Reading Arabia: British Orientalism in the Age of Mass Publication 1880 –1930
By Andrew C. Long
Syracuse University Press, 2014. 264 pp.
The Hollywood epic, “Lawrence of Arabia,” immortalized the familiar story of T.E. Lawrence. But few know that proponents of the Orientalist ideologies which dominated British politics and culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries carefully crafted the tale. Along with other notable author/adventurers of the time, T.E. Lawrence delivered a combination of propaganda and entertainment for the political (mis)information of the British people; stories that helped shape and promote British policy and influence in the Arab World. In a new book, “Reading Arabia: British Orientalism in the Age of Mass Publication 1880–1930,” Andrew C. Long reviews the work of some of these men and the way in which they portrayed Arabs and the Arab/Islamic World to mainstream British society during this period.
Orientalism, as an ideology, constitutes a Euro-centric belief that Western culture represents enlightenment and civilization, whereas the cultures and traditions of the Arab, Ottoman and Eastern worlds represent various measures of barbarism. The differences and distinctions between Christianity and Islam also engendered a good versus evil debate. Long does an excellent job of introducing Orientalist voices of the time, including soldier/explorer, Richard Burton; poet and writer, Charles Doughty; Scottish adventurer and politician, Robert Cunningham Graham; Marmaduke Pickthall, a Muslim convert who translated the Quran into English; and T.E. Lawrence. These men based much of their work on embellishments and fantasies depicting the Arab world in exotic ways, while promoting British influence and colonialism in the region. Often the depictions represent forms of self promotion, intended to enhance the images of the authors, and further promote their own brands as explorers, soldiers, politicians and travel writers. The author also devotes a chapter to the popular late 19th century literature of the British Campaign in the Sudan; a colonial war often depicted as a cricket match of a conflict, avenging the defeat of General Charles Gordon at the hands of the nationalist Mahdi Army.
Long writes the book in a scholarly manner, but redeems it with a depth of insight and information on these fascinating personalities at a very important time in Middle Eastern history. Certainly, most will find “Reading Arabia” worth a look.
This review will appear in Al Jadid, Vol. 19, No. 68.
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