Dr Tidrick is one of today’s most prolific and gifted interpreters of British imperialism, of Britain overseas and, in effect, of that elusive phenomenon ‘Britishness’ – though she rather stubbornly uses the term ‘English’ in her relevant book titles.
While this book is not quite as far reaching in the range of its analysis as her first rate Empire and the English Character, it is just as perceptive, and exceptionally apt given Britain’s long history of involvement in the Middle East, not to mention the current entanglements. Those who seek a detailed, chronologically-based history of these relationships may, however, be disappointed. What we get instead is a fiercely intelligent and completely absorbing account of a number of mainly British writers, explorers, anthropologists, soldiers, and so forth (all of them Victorian or post-Victorian intellectuals) and what they made of ‘Araby’. The study centres on Richard Burton, Gifford Palgrave, Wilfrid Blunt and Charles Doughty, though others, including TE Lawrence, get more than a look-in.
How can the contents of this multi-layered and very thoughtful book best be summarised? Primarily, it reminds us that the British, indeed the western, perception of ‘Araby’ was largely created by the acceptance that somehow those at the centre of this book, in their attempt to understand the region’s nature, managed to penetrate its mysteries in a way denied to others. That there was a visionary, literally ‘other-worldly’, understanding vouchsafed to them as they often pushed themselves to the limits of their physical endurance. Consequently, in an echo of Edward Said, this delineation of ‘Araby’ played a significant part in enabling and justifying Britain’s subsequent imperial interventions in the region.
Professor Denis Judd is author of Empire: the British Imperial Experience from 1765 to the Present (Phoenix, 2001)