1st Edition

The Arabian Desert in English Travel Writing Since 1950 A Barren Legacy?

By Jenny Walker Copyright 2023

    Broadly this book is about the Arabian desert as the locus of exploration by a long tradition of British travellers that includes T. E. Lawrence and Wilfred Thesiger; more specifically, it is about those who, since 1950, have followed in their literary footsteps. In analysing modern works covering a land greater than the sum of its geographical parts, the discussion identifies outmoded tropes that continue to impinge upon the perception of the Middle East today while recognising that the laboured binaries of “East and West”, “desert and sown”, “noble and savage” have outrun their course. Where, however, only a barren legacy of latent Orientalism may have been expected, the author finds instead a rich seam of writing that exhibits diversity of purpose and insight contributing to contemporary discussions on travel and tourism, intercultural representation, and environmental awareness. By addressing a lack of scholarly attention towards recent additions to the genre, this study illustrates for the benefit of students of travel literature, or indeed anyone interested in “Arabia”, how desert writing, under the emerging configurations of globalisation, postcolonialism, and ecocriticism, acts as a microcosm of the kinds of ethical and emotional dilemmas confronting today’s travel writers in the world’s most extreme regions.



    Introduction: Arabia, the Land of Legend

    • The margins of Western desert travel in Arabia
    • Locating Arabia
    • Arabia as a country of the mind
    • The Lawrence and Thesiger legacy
    • Mapping the chapters

    Chapter 1. In Literary Footsteps: The Prevalence of "Second Journeys"

    • A tradition of intertextuality
    • Learning from the past – Blackmore in the footsteps of Lawrence
    • Writing about the present – Kirkby and Hayes in the footsteps of Thesiger
    • Opportunities for the future – Evans in the footsteps of Thomas

    Chapter 2. Desert and Sown: The Narration of Progress and Modernity

    • Desert but not deserted – Asher’s modern Bedu
    • The desert mechanised – Toy’s travels by Land Rover
    • The desert politicised – Morris and a Sultan’s pageant
    • The desert urbanised – Raban and a camel-free account
    • The desert historicised – Mackintosh-Smith’s inverse archaeology

    Chapter 3: Gendering the Desert: Women and Desert Narratives

    • Where are the women? Western women’s travels in Arabia
    • "Pay, pack and follow" – women as desert writers
    • The siren trope
    • The "veiled best-seller"
    • Desert as an inconstant space

    Chapter 4. Wonderment and Wilderness: Desert Science Writing

    • Delighting in sand grouse
    • George and the neo-sublime
    • Walker and Pittaway in amateur pursuits
    • Winser in search of solutions
    • Staging the desert for Western audiences

    Chapter 5: Desert as Shared Space

    • Post-tourism and the accelerated sublime
    • The modern secular pilgrimage
    • Democratisation of the desert experience

    Conclusion: Barren Legacy?




    Jenny Walker is Consultant to the CEO of Oman’s national accreditation agency. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and Member of the British Guild of Travel Writers, she has written for Lonely Planet for 20 years in 40 guidebooks, curated a book of Silk Road drawings, and coauthored, with husband Sam Owen, an off-road guide to Oman.

    "An astute, wide-ranging analysis of the directions British travel writing on Arabia have taken since Thesiger and the 1950s. Jenny Walker combines practical knowledge of the Arabian desert with sensitive readings of how writing about it has been formed by postmodern trends and twenty-first century contexts. This book is more than an update it is an invaluable aid to our understanding of the desert writing genre."

    Geoffrey Nash, author of, From Empire to Orient, Travellers to the Middle East