The Romanticization of the Bedouin Arab and Arabian Peninsula

A photograph depicting twelve men wearing head coverings, posed with a child, dog, and other supplies

Lesson Plan Production Details

Developers: Mohammad Sakhnini Contact, Sarah Copsey Alsader Contact, Lenora Hanson Contact

Lesson Plan Cluster Developer: Ryan D. Fong Contact

Lesson Plan Guide: Cherrie Kwok Contact

Webpage Developer: Ava K. Bindas

Cluster Title: Palestine in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

Publication Date: 2023


This lesson plan invites students and instructors to elucidate a discursive link between British colonial attitudes to the Arabian Peninsula and representations of Arabs and Arabia in literary texts of the Romantic, Victorian, and Edwardian periods.

Starting with canonical texts of British Romanticism such as Percy Bysshe Shelley's “Ozymandias” (1818) and William Wordsworth's “Arab Dream” (1805), this lesson plan draws attention to Romantic representations of Arabs and Arabia and the ground upon which they are framed.

As students draw out the motifs of the discourse on “Arabia” and on “Arabs” in British Romanticism, they then trace the movements of this discourse in British literatures through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In the process, this lesson plan suggests a shift from an epistemological privileging of the Bedouin in Romantic thought to a racial privileging of the Bedouin in Victorian travel writing, indicative of a wider cultural shift towards positivistic modalities of thought in the later in the nineteenth century. This is done through a reading of Victorian writers and so-called “Arabian adventurers” such as Richard Burton, Gifford Palgrave, and Wilfrid Scawen Blunt.

Finally, this lesson plan traces the discourse on Arabia and Arabs to the early twentieth century and explores how that discourse came to shape British military and colonial policy on the peninsula in the First World War and the Edwardian period. The plan invites students to read the literary work of Mark Sykes and T. E. Lawrence alongside secondary works by historians such as Albert Hourani, Elie Kedourie, and Priya Satia. Here, students are invited to examine the valences of the discourses on Arabs and Arabia in the colonial and geo-political construction of the region by the British in the period, such as the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement and the 1917 Balfour Declaration.

Structure and Organisation

This lesson plan coordinates material around three historical timings: first, the British Romantic poetry of the early nineteenth century; second, the later nineteenth-century writings on Arabs and the Bedouin; third, the build-up to the major events of the British colonial construction of Arabia in the First World War.

Our format allows for a genealogical approach to reconstructing discursive structures of feeling. We hope that this will encourage students to broaden their understanding of structural relationships between discourses and material historicity as well as develop an understanding of the network of Romanticism's dominant urges and motifs and the nineteenth century's colonial discourses.

In tracing the themes above through a variety of literatures across a 100-year time span, students are encouraged to think openly about continuities and discontinuities, and to use their contextual knowledge of Romanticisms and Victorianisms. This can be worked though in different ways as an educator sees appropriate. It would be important, however, to question what historical contexts initiate the shifts from Romantic discourses to Victorian ones. This is where the question of the colonial mind, at its widest implications, should come up for analysis.

Our lesson plan is also methodologically flexible. One educator might use this plan as an example of the Foucauldian genealogical method; another might choose to open up historicist methodologies or colonial theory.

Most valuable would be a subtle approach that draws in these different methodological frameworks at different stages in the lesson, according to the students' level of methodological expertise. There might, for example, be classrooms where students already have background knowledge of some of the major work in the fields of Orientalism and postcolonialism. If that is the case, this lesson plan provides empirical material that will allow students to develop the sophistication of their understanding and response to ideas and methods of those fields. However, if students are at an earlier level in their scholarship, this lesson plan would provide a strong starting point for approaching Edward Said's Orientalism (1978), Foucauldian genealogical methodology, and the fields of colonialisms and postcolonialisms.

Central Questions

  1. How is Arabia and the Bedouin Arab constructed in British Romantic Poetry?
  2. How do the Romantic figures of Arabia of the Bedouin permeate British political discourse in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries?
  3. What are the Romantic structures of feeling inherited by figures such as Blunt, Sykes and Lawrence, and how influential are they in the British colonial project in Arabia?
  4. How does the discourse on the Bedouin shift in the nineteenth century from epistemologically-based (religious) to racial discourse? Why?
  5. How is this discourse on the Bedouin related to broader discourses on Muslims as colonial subjects? How is it related to the broader field of British colonial-discursive constructions of other social groups and races?

Suggested Materials

Romantic Poetry and the Construction of Arabia

Primary Sources

Byron, George Gordon Lord. Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. 1812. The Pennsylvania Electronic Edition.

---. Hebrew Melodies. London: John Murray, 1815. Google Books.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. A Philosophical View of Reform. 1820. Edited by T.W. Rolleston, 1920. The Anarchist Library.

---. “On Zionism/The Restoration of the Jews.” 1819. Edited by Nora Crook. Keats-Shelley Journal, vol. 59, 2010, pp. 43-64.

---. “Ozymandias.” 1818. Shelley's Poetry and Prose. Edited by Donald H. Reiman and Neil Freistat. W.W.Norton and Company, 2002. p. 109.

---. The Assassins. 1814. Google Books.

Wordsworth, William. “Book V.” The Prelude: Authoritative Texts, Context and Reception, Recent Critical Essays. Edited by J.W. Wordsworth, Stephen Gill and M.H. Abrams. W.W. Norton and Company, 1979.

Volney, C.F. The Ruins, or, Meditation on the Revolutions of Empires and the Law of Nature. 1804. Project Gutenberg. 3 May 2013.

Secondary Sources

Garcia, Humberto. Islam and the English Enlightenment. Johns Hopkins, 2012.

Warren, Andrew. The Orient and the Young Romantics. Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Worthington Smyser, Jane. “Wordsworth's Dream of Poetry and Science: The Prelude, V.” PMLA 71, no. 1, 1956. pp. 269-275.

Potential Topics for Discussion
  • Attitudes to Islam and Muslims in British Romantic Poetry
  • Romanticism and the Enlightenment
  • Sources of Romantic interest in the Bedouin
  • The nomad and the desert as a Romantic motif
  • Discourses of religion and revolution in British Romantic Poetry, especially revolutionary eschatologies, political utopias and the erasure of religious difference
  • Mysticism, epistemological difference
  • Why does the Bedouin Arab become such a powerful motif of Wordsworth's Prelude?
  • What are the historical contexts of Shelley's “Ozymandias”?
  • How might Lord Byron's travels amongst Muslims in the Ottoman Empire have influenced his depictions of Islam and Muslims in his poetry?
  • What are the differences and similarities between the representations of Arabia, Arabs, and Muslim in the works of the three different poets?
  • What was known about Arabs and Arabia in the period? What was known about Islam and Muslims?
  • What were the cultural valences and values of Islam and Arabia in the Romantic period? Is there a shift in the Romantic period?
  • What structures of feeling guided the idea of the popular genre of “national melodies” in the Romantic period?
  • How does Byron develop the typical“Byronic Hero” in Childe Harold? What difference does the Oriental staging make?

Nineteenth-Century Discourses on “the Bedouin”

Primary Sources

Blunt, Wilfrid. Secret History of the English Occupation of Egypt, Being a Personal Narrative of Events. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1907. Google Books.

---. “Recent Events in Arabia.” Fortnightly Review, n.s. 27, (1880): 707-19.

Burton, Richard. Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah. 2 vols. London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, and Roberts, 1857. Library of Congress.

Palgrave, Gifford. Narrative of a Year's Journey through Central and Eastern Arabia (1862-63). London: Macmillan, 1866. Library of Congress.

Secondary Source

Tidrick, Kathryn. Heart Beguiling Araby: The English Romance with Arabia. I B Tauris, 1990.

Potential Topics for Discussion
  • Victorian colonialism and exploration/discovery
  • The parallel development of scientific discourses and colonial discourses
  • Positivism and the rise of the impulse to classify
  • Victorian pseudosciences and their valences — including racial theory, phrenology, ethnology
  • Racial privilege and hierarchization as a discourse and its links with colonial policy
  • Political contexts of travel literatures
  • Romantic motifs in Victorian literature
  • How does an accurate racial definition of the “true Arab” become a recurring motif of the authors? Why?
  • To what extent is this “true Arab” mapped onto a geographical territory?
  • Where is the center of the territory of the “true Arab”? Where are the peripheries?
  • What peoples and social groups are denigrated alongside the privileging of the “noble Arab”? Why? What are their geographies and cultures?
  • What are the reasons for the privileging of the “true Arab”? How and why might this privileging be different from the Romanticization of the Bedouin in Wordsworth's “Arab Dream”?
  • How do these discourses permeate political discourses in the period and why?
  • What do each of the writers suggest about the possibility of “self-rule” amongst the peoples of the Arabian peninsula?
  • What are the historical contexts of empire and colonialism in the late nineteenth century?
  • What do these writers think of the Ottoman Empire?
  • To what extent is the “noble Arab” also a Muslim? (If possible, it would be interesting here to compare British representations of Muslims in British-colonized India with representations of Arabs as Muslims.)

The Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916) and The Balfour Declaration (1917)

Primary Sources

Map to Illustrate Agreement in 1916 Between Great Britain, France, Russia and Italy, re: Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, etc. Sykes-Picot. 1916. The National Archives.

The Balfour Declaration. 1917. Wikimedia.

Lawrence, T E. Seven Pillars of Wisdom. 1926. Edited by Nicole Wilson. 2nd Edition. J and N Wilson, 2004.

Sykes, Mark. Dar-Ul-Islam. London: Bickers and Son, 1904. Seyfo Center.

Secondary Sources

Attar, Samar. Debunking the Myths of Colonization: The Arabs and Europe. University Press of America, 2010.

Doumanis, Nicholas. Before the Nation: Muslim-Christian Coexistence and Its Destruction in Late-Ottoman Anatolia. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Hourani, Albert. Minorities in the Arab World. Oxford University Press, 1947.

---. “The Changing Face of the Fertile Crescent in the XVIIIth Century.” Studia Islamica, no. 8, 1957. pp. 89–22.

Kedourie, Elie. England and the Middle East: The Destruction of the Ottoman Empire, 1914-1921. Mansell Publishing Limited, 1987.

---. In the Anglo-Arab Labyrinth: The McMahon-Husayn Correspondence and Its Interpretations 1914-1939. Cambridge University Press, 1976.

Satia, Priya. Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain's Covert Empire in the Middle East. Oxford University Press, 2008.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. 3rd edition. Random House, 2014.

---. The Question of Palestine. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980.

Potential Topics for Discussion
  • Discourses of Arabs and Arabia and British colonial and military behavior in the Arabian Peninsula
  • Structures of feeling between British central government and the Arab and Sudan Bureaus
  • Attitudes towards the Levant and the Levantine
  • British colonial policy and the Muslim colonial subject
  • Romanticism, mysticism, quest narratives
  • In what way, and to what extent, do the discourses on Arabs influence British military and colonial decisions and behaviors in the Arabian peninsula?
  • How “Romantic” a figure is T. E. Lawrence?
  • What sparked Sykes's interest in the Bedouin? What prompted him to travel in “Arabia”?
  • What does dar-ul-Islam mean and why did Sykes use it as the title for his travel narrative?
  • Why did the desert inspire the heroic quest?
  • To what extent did “the Arabist” determine the course of British military policy in the Arabian Peninsula?
  • How does Sykes's Dar-ul-Islam represent different socio-cultural groups in the Arabian peninsula?
  • How did structures of feeling toward the Levantine and structures of feeling towards the “noble Arab” in British discourses shape colonial attitudes?
  • What is Sykes's attitude to “civilization” and the Arab Bedouin? What is the genealogy of this attitude if it could be traced back to the eighteenth century?
  • How does an understanding of the historical complexity of British-Arab relations fit within what Said might call an Orientalist framework?

Developer Biographies

Mohammad Sakhnini is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at Khalifa University of Science and Technology, Abu Dhabi. He works in the fields of eighteenth-century British literature and culture and travel writing. His book, British Encounters with Syrian-Mesopotamian Overland Routes to India: Rethinking Enlightenment Improvement (1751-1795), has recently been published with Anthem Press (March 2023).

Lenora Hanson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at New York University. Their research focuses on dispossession and enclosure beginning in the Romantic period and as it continues into the present, with particular attention to the way that rhetorical language registers the destruction of non-capitalist forms of life. They recently edited a special issue of Studies in Romanticism entitled “Palestine: Romanticisms Contemporary” and published The Romantic Rhetoric of Accumulation (Stanford University Press, 2022).

Sarah Copsey Alsader is completing her PhD at the University of Kent on Discourses of Islam in British Romantic Poetry. She has research interests across literature, philosophy, religion and psychology, subjects which are pulled together through questions about metaphysical structures of feeling. She is especially concerned with how such structures of feeling shape and interpellate individuals, are written into and elided in narrative, and construct the world in which we live.

Tile/Header Image Caption

Sykes, Mark. “[Title Unknown].” Dar-Ul-Islam, Bickers and Son, 1904, Frontspiece imagge. Robarts Library. Public domain.

Page/Lesson Plan Citation (MLA)

Sarah Copsey Alsader, Lenora Hanson, Mohamad Sakhnini, devs. “The Romanticization of the Bedouin Arab and the Colonial Construction of the Arabian Peninsula.” Ryan D. Fong , les. plan clust. dev.; Cherrie Kwok , les. plan guide. Undisciplining the Victorian Classroom, 2023,