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The Ambivalent Representation of the Orient in T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph (1935)

La représentation ambivalente de l’Orient dans les Sept piliers de la sagesse : un triomphe (1935) de T. E. Lawrence
Sonia Lamrani


La production littéraire qui a vu le jour pendant l’expansion de l’empire britannique a souvent reflété l’esprit impérialiste qui dominait le monde à ce moment-là. Les écrits de voyage constituaient l’un des champs principaux qui prospéraient parallèlement à la diffusion de l’hégémonie britannique sur le monde. Ce genre littéraire a contribué à renforcer et légitimer l’expansion impériale et coloniale et représente donc l’un des principaux éléments permettant d’analyser le schéma de pensée postcolonial. Cet article porte sur l’un de ces récits de voyage, Les Sept piliers de la sagesse : un triomphe (1935), écrit par Thomas Edward Lawrence, également connu sous le nom de « Lawrence d’Arabie ». En s’appuyant sur la critique littéraire postcoloniale, cet article veut démontrer la manière dont Lawrence a simultanément réaffirmé et rejeté le discours impérialiste et colonialiste dans ses descriptions. Il s’agira de montrer l’ambivalence qui prévaut dans les représentations lawrenciennes de l’Orient. D’un côté, cette recherche montre la manière dont Lawrence met en avant des exemples de pensée impérialiste en reproduisant des représentations stéréotypées de l’Orient au travers d’une esthétisation excessive ou d’une image dégradante des peuples et des paysages orientaux. De l’autre, il s’agit aussi de mettre en lumière la manière dont Lawrence s’écarte d’un discours impérial conventionnel avec des portraits plus nuancés. Cet article avance que le discours orientaliste de Lawrence est bien plus ambivalent et subtil que les conclusions proposées par Edouard Saïd dans sa théorie critique de l’Orientalisme.

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1Travel writing is one of the most prevalent genres in English literature, the development of which coincided with the extension of the British Empire. It is firmly related to the situations in which it arose and reflects the dominant perspective of the era in which it was written. In the nineteenth century, it mirrored the British imperialist spirit which spread all over the world, causing that time to be called ‘Britain’s imperial century’ (Hyam 1). It is therefore hardly surprising that travel writing should be ‘accepted as one of the ideological apparatuses of empire’ (Anjum 199). Alison Blunt argues that the relationship between travel writing and imperialism ‘lay in exploration and discovery, with travel writing playing an important role in the naming, and thus ‘owning’ and authoring of colonial territories . . .’ (Blunt 33). Furthermore, the influence of the images and the stereotypes created in pre-colonial travel accounts was transmitted to following generations and perpetuated by the colonial writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As a result, even earlier travel writers are sometimes referred to as ‘unwitting contributors to later colonialism’ (Anjum 201).

2Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888–1935) is regarded as one of the prominent political figures and travel writers of the twentieth century and featured among the major contributors to the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. In his late years, T. E. Lawrence wrote his travel account Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph (1935) where he provides a full account of his involvement in the Arab revolt. Before the publication of his travel account, Lawrence’s legend had been established by the illustrated talk and the short film features of Lowell Thomas and Harry Chase, which according to Berny Sèbe, had ‘reinforced the iconic status of the leader of the Arab revolt and placed him well above and beyond the fleeting status of a piece of news’ (Sèbe 114). Despite the global fame of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, many authors have belied his presumed crucial role and questioned most of what is recorded in his writings, particularly in Seven Pillars of Wisdom which is considered as ‘another inaccurate source’ (Tarver 592). Furthermore, like other British travel writers who engaged with the Middle East in this era, Lawrence was interested in representing the so-called Orient, particularly Arabia. With the emergence of postcolonial analytical frameworks, travel writing attracted scholars from this field to study the way travel narratives contributed to ‘facilitat[ing] and legitimiz[ing] Western imperialism’ (Ropero 52).

3Among the features that appear in Lawrence’s travel account are both the aestheticisation and the debasement of the Orient, which amount to showcasing a major region of the British Empire for home consumption. The discussion of these two features in the travel account will show the way Lawrence recreates the colonial tropes in his portrayals of Oriental people and landscapes. More importantly, this paper will highlight the ambivalence prevailing in Lawrence’s representations and perspectives about the Orient which demonstrate a high level of nuance in his portrayals. This ambivalence contradicts Said’s claim about the homogeneity of the Orientalist discourse and brings Homi Bhabha’s concept of ambivalence to the fore. The ambivalent representations in the travel account have also reflected the ambiguity and the complexity of Lawrence’s personality which was highlighted by historian Jeremy Wilson as one of the difficulties of studying Lawrence. Wilson referred in particular to Lawrence’s claim when he said to Robert Graves who was writing Lawrence’s biography ‘I am rather a complicated person, and that’s bad for a simple biography’ (quoted in Wilson 5). In the light of this idea, this paper aims not only to discuss the prevalence of the colonialist and imperialist discourses in Lawrence’s aestheticisation and debasement of the Orient, but also to highlight the ambivalent stance that appears occasionally in Lawrence’s writings throughout his travel account.

Representations of Oriental People

Filthy and Inferior Orientals

4A reading of Seven Pillars of Wisdom reveals Lawrence’s varied attitudes and provides a problematic representation of the Orient. To begin with, like many other Orientalist travel writers, Lawrence proposes a travel account dominated by a colonialist discourse which devalues the Orientals and supports the Westerners’ supremacy. The use of a language marked by a recurrence of denigrating images of the ‘other’ in this travel account, echoes the attempts of imperialism to assert the difference between the East and the West and to justify European colonialism at the same time.

5This is particularly clear in the detailed description of the men who made up the troops of Emir Feisal (the son of Sherif Hussein of the Hejaz). Lawrence begins by portraying their physical appearance, writing: ‘They were a tough-looking crowd, dark-colored, some negroid, [and] they were physically thin’ (104). It can be noticed that Lawrence’s language is dominated by a racist terminology which characterises the colonial discourse, such as ‘tough-looking’, ‘dark colored’, and ‘negroid’. After describing these men’s physical appearance Lawrence also denigrates their clothing style: ‘Their clothing was mainly a loose shirt, with sometimes short cotton drawers, and a head-shawl usually of red cloth, which acted towel [sic] or handkerchief or sack as required’ (105). Thus, the writer who, elsewhere, represents Abdulla el Nahabi as the ‘most gorgeously dressed’ Oriental and refers to Sherif Ali as a person who ‘dresses spotlessly’, now seems to be trying to demean the practices of the Arabs showing that they use their cloths also as ‘towel’, ‘handkerchief’, or ‘sack’ which has connotations of dirtiness and uncleanliness.

6Lawrence asserts his commitment to the colonial discourse in another passage where, using even more denigrating adjectives, he describes Arab tribesmen as ‘[t]he ragged, lousy tribesmen who had eaten with us’ (102). Lawrence’s debasing treatment of the Orientals can go as far as ‘violat[ing] [the] limit, . . . between the human and the animal’ (Spurr 82). For example, he states that Arabs ‘climb their hills like goats’ (105), and he adds in another statement that his ‘guides, [were] sniffing the air like dogs’ (38). This persistent representation of the Orientals as animal-like people confirms the intentions of Lawrence to denigrate the Orientals; it may be understood as a way to justify or rather support the pretext of imperial conquest.

7Following the same argument, Lawrence also uses the comparison of Orientals to animals to add another demeaning epithet. He represents the Easterners as obedient and submissive people who are in need to be administrated. This idea is manifested in his description of the Turkish peasantry who have enrolled in the military service:

They were like sheep, neutrals without vice or virtue. Left alone, they did nothing, or perhaps sat dully on the ground. Ordered to be kind, and without haste they were as good friends and as generous enemies as might be found. Ordered to outrage their fathers or disembowel their mothers, they did it as calmly as they did nothing, or did well. There was about them a hopeless, fever-wasted lack of initiative, which made them the most biddable, most enduring, and least spirited soldiers in the world (55).

  • 1 Ageyls were Arabs from three tribes – the Nejd, Aneryza, and Boreida or Russ, who enlisted for serv (...)

8Lawrence compares the Turkish soldiers, as easily directed people, to ‘sheep’. His portrayal of the Turkish soldiers reproduces the idea that the Orientals are incapable of independent thinking: they do only what they are ordered. Lawrence provides a similar description of the Ageyls1: ‘[t]hey were essentially submissive; yet had the nature of soldiers and fought with brains and courage when familiarly led’ (152). Lawrence emphasises the description of the Orientals’ presumed natural submissiveness, and their delight in servitude, which is illustrated when Lawrence notes about his Arab bodyguards that ‘[t]hese lads took pleasure in subordination; in degrading the body . . . almost they preferred servitude as richer in experience than authority . . .’ (475).

9Lawrence goes further in his demeaning representations of Oriental soldiers. On this occasion, he belittles Arabs’ mental capacities and confirms their inability to create or handle sciences or arts, writing:

They were a limited, narrow-minded people, whose inert intellects lay fallow in incurious resignation. Their imaginations were vivid, but not creative. There was so little Arab art in Asia that they could almost be said to have had no art . . . Nor did they handle great industries: they had no organization of mind or body. They invented no system of philosophy, no complex mythologies. (36; 37).

10In this quotation, the reader can notice an explicit inferiorisation of the Orientals, representing them as people with sterile minds unable to create or to produce anything. Through this representation Lawrence asserts the inferiority of Orientals in comparison with the Westerners. In this intensive criticism of Orientals, Lawrence seems to be motivating the imperialist project by showcasing Orientals as submissive, inferior—in short, a people who are ready to be subjected under the pretext of civilisation.

11From these representations, it can be suggested that Lawrence insists on depicting Orientals as inferior and lower people, who need to be advanced by the superior and civilised Westerners. Said argues that the imperialist thought spreads ‘the binary typology of advanced and backward (or subject) races’ (Said 206) in that the people who are labeled as backward or uncivilized must be ‘annexed or occupied by advanced powers’ (Said 207). Thus, Lawrence’s portrayals seem to emphasise the inferiority and the submissiveness of Orientals which can reflect Lawrence’s support of the imperialist and the colonialist project to subject them.

Handsome and Majestic Orientals

12Despite the debasement which characterises Lawrence’s portrayal of the Orient, the reader is also likely to come across a vastly different treatment, which consists in the aestheticisation of the Orient. In Orientalism, Edward Said argues that Western literary productions view the so-called Orient as the place where one can confront the ‘inhuman beauty’ (Said 167). Some Orientalist writers affirm their discursive authority over the Orient, regarding it as a place full of possibilities which is exploited through an imaginative process of aestheticisation (Said 181). According to Said, what mattered for Western Orientalist authors such as Alphonse de Lamartine, Gérard de Nerval, and Gustave Flaubert was to attract the reader through the aesthetic characteristics of their writings (Said 177). Developing a similar idea, David Spurr analyses the rhetorical methods whereby information about colonised lands is presented to the Western reader, suggesting that they are usually refined to make reading a pleasurable and aesthetic experience. Spurr argues that such aestheticisation serves as a formula for colonialism, which transforms the colonized into an object loved for its beauty (57).

13Lawrence’s representations that I intend to discuss in this section are based on showing the ‘other’ at their best and in a most pleasing way, which generates a sort of aestheticisation that appears throughout his descriptions of the Orient in his travel account. To begin with, Lawrence refers, on many occasions, to the beauty of Oriental soldiers, particularly the Ageyls, whom we mentioned earlier: ‘[the Ageyls] were young, from sixteen to twenty-five, and nice fellows, large-eyed, cheery, a bit educated . . . Even in repose (when most Eastern faces emptied themselves of life) these lads remained keen-looking and handsome. They talked a delicate and elastic Arabic, and were mannered, often foppish, in habit’ (152). This passage is an example of Said’s concept of aestheticised representation. Lawrence amplifies the aesthetic aspects of the Ageyl soldiers by stating that they seemed ‘handsome’ and ‘keen looking’ even when the others looked lifeless. On another occasion, he argues that these ‘white handed Ageyls . . . were too beautiful to be made into labourers’ (166). Here it may be noticed that Lawrence uses exaggerated aesthetic adjectives which may easily attract the reader. In other words, any reader of such a description must be drawn to imagine such ‘too beautiful’ and ‘white handed’ Orientals. These examples highlight the way Lawrence represents the Orientals through adopting the traditional aesthetic treatment because what counted to him was ‘the structure of [his] work as an independent, aesthetic, and personal fact’ (Said 181).

14One striking example of Lawrence’s aestheticisation of Arab soldiers is his detailed description of Sherif Ali ibn el Hussein:

The mixed natures in him made his face and body powerful pleadings, carnal, perhaps, except in so far as they were transfused by character. No one could see him without the desire to see him again; especially when he smiled, as he did rarely, with both mouth and eyes at once. His beauty was a conscious weapon. He dressed spotlessly, all in black or all in white; and he studied gesture. Fortune had added physical perfection and unusual grace . . . . (446–47).

15In this example, Lawrence uses hyperbolic expressions while portraying Sherif Ali such as ‘physical perfection’, ‘unusual grace’, ‘spotless dress’ which increase the attractiveness of his travel account and may contribute to reestablishing the stereotypical picture of Oriental ‘inhuman beauty’. Elsewhere, Sherif Ali ibn el Hussein is represented through an excessive aestheticisation of his physical appearance: ‘Ali ibn el Hussein, the youthful and attractive Harith Sherif . . . He was physically splendid: not tall nor heavy, but so strong that he would kneel down, resting his forearms palm-up on the ground, and rise to his feet with a man on each hand’ (397). The excessive beautification of Sherif Ali and the Ageyl soldiers shows Lawrence as a writer who transforms his Eastern interlocutors from persons to ‘object[s] of beauty’ (Spurr 59) which inspire him. This mode of representation, typical of Orientalist travel writers, can be considered to serve colonialism because it allows one powerful Western subject to fashion less powerful Easterners through a process of discursive manipulation (Spurr 59).

16On the other hand, however, this excessive aestheticisation of the Orientals may be symptomatic of Lawrence’s conservative frame of mind and his profound doubts about the era of modernity in Europe which leads him to admire the Arabs and depict them as handsome and majestic. This idea is highlighted by Chris Bongie, who explains that the early writers of nineteenth-century exoticism refuted ‘the world’s corruption and degradation’ and turned away from the modernity of Europe escaping to the Oriental cultures to retain the values supposedly lost in modern Europe (Bongie 21). Lawrence resembles those writers in the rhetorical process of ‘re-valorizing what has been definitely devalued’ (Bongie 20). That is to say, Lawrence tends to ‘re-valorize’ by his aestheticisation the Orientals who were previously ‘devalued’ by former travel writers, because he found in their primitiveness what reminded him of the lost ideals in modern Europe. This is also what he expresses in one of his letters in July 1918, when he writes ‘the Arabs appealed to my imagination. It is the old, old civilisation, which has refined itself clear of the household gods, and half the trappings which ours hastens to assume’ (quoted in Meyers 139).

Orientals in a Truly Positive Light

17The travel account provides some other examples, which show no reminiscence of colonial and imperialist perspectives and, on the contrary, highlight Lawrence’s ambivalence in his portrayals of Orientals. The examples that will be discussed in this section diverge from the discourse seemingly prevalent in Orientalist writings and fall within the theoretical framework suggested by Homi Bhabha, who argues that ‘by understanding the ambivalence . . . we can avoid the increasingly facile adoption of the notion of a homogenized Other’ (Bhabha 75).

18In this vein, one peculiar instance in which Lawrence provides another aesthetic treatment whilst remaining, as shall be seen, a distinct case of aestheticisation, is his description of Abdulla el Nahabi and of his Arab traditional clothing in particular. In his first meeting with him, Lawrence states that he was ‘most gorgeously dressed’ (471) with his Arab wear. Then, when he meets him again three days later, the writer notices that ‘he looked odd without his silk robes’ (472). Lawrence’s obvious admiration for the Arab man’s costume reveals him as a defender of the Arab identity and culture. Lawrence sees Oriental beauty as inseparable from their culture, a position which tends to contradict the colonialist discourse, which aims to suppress and subdue the ‘other’’s identity. This different aesthetic treatment in this example contradicts the examples discussed earlier. It displays a form of duality in Lawrence’s view of the Orient and shows his ambivalent relationship with the colonial discourse. The comparison between this representation and the examples mentioned in previous sections recalls Bhabha’s explanation about ‘the splitting of colonial discourse’ (Bhabha 130) when ‘two attitudes towards external reality persist; one takes reality into consideration while the other disavows it and replaces it by a product of desire’ (Bhabha 130). This representation shows a different view from Said’s argument about the homogeneity of the Orientalist discourse and highlights how his analysis disregarded the ambivalence of some works.

19Lawrence’s travel account features lengthy parts that deal with individual Arab characters in a way that departs from the Orientalists’ tendency to generalize about and demean the ‘other’. Lawrence strongly lauds some Arab figures, particularly Emir Feisal. In his first meeting with the latter, Lawrence tells the reader about the high educational level of Feisal: ‘[h]is training in Abdul Hamid’s entourage had made him past-master in diplomacy. His military service with the Turks had given him a working knowledge of tactics. His life in Constantinople and in the Turkish parliament had made him familiar with European questions and manners’ (98). Through this description, Lawrence provides a different perspective compared to the previously discussed passages in which he postulates the Orientals’ mental backwardness.

20Furthermore, Lawrence highlights Sherif Feisal’s ability to administrate and supervise effortlessly a political conversation with his soldiers and other Arab and British leaders:

Feisal, smoking innumerable cigarettes, kept command of the conversation even at its hottest, and it was fine to watch him do it. He showed full mastery of tact, with a real power of disposing men’s feelings to his wish. Storrs was as efficient; but Storrs paraded his strength, exhibiting all the cleverness and machinery, the movements of his hands which made the creatures dance. Feisal seemed to govern his men unconsciously: hardly to know how he stamped his mind on them, hardly to care whether they obeyed. It was as great art as Storrs’; and it concealed itself, for Feisal was born to it. The Arabs loved him openly: indeed, these chance meetings made clear how the tribes the Sherif [Hussein] and his sons were heroic (100).

21Thus, Lawrence openly praises Feisal and describes him as a skillful diplomat who has the ability to direct his men’s minds with no imposed power. To strengthen his description, Lawrence compares Feisal with the British leader Storrs and shows how Feisal ‘govern[s] his men unconsciously . . . [and] seem[s] . . . hardly to care whether they obeyed’ while Storrs ‘paraded his strength, exhibiting all the cleverness and machinery’.

22Lawrence’s detailed description does not only focus on people, but it also includes places and landscapes as will be shown in the following sections. We will examine how Lawrence’s engagements with landscapes may have been entirely in line, or in breach with, Orientalist tropes.

Representations of Oriental Landscapes

The Orient as Vision: Lifeless Landscapes

23Oriental landscapes are not excluded from Lawrence’s denigrating stance of the Orient. Edward Said argues that most of the Orientalists’ literary output attempts to show the Orient as a stable, unchangeable, and ahistoric place (Said 136). The Arab region, in particular, is ‘considered to be a locale about which one can make statements regarding the past in exactly the same form (and with the same content) that one makes them regarding the present’ (Said 235). That is to say, Arab cities are viewed as unchangeable places which do not cope with the development of the world—particularly the Western world.

24Lawrence includes a description of Jidda that confirms Said’s argument when he says: ‘One would say that for years Jidda had not been swept through by a firm breeze: that its streets kept their air from year’s end to year’s end, from the day they were built for so long as the houses should endure’ (73). This passage highlights the non-developing situation of the city: the present picture of Jidda is identical to its past one, with no minimal change. Lawrence continues in his debasement of this city, depicting it as a lifeless site: ‘The atmosphere was oppressive, deadly. There seemed no life in it. It was not burning hot, but held a moisture and sense of great age and exhaustion such as seemed to belong to no other place: not a passion of smells like Smyrna, Naples or Marseilles, but a feeling of long use, of the exhalations of many people, of continued bath-heat and sweat’ (73). Lawrence opposes Jidda to European cities such as ‘Naples’ and ‘Marseilles’. Unlike the European cities, he associates Jidda with exhaustion and death. Through this comparison, Lawrence celebrates the youth and liveliness of the European cities at the expense of what he sees as the decrepitude of the Orient. In fact, the imageries used in these examples seem to reestablish the difference and maintain rhetorically both the geographical and moral border between the West and the East.

25Lawrence also depicts Eastern locations as a source of evil, weariness, and sadness. About Sirhan, a place in the Arabian desert, he writes: ‘We were very weary of Sirhan. The landscape was of a hopelessness and sadness deeper than all the open deserts we had crossed’ (278–79). He adds, a little further down: ‘there was something sinister, something actively evil in this snake-devoted Sirhan, proliferant of salt water, barren palms, and bushes which served neither for grazing nor for firewood’ (279). Such an association between non-Western lands and evil is a prominent feature of colonialist writing. In fact, the description of Sirhan as a ‘snake-devoted’ place reminds the reader of the oft-quoted Joseph Conrad’s image of the Congo river in Heart of Darkness (1899) as ‘an immense snake uncoiled’ (9). These denigrating portrayals clearly exemplify the articulation of the imperialist perspectives in Lawrence’s discourse about the Orient.

Aestheticised Oriental Landscapes

26Lawrence’s travel account also contains passages that focus on the description of the Orient’s geography that display aestheticised representations of Oriental landscapes. Through exploiting reality for his own sensibility (Spurr 59), Lawrence represents most of the places he passed by in the desert as extremely beautiful. One instance is his description of his entrance to Damascus with Arabs passing by the Kadem terminus of the Hejaz line. Having expected to find nothing but the ruins left by the Germans’ intrusion in this city, he is, instead, amazed by the sight of ‘the silent gardens [which] stood blurred green with river mist, in whose setting shimmered the city, beautiful as ever, like a pearl in the morning sun’ (665). We notice from this description Lawrence’s use of standard imperial tropes. For example, Lawrence establishes his mastery over this landscape by describing the gardens as ‘silent’, while he performs the role of the voiced seer who diffuses its beauty to the reader. This also shows an example of the ‘“discourse of discovery”, [in which] the imperial travel writer conquered the landscape and heroically claimed dominance’ (Karen 37). Mary Louise Pratt explains that this discourse by which the travel writer describes what was already known for the locals, in fact transforms local knowledge into ‘European national and continental knowledges . . . and relations of power’ (Pratt 201–02).

27Moreover, he uses aestheticising expressions to depict the beauty of this place—‘shimmered the city’ and ‘beautiful as ever’—and metaphors like ‘a pearl in the morning sun’. Lawrence’s description of Kadem as a ‘pearl’ parallels Richard Burton’s description of Egypt as a ‘treasure to be won’ (quoted in Said 197). It can be noticed that Lawrence like Burton ‘constituted [the Orient] verbally as a worthy prize’ (Pratt 217) for the European. It is hardly surprising then that Edward Said should list Lawrence with Burton among the Orientalist writers who provide within their literary works what nourishes ‘the voice of European ambition for rule over the Orient’ (Said 196).

28Lawrence provides other instances which show support for the European domination over the Orient. For example, he recounts his arrival to Azrak with the British soldiers in Emir Feisal’s troops, where he promised them to have a bath as a reward noting ‘Azrak was empty of Arabs, beautiful as ever, and even more beautiful a little later when its shining pools were brilliant with the white bodies of our men swimming, and the slow drift of the wind through its reeds was pointed by their gay shouts and splashing echoed off the water’ (592). In this description of Azrak, to which he refers as ‘queen of [the] oases’ (591), Lawrence implicitly articulates the colonial desires to own the Orient. This can be understood when he informs the reader about the beauty of this place while it is ‘empty of Arabs’. Then, he indicates that the presence of Englishmen increases the beauty of this landscape by their ‘white bodies’ which made the pools brilliant, and ‘their gay shouts’ which pointed ‘the slow drift of the wind’.

29Through this passage, the reader can get the idea that the passive Orient is in need of the Westerners’ liveliness, cheerfulness, and vigour. The passage implies that the presence of the Englishmen in the Orient is more relevant and meaningful than the presence of the Arabs: Azrak seems to be all the more beautiful in the absence of its native people.

Oriental Landscapes in a Truly Positive Light

30Unlike the aestheticising and demeaning descriptions in previously cited examples, Lawrence’s travel account includes some truly positive portrayals of Oriental landscapes, which reflect a discourse less related to the imperialist stereotypes and leave room for ambivalence in his discourse. The ambivalent stance discussed here ‘enables a form of subversion, founded on the undecidability that turns the discursive conditions of dominance into the grounds of intervention’ (Bhabha 160). In other words, and in convergence with the aim of this paper, the examples that will be discussed in this section will exemplify the ambivalence that does not perpetuate the colonial tropes of dominance over the Oriental landscapes. Instead of that, Lawrence includes examples which even minimise his mastery and presence when compared to Oriental landscapes.

31For example, Lawrence provides an aesthetic description of the avenue of Rumm: ‘we wheeled into the avenue of Rumm, still gorgeous in sunset colour; the cliffs as red as the clouds in the west, like them in scale and in the level bar they raised against the sky. Again, we felt how Rumm inhibited excitement by its serene beauty. Such whelming greatness dwarfed us, stripped off the cloak of laughter in which we had ridden over the jocund flats’ (385). On the one hand, it is clear in this passage that Lawrence uses the same method in portraying Oriental landscapes by using the most appealing expressions to show Rumm’s extreme beauty such as ‘gorgeous’, ‘inhibited excitement’, and ‘serene beauty’. On the other hand, Lawrence articulates Rumm’s ‘whelming greatness’ which ‘dwarfed’ him. That is to say, Lawrence somehow confesses his littleness in front of Rumm’s magnitude, therefore, it may be suggested that he moved from a position of mastery to submissiveness.

32In this particular example, Lawrence’s representation of Oriental landscapes seems to oppose the tendency of colonial writers to express their mastery over the landscapes they describe. With her concept of ‘The Monarch-of-all-I-Survey’ Pratt explains the connection between imperialism and the European travellers’ visuality of the lands and she clarifies that ‘a relation of mastery predicated between the seer and the seen’ (Pratt 204). That is to say, the travellers take a position of mastery of the lands while portraying them to the reader. David Spurr highlights this idea through his concept of ‘commanding view’ which defines the superior power of the gaze in the colonial discourse. Spurr considers the ‘commanding view’ as pure gesture of colonialism because ‘it conveys a sense of mastery over the unknown and over what is often perceived by the Western writer’ (Spurr 15). Relying on the previous analysis, it might be suggested that Lawrence departs, in his description of Rumm, from the colonial attitudes because he displays or rather celebrates the greatness of the landscapes instead of imposing his own mastery.

33It is worth mentioning that the previously cited example is not the only occasion where he belittles his presence when being in front of Rumm. Indeed, he relates on another occasion his ride with the Arabs through Rumm’s valley as follows: ‘Our little caravan grew self-conscious, and fell dead quiet, afraid and ashamed to flaunt its smallness in the presence of the stupendous hills’ (359). This passage shows the same way Lawrence valorises Rumm and contrasts its enormousness with the ‘smallness’ of his caravan. Lawrence’s celebration of Rumm’s greatness serves as another instance which shows his retreat from the trend of displaying mastery over foreign landscapes.

34Lawrence’s representation of Rumm in this example differs from the portrayals of other imperialist authors. To take a recent example, the Anglo-American novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux displays in his writings some features of the discourse of negation, domination, devaluation of the ‘Third World’ that has survived the wave of political decolonization of the 1960s. In his rail travel account The Old Patagonian Express (1979), Theroux describes Guatemala as a ‘city on its back’, to show it ‘in a position of submission or defeat before him’ (quoted in Pratt 217). Theroux uses this metaphor to show the subordination of Guatemala, and to promote his own mastery and supremacy over it. Lawrence’s representation of Rumm clearly differs from the genealogy that has survived until Theroux’s portrayal of Guatemala. While Theroux subordinates Guatemala, Lawrence shrinks his presence and magnifies the greatness of Rumm. This different demonstration of foreign landscapes between Theroux and Lawrence demonstrates that Lawrence in his portrayal of Rumm does not repeat the colonial tropes which were so prevalent in his former representations of Azrak and Kadem.

35Rumm is not the only place that Lawrence describes with less inclination to recreate colonial tropes as he also includes a more positive description of Sirhan and its landscapes: ‘Sand, or flint, or a desert of bare rocks was exciting sometimes, and in certain lights had a monstrous beauty’ (279). This example displays ambiguity and contradiction in Lawrence’s description of Sirhan, which he sometimes referred to as a source of weary hopelessness, and at other times described as a beautiful and ‘exciting’ place. The reader may also notice that the contradiction is not only between passages, but it seems to be even at the sentence or phrasal level, as when he uses the oxymoron ‘a monstrous beauty’ to describe the same place. The descriptions of Rumm and Sirhan demonstrate the non-homogeneity of the Orientalist discourse presented by Lawrence alongside a fragmented perpetuation of the colonial and imperialist stereotypes about the Orient.

Towards a Post-Saidian Understanding of Colonial Discourse? Lawrence’s Non-Homogeneous Imperial Gaze

36In this paper I highlighted the ambivalence of Lawrence’s Orientalist discourse, in his aestheticisation and debasement of the Orient. I have argued that Lawrence’s travel account shows demeaning and essentialised portrayals of Orientals, which convey a stereotypical imperial gaze. In these representations he echoes the colonialist discourse which demeans the ‘other’ and appears as a form of support and justification to imperialism and colonialism. I also discussed the examples in which Lawrence beautifies the Orientals and transforms them into objects of beauty, in line with another key aspect of Orientalist attitudes: these representations are shown to be reflecting imperialist thoughts, despite being conveyed in aestheticising images. However, Lawrence’s excessive debasement and aestheticisation are nuanced with a different neutral treatment in the representation of Abdulah el Nahabi when he celebrates the attachment of the Orientals to their identity, which reflects ambivalence in his description of indigenous populations. More importantly, he includes lengthy laudatory descriptions of Emir Feisal illustrating not only a nuanced discourse but also a non-essentialised portrayal of Orientals.

37As far as Oriental landscapes are concerned, some portrayals are dominated by demeaning descriptions, as could be expected from writings supporting colonialist ambitions. This is especially the case with the emphasis on the contrast between the European and Oriental cities which reestablishes and maintains opposition between the East and the West. On other occasions, Lawrence aestheticises the landscapes and represents them at their best, which seems on many occasions to promote imperialism as it has been shown in the examples of Kadeem and Azrak. This is because he repeatedly recreates the images which convey his mastery over the landscapes he describes and motivates the imperialist and colonialist project. Yet, Lawrence also includes other representations which show his departure from the colonialist discourse. This is particularly the case when he does not display the colonialist tendency of showing mastery over the foreign landscapes as the description of Rumm demonstrates. Such instances help to provide a more nuanced stance.

38Throughout Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T. E. Lawrence displays an ambivalent colonialist and Orientalist predisposition which makes his representations of the Orient—at the same time—confirm and depart from the colonialist and imperialist discourse. The ambivalence in Lawrence’s depictions allows the possibility of a non-homogeneous discourse. This aspect sheds light on what has been overlooked in the Saidian theory which defines the Orientalist discourse as a homogeneous and derogatory one. By contrast, it confirms Bhabha’s perspective about the duality of the colonial discourse. This leads us to conclude that, in Lawrence’s case at least, it seems that the picture of the ‘East’ offered by travel writing was much more complex than hitherto acknowledged.

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1 Ageyls were Arabs from three tribes – the Nejd, Aneryza, and Boreida or Russ, who enlisted for service as regular camel corps in Emir Feisal’s troops during the Arab revolt.

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Sonia Lamrani, « The Ambivalent Representation of the Orient in T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph (1935) »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 93 Printemps | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2020, consulté le 01 octobre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Sonia Lamrani

Sonia Lamrani is a PhD candidate in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies at the University of Birmingham. She is currently in her third year. Sonia has a Master’s in Anglophone literature and a Bachelor of English Literature and Foreign Languages from the Faculty of Sciences Boumerdès in Algeria. Her research interests centre around the discourse of East-Orientalism in the Algerian postcolonial novel. She investigates the way Orientalist and colonialist discourses influenced the self-representation of Algerian postcolonial authors.
Sonia Lamrani est doctorante en études coloniales et postcoloniales à l’université de Birmingham. Elle est actuellement en troisième année. Sonia est titulaire d’un master en littérature anglophone et d’une licence en littérature anglaise et en langues étrangères de la faculté des sciences de Boumerdès en Algérie. Ses centres de recherches académiques portent sur le discours orientaliste dans le roman algérien postcolonial. Elle examine comment les discours orientaliste et colonialiste ont influencé la façon dont les auteurs algériens postcoloniaux se représentent.

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