Nyla Ali Khan debunks concocted story of Lawrence of Arabia’s marriage with Akbar Jehan

Dr Nyla Ali Khan

The quickest and easiest way, even in the 21st century, to alleviate the angst caused by a politically influential woman is to slander her. One such libelous story was of my maternal grandmother Akbar Jehan’s betrothal or marriage to Lawrence of Arabia.

What did the negotiation between Akbar Jehan’s private self and her public persona entail?

As the years have gone by, I have realized that gender norms in the developing world as well as the developed world have conscripted the wide range of female activity. The quickest and easiest way, even in the 21st century, to alleviate the angst caused by a politically influential woman, whose communitarian work entails surmounting barriers, is to diminish her. That is usually done by bringing her repute into question. Akbar Jehan’s advocacy of education, health care, and political rights for women, with the resources available to her and within a particular social order, was modern. The problems that she confronted, a lot of which women continue to confront even in the current era, were archaic. But even she wasn’t immune to slander.

I was greatly enraptured by the myth that she had been betrothed or married to Thomas Edward Lawrence aka Lawrence of Arabia (1888-1935), a British Army officer and a prolific writer, much before she met the Sheikh. Lawrence, as several works on him corroborate, worked in British India with the Royal Air Force (RAF) from 1926 until 1929. Despite his unparalled ability to adapt to the local cultures in which he lived and functioned, he was accused of working as an anti-Soviet British spy in the North West Frontier Province in 1928 (NWFP). One of the disguises that he donned, according to several reports of doubtful veracity, was of a bland Muslim cleric, Pir Karam Shah. Tariq Ali, Pakistani historian, dogmatically writes about this purported union in his writings on Kashmir. According to him, the story about the betrothal or marriage of Akbar Jehan to Lawrence was relayed by Benji Nedou, Akbar Jehan’s younger brother, which, for him, made it the gospel truth. He further asserts that once Lawrence’s espionage activities and his real identity were discovered, Akbar Jehan’s father, orchestrated their speedy divorce, after which Lawrence surreptitiously returned to England (“The Story of Kashmir,” Clash of Fundamentalisms, 217-252). Sometimes gossip gets legitimized as history.

Akbar Jehan

While I greatly doubted the veracity of this tale and thought it was just a yarn, my sense of decorum made me hesitate to ask Akbar Jehan about the authenticity of this narrative. Fortunately, I stumbled upon the school project of writing a fictional story for my tenth-grade English class, finally summoned the courage to ask her about this story. She was telling the beads of her rosary and making rhythmic movements while reciting verses from the Quran when I audaciously brought up the subject. A ray of sunlight beamed into her lap, and she looked at me with a penetratingly earnest gaze and replied that slanderers who took delight in defaming God-fearing women wouldn’t escape the wrath of God. She assertively told me that this tall tale was just another fabrication, the purpose of which was to denigrate her and to belittle her work.

Interestingly, in an e-mail exchange with my former professor, Stephen E. Tabachnick, who is a renowned T. E. Lawrence scholar, I asked him about the authenticity of this story, telling him it had preyed on my mind for some time. Professor Tabachnick emphatically stated that he was speaking as someone who had studied and written on Lawrence for forty years, and who was the author of Lawrence of Arabia: An Encyclopedia among other books on Lawrence. Professor Tabachnick unequivocally pointed out, “the story of that betrothal or marriage is completely false. If it had happened, it would have been impossible to keep secret, especially given Lawrence’s world-wide fame.” And given Lawrence’s “homosexual tendencies and flagellation compulsion, the odds are really against this story’s being true.” He pointed out that the best biographies of Lawrence were by John Mack and Jeremy Wilson. He observed that neither of them had mentioned this apocryphal story, and nor had any of the many other biographies of Lawrence that Professor Tabachnick was familiar with. “Surely one of Lawrence’s fifty-plus biographers would have come upon the story by now” (E-mail to author, 19 March 2014).

In refuting the myth of Akbar Jehan’s betrothal or marriage to Lawrence of Arabia, he quoted from the “India” entry in his Lawrence of Arabia: An Encyclopedia (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004), pp. 86-87:

Lawrence left for India in December 1926 on board the troop ship SS Derbyshire. From January 7, 1927, to May 26, 1928, he served in the Engine Repair Section at the Royal Air Force depot at Drigh Road, Karachi . . . . He was then transferred to Miranshah, near the Afghanistan border, where he served as a clerk . . . . However, in September 28 newspapers began false accounts of his alleged spying activities in Afghanistan, and on January 12 he was sent to England on board the SS Rajputana. Both Karachi and Miranshah are in what is now Pakistan. A.W. Lawrence’s T.E. Lawrence by His Friends contains three memoirs by servicemen who knew him during this period. He displayed little interest in India and did not leave either camp.

“In view of this last sentence,” Professor Tabachnick asserted, “the story concerning your grandmother seems even more unlikely than it already does” (Ibid.).

Concocted stories gather weight by being repeated, so I couldn’t let this myth go without dispelling it.