scholars doubt that the incident, in any form, actually took place, arguing that the dates don't work out, Lawrence was too vigorous too soon after to have sustained such a severe beating, and that - here's their ace in the hole - the Bey couldn't have been interested in Lawrence because he was, as one writer put it, a "vigorous heterosexual." And obviously one can't have sex with both men and women.
It didn't occur to anyone to ask Bey Nahi about the incident, or anything about any possible encounter with Lawrence; and though I don't have any sympathy for the man, who is tied to other atrocities even if Lawrence invented his own assault, it irks me that people were theorizing about his sexuality at great length for years without giving him a buzz. So I had Ali pay him a visit.
All feedback is, as usual, appreciated, here or to helenw at murphnet dot org.