During four months in Oxford last fall, I spent part of my time pursuing the charge of my editorial colleagues to seek out new and distinctively British approaches to the Middle East. My main finding is that British nostalgia for empire, which many North Americans came to know in the popular television series The Jewel in the Crown, has expanded its geographic ambit beyond the Indian raj and encompassed the Middle East as well. The prominent display of large quantities of several new books of this genre in the book shops of Oxford and London suggests that they appeal to an audience beyond Middle East specialists.
The genre of imperial nostalgia is distinct from hard right-wing arguments that British rule was good for the natives, or at least necessary to preserve stability — for example, J. B. Kelly’s Arabia, the Gulf and the West. The books discussed here are soft. They employ selective memory to filter out the ugliness of British power, humanize its executors and reduce racism to a curious habit of a bygone era. The nostalgia authors’ intentions are often better than those of the hard pro-imperialists, yet these texts cannot escape the logic of their location in a reactionary discursive formation.
One impetus for the extension of imperial nostalgia to the Middle East was the celebration of the centenary of T. E. Lawrence’s birth in 1988. The National Portrait Gallery mounted a large exhibit from December 9, 1988 to March 12, 1989. Jeremy Wilson compiled the exhibit catalogue and wrote the introductory essays. T. E. Lawrence: Lawrence of Arabia (London: National Portrait Gallery Publications, 1988) is lavishly illustrated with excellent reproductions, many in color. Whether Lawrence is regarded as a hero or a pathological megalomaniac, focusing on his biography — long a favorite of British empire buffs — tends to place British actions at the center of the making of the modern Arab world. Wilson embraces this view by quoting a long letter in which Lawrence minimized the autonomous Arab role in the revolt against Ottoman rule during World War I: “The Arab army had no separate share in the conquest of Syria.” This differs sharply with Lawrence’s own evaluation on the first page of his Seven Pillars of Wisdom: “It was an Arab war waged and led by Arabs for an Arab aim in Arabia.” Lawrence was nothing if not self-contradictory. Privileging one of these statements over the other promotes the Anglo-centric perspective on the Arab revolt, no doubt a congenial one for the National Portrait Gallery.
Lawrence grew up in Oxford, graduated from Jesus College and returned to All Souls’ College to write Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The city and university proudly acknowledge this connection, and the Bodleian Library put on a Lawrence centenary exhibit as well. Its catalogue, T. E. Lawrence: The Legend and the Man (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 1988), is bland and uninspired. The shadowy photograph of Lawrence on the cover contrasts sharply with the golden-hued reproduction of Augustus John’s portrait on the cover of the National Portrait Gallery catalogue. Is this grim presentation meant to suggest the darker aspects of empire and of Lawrence’s personality? More likely, its mediocre quality reflects the desperate financial circumstances of Oxford University and higher education generally in the brave new world of Thatcherite Britain.
Anthony Sattin’s Lifting the Veil: British Society in Egypt, 1768-1956 (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1988) is a light and amusing read. The black-and-white illustrations are unconventional and of good quality. Sattin seems to believe that the problem between the Egyptians and the British was lack of mutual understanding: “Both nationalities were veiled,” he writes. “Few foreigners bothered to look for the real Egyptian behind the stereotyped image of fat pashas and lazy workers, sharp dealers, poor soldiers, downtrodden peasants.” This becomes the leitmotif for the text. Sattin describes the British as “elitist and reclusive,” but does not discuss the structure of British power in Egypt. The account of the invasion and occupation of 1882 is diffused throughout the book, obscuring its centrality to the purpose and character of the British presence.
Derek Hopwood pursues the same theme as Sattin in Tales of Empire: The British in the Middle East, 1880-1952 (London: I. B. Tauris, 1989). Hopwood openly acknowledges that he merely aims to fill in a geographical gap in imperial nostalgia; he does not regard this as a serious book. It is composed of anecdotes, character sketches, personal stories and humorous incidents drawn from the large and valuable archive of private papers of Britons who worked or travelled in the Middle East, housed in the Middle East Centre of St. Antony’s College. The attitudes of most of these servants of empire are outrageous. The comment by Harry Boyle, Oriental Secretary to Lord Cromer, that “it is well-nigh impossible for one nation [Egypt] to feel gratitude for the blessings conferred on it by another [Britain]” concludes the chapter ironically entitled “A Lack of Gratitude” treating the Egyptian nationalist uprising of 1919 and the burning of Cairo in 1952. Still, this title also suggests that Hopwood has less critical distance from his subjects than any Egyptian could feel comfortable with. Tales of Empire provides an entertaining view of the British imperial mentality and a useful survey of the lighter side of the Middle East Centre’s archive.
Egypt’s Belle Epoque: Cairo, 1869-1952 (London: Quartet, 1989) is Trevor Mostyn’s unselfconscious panegyric on the glories of Cairo in the era of British colonialism. The central chapters of the book revolve around Khedive Isma‘il and Empress Eugenie of France (did they have a love affair? probably not), the inauguration of the Suez Canal and its cultural counterpart, the premiere of the Cairo Opera House and the commissioning of Aida for the occasion. (Verdi at first turned down the commission, and Rigoletto was performed to mark the opening of the Canal instead.) The epilogue suggests several parallels between the age of Isma‘il and the age of Sadat and Mubarak: reconstruction of the Opera House after it burned down in 1972, restaging Aida at Luxor in 1987 and the reincarnation of Isma‘il’s Gezira Palace as the Marriott Hotel. Mostyn’s admiration for Isma‘il’s Cairo easily merges into uncritical appreciation of Sadat’s efforts to Westernize Egypt in the same way and with similar consequences — massive foreign debt, popular outrage and departure from the political stage in disgrace.