Unraveling the Dream World Stereotype of the Arab People

byPriya Talreja

Introduction and Rationale

There is no such thing as an unbiased history.

History is a discipline of stories. It is a retelling of the past through the sensibilities of the people who are selected, appointed and step-up to to to tell it. Like any story, the storyteller shares his or her version through the lens through which they see the world. In some cases, it is an unintentional bias, created by prior experiences, psychology, and environmental factors; in other instances, it is a bias that may be intended to create a winner, a leader or gain a prize. The reality is that the nature in which historical information is recorded makes it forever difficult to have purely unbiased content. To fairly teach this discipline, as instructors, we need to highlight this and teach students how to do historical thinking. Students need to learn to evaluate the storyteller, research the circumstances in which the story is told, and analyze the effects of the story on the present. This unit attempts to teach this in the tenth grade World History classroom.

The central focus of the unit is to use a book and movie, both presented as the history of T.E. Lawrence’s role in the Arab Revolt during World War I. At the heart of this lesson is the book by T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Some would argue that over several decades this book along with the adapted movie has played a role in creating a fantasy and dream world about the Arabs and the Middle East. They both are presented as authoritative, truthful and eye-opening. In reality, they reemphasize stereotypes about the people in the Middle East which blurs the lines between truth and reality. The lens through which these are seen are overly uncritically Eurocentric. The result is a one-sided history. It creates a mythical world and an inaccurate view of the Middle East and the people who live in it. As Richard Aldington states in Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Enquiry, it is “rather a world of quasi-fiction than of history.”1

The unit’s essential question is the following: How are stereotypes used to diminish the contributions of colonized people? Students will use excerpts of primary and secondary source documents to consider how patriotism, and the viewpoint of Orientalism created a stereotype of the Middle East, which still persists today. This is an opportunity to help students evaluate historical bias in a critical way. As the Wall Street Journal once pointed out “Putting a human face on historical events is an appealing technique that makes ‘Lawrence in Arabia’ a gripping read. Yet eloquence and color can't authenticate a flawed historical argument.”2 It is with this in mind that this unit tries to teach students about historical thinking. This helps students consider how the author’s beliefs, nationality, childhood, etc. play a role in creating a narrative that is affects the story.

Aldington points out that “the truth of [T.E. Lawrence] is harder to come by, as no one crack in the edifice revealed the whole truth.”3 Therefore, if biographers and historians cannot truly unravel the truth about Lawrence then this lesson is not intending to either. This is not a comprehensive study of T.E. Lawrence’s life or his version of the Arab Revolt. It cannot serve to tell the full truth behind T.E. Lawrence. This unit is also not a fact finding mission or research project. Its role is to develop and deepen my students’ understanding of the way in which historical facts are manipulated and how those manipulations can and must be identified, analyzed, and critiqued.

The intent of the unit is to give students exposure to thinking critically about the way we look at the Middle East today. It is a powerful opportunity to develop my students’ critical thinking skills with real issues and challenges in society. This is meant to be a starting place for teachers who want to do more of this in their classroom in other units. The long-term goal is to create more units like this one that evaluate history in a way that moves us forward and makes the events of the past relevant to the present.

Content Objectives

The United States and the communities within the nation are currently in a unique position to reevaluate and redesign curriculum for the 21st century American student. Access to abundant information through technology and redeveloped education standards (e.g. the Common Core) have opened the door for teachers to help develop academic skills they will need in this century. One of these skills that students need to deeply develop is the ability to navigate through content with a critical eye. The current role of 24 hour news channels and Internet news has made this skills more important than ever. Students need to be able to consider the bias of the narrator, and the objective of this narrator’s story. Unlike historical content that can be read and then memorized, these historical thinking skills are developed overtime; therefore, students need a variety of opportunities to do this in classroom.

To give students the opportunity to develop and refine these skills students need to annotate and discuss excerpts from the, Seven Pillars of Wisdom and the film, Lawrence of Arabia. For each excerpt students will answer the following lesson question: “What about these documents illustrate an orientalist perspective?” This question gives students a lens through which to see T.E. Lawrence and his work. Orientalism is a concept that the European narrative on the Middle East need to be consider as only a fraction of the storyline, and not the official one.  

I am going to teach this lesson during the second semester after the unit on Neo-Imperialism and World War I and before starting a unit on the Interwar Years and Totalitarianism. This unit can be moved around to a different part of the year depending on the way units are designed in the classroom. Before starting these higher level thinking aspects of this lesson students need basic content knowledge. The lesson requires the teacher to give students enough context such that they can truly analyze the book and movie. Each student must be familiar with the motivations behind imperialism and World War I. For example, students will need to be familiar with the MAIN causes of World War I, which are often considered to be militarism, alliances, imperialism and nationalism. Another piece of prior knowledge students need to know is the role young men played in the war. Specifically highlighting the nature of the conflict and the significant role patriotism and propaganda played in influencing young men, even boys, to fight on the front lines of the war. Students must be able to name the countries and alliances involved in World War I and specifically explain the the role Great Britain played within the war. Teachers should highlight the fact that Great Britain already had a large empire and remained one of the the only countries that was able to evade invasion. They held a great influence in the world and represented a dominate power.

Specifically for this unit, students will need a deeper understanding of the vocabulary, geographic locations and people associated with the Middle East. Students need to 1) understand the concerns related to stereotyping and specifically the consequences of Arab and Middle Eastern ones 2) develop a basic understanding of the geography of the modern Middle East 3) Understand the Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism and connection to T.E. Lawrence’s views. 4) Understand who T.E. Lawrence was and the traditional beliefs surrounding his role in the Arab Revolt 5) List the people associated with the stories T.E. Lawrence told 6) Understand the consequences of the Arab Revolt on the war and region. This knowledge will help students be able to engage in the higher level thinking required to analyze the role stereotypes have in devaluing Arab people in the world.

Though California, the state in which I work in, has a relatively larger Middle Eastern population as compared to many other the states, the issues associated with stereotyping affect all regions in the US. Marvin Wingfield and Bushra Karaman, wrote a piece titled “Arab Stereotypes and American Educators” that focuses on Arab stereotypes post September 11th. They state that “Arab-American, Muslim, and South Asian students across the country encountered harassment and hostility, and sometimes so did Hispanics and other minority students mistaken for Arabs.”4 They further explain that the current geopolitics are not the prime cause of the stereotypes but rather the historical portrayal of the Middle East is a central issue. Furthermore, the media’s representation of people amplifies the issue and makes it difficult for people to overcome these stereotypes. The Middle East is “reduced to a few simplistic images.”5 By pointing this out to students and showing examples that illustrate that people from the Middle East are often shown as “alien, exotic, and barbaric,”6 students can see that the lens through which we see them is skewed.

This article by Wingfield and Karam is an important starting point to introduce the unit. It is a relevant piece for teachers to understand the cause and consequence of Arab stereotypes in America. It can be used either as a preparatory piece for teachers interested in doing background research for the lesson or it can be incorporated into the lesson itself, as a warm-up or introduction to the purpose of teaching the unit.  The article is easily available at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee website.7

The geography of the Middle East is a central piece of this lesson because Lawrence’s book is about a journey through the region. Students should be familiar with basic modern day geography of the Middle East. That includes both the physical and political geography. A lesson with lists of countries, major cities, landforms and water will help students visualize this region of the world. A thoughtful discussion about land, proximity to water and names of the countries can help students create a more thoughtful perspective on the geography itself. Students can also consider how this affects people who live in the region and even predict some of the conflicts that come out of a scramble for resources. Students need to see a map from Europe and the Middle East in 1914 so that they can see the difference between an all-encompassing Ottoman Empire versus the current divisions. For this lesson it may not be necessary to show all versions of the Ottoman Empire over time. The Ottoman Empire in this lesson refers to modern-day Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, Kuwait, and parts of Saudi Arabia.

One of the major reasons that students are familiar with the political geography of the region is that these the colonial decisions heavily affect the current region’s map. Specifically, a map that illustrates the decisions of the Sykes-Picot agreement, are an important part of the lesson because it shows the transitions from the Ottoman Empire to something that looks closer to the modern day Middle East. I will take some time with my students to discuss the use of straight lines that divided French and British mandates. According to historian Scott Anderson, the lines that were eventually put on the map were far more imaginary than what was the reality for most of the actual Middle Eastern people. He said, in an NPR interview “The lines crossed tribal lines. They divided up clans and sub-clans. For example, the British wanted Transjordan as they had discovered oil in northern Iraq - what is, today, Northern Iraq. And they wanted a land bridge to take that oil on a pipeline to the Mediterranean. So that reason alone is why they grabbed Jordan.”8 It is important for students to evaluate the geographic lines and consider the perspective of the people who made the map versus the perspective of the people who live within the map. This is part of developing a unit that helps students think critically about the results of history, and influence of people in power on the world today.


To evaluate the historical reasoning behind the current stereotypes, I am using the theory of Orientalism to guide the lesson and analysis. Before addressing the content of T.E. Lawrence’s book, students must first have a strong familiarity with the idea of Orientalism and its effects on stereotypes and perceptions of the Middle East.

Orientalism was not a new term when Edward Said wrote about it in 1978, in a book with the title of the same name. What Edward Said pointed out is that the scholars who wrote about the “East”, an area from the the Ottoman Empire to China, created a misrepresentation of the Middle East. According to Said they lacked a “self-criticism … the blind spot of orientalist thinking is a structural one.” 9 The theory of Orientalism explained by Said is critical of European scholars whose study of Asia creates assumptions and explanations about the Middle East, that have created stereotypes, and a relationship with the West that does not truly reflect the reality of the region. Said states that “the French and the British…have had a long tradition of what I shall be calling Orientalism, a way of coming to terms with Orient based on the Orient’s special place in European Western experience.”10

Orientalism, according to Said, was used as a “Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.”11 This means that because the British (and other Europeans) saw themselves at the center of the world and the central way of thinking they were the overbearing authority on the way the Middle East was (and is) discussed. The way in which the Western world speaks, writes, and records events is inherently biased in a detrimental way. It hurts the Middle East because it is a lens that can be patronizing, and demoralizing.

Edward Said wrote in great detail about this concept and excerpts of his book should be shared with students so they can develop a deeper understanding of what he meant, in his own words. There are other scholars who have written and spoken about this idea and using their information can be a good starting place for students who may need it further broken down. Amardeep Singh, associate professor of English at Lehigh University, recently summarizes the concepts at the heart of the Orientalist thought in the following way:

The stereotypes assigned to Oriental cultures and "Orientals" as individuals are  

pretty specific: Orientals are despotic and clannish. They are despotic when placed in positions of power, and sly and obsequious when in subservient positions. Orientals, so the stereotype goes, are impossible to trust. They are capable of sophisticated abstractions, but not of concrete, practical organization or rigorous, detail-oriented analysis. Their men are sexually incontinent, while their women are locked up behind bars. Orientals are, by definition, strange.12

The language in this text is quite complex and requires a deeper discussion for students to fully conceptualize what is being said. To look specifically at the words “despotic,” “clannish”, obsequious” and “subservient” it will help students develop a deeper understanding of the Middle Eastern and Asian stereotypes. The words need to be given further thought because though together they are oxymoronic, they help to explains the ways in which the Middle East is often demonized and also belittled. A discussion on the terms themselves can help students consider some of their assumptions regarding Middle Eastern stereotypes and where they may originate.

T.E. Lawrence

To be able to teach this lesson, a deeper understanding of who T.E. Lawrence’s persona will support students’ understanding of the reading. A quick search online for reliable sources on Lawrence will help anyone not familiar with him gain some basic understanding. For the purpose of this unit it is relevant to dig into parts of his life that may not be considered as important unless one is seeking to evaluate the context of his work and purpose behind it. Culture, socio-economic situation, family, gender, etc. influence the way that individuals see the world. Students will need information on the pivotal life experiences that shaped his mindset and ambitions. 

T.E. Lawrence’s childhood helps to give insight into a man who had an invented name and destiny. He was the illegitimate child of his father, who was named Thomas Chapman. His parents created the name Lawrence to hide behind the fact that they were an unmarried couple with five-children, produced by his father’s adultery.13 When he was young, Thomas Edward Lawrence, spent a lot of time alone, testing himself physically and mentally in order to one day put his body and mind up to meet the challenge. He was determined to prove himself in a society in which he did not quite fit the mold. 14

As a young man Lawrence, an Oxford graduate, learned Arabic in order to visit the Middle East. His curiosity and obsession with the Crusades inspired a trip to study the castles in the area. He later became quite fluent in Arabic when he spent time in the Ottoman Empire as a student and then as an archeologist. He specifically worked in an area now called Syria.15 His love for Syria blossomed during these days as “he grew inner peace living among the Arabs; to them he was a flamboyant and important person, and few Arabs were taller”16. This importance and honor helped build his sense of confidence and validated him. He developed a special affinity to the area as a result.

It is during this time, even before the start of World War I, that T.E. Lawrence’s dislike for the Turks, the people who controlled the Ottoman Empire, arose. When Lawrence found out that the French sought eventual control of Syria, he also began to dislike them too. His passion for an independence movement grew from this experience.

When World War I began, like many young men of the time, Lawrence was desperate to find his way into the war. He sought to be a part of the action and become a hero. His brothers were involved in the action and he was keen to also do his part in the war effort.

One brother was in the British air force and the other one was fighting in the trenches. But, unlike his brothers Lawrence had medical setbacks that held him back from the frontline, and instead he became part of the intelligence unit in Cairo. His knowledge of Arabic and the people of the region were an asset in the British headquarters of the Middle East. 17 Lawrence was not content with his position as he sought a way to go back to help the Arabs with a revolt. In 1915 both of his brothers died on the Western Front, leaving Lawrence with the feeling that he was not doing enough in the war effort. Furthermore, he dreaded the idea of returning to life in Oxford because it would never be the same again. A letter he wrote to a friend on November 16, 1915 gives more context for his feelings: “I’m rather low because first one and now another of my brothers has been killed... I rather dread Oxford and what it may be like if one comes back. Also they were both younger than I am, and it doesn’t seem right, somehow, that I should go on living peacefully in Cairo.”18 

When Lawrence was sent to check on the Arab Revolt he was already looking for an opportunity to continue allow it to grow the movement. Michael Yardley, his biographer, pointed out that at this point in Lawrence’s life he had “always wanted to be a hero but now he must have felt he really had to do something real…get in now and do his bit.”19 Though the revolt had already been started by the Arab leadership, Lawrence was seeking to work with a figurehead to have a prosperous revolt. The Arabs also saw Lawrence as a friend and ally in this matter. With Lawrence came arms, money and British promises that could inspire the Arab deserters and reignite a weakening force. Lawrence felt that he transcended the tribal divisions and had a unique respect among the Arab people. Though this may be true it is also clearly from one point of view.  Tribal historians Meyah and Ali Abdulllah Abu-Tayej pointed out that the “Arabs respected him because he represented the British government- no more, no less.”20

T.E. Lawrence is known for helping arm and direct the Arab campaign, and acting as a liaison with the British officers and government but it is unclear to what extent he was pivotal in their success. He is seen in some forms as a larger than life figure who, despite no military experience and training, became an expert in guerrilla warfare which changed the future of the Middle East. It is definitely true that Lawrence was present and played a significant role in the relationship between the British and Arabs. A noteworthy point is that he brought some expertise that the Arabs were not familiar with, based on the circumstances of the time. In fact, a couple historians suggest that at least in the early days, he was little more than a technical advisor. In the PBS film about him it asserts that “Lawrence’s role in the revolt was as an explosive’s expert- that’s all- he instructed men on how to use explosives and trained them to blow up bridges and trains. Nothing else.”21 In the narration of his book it is evident that he sees himself as a much more significant player in the revolt. He felt a burden and responsibility to become personally involved with the Arab war effort and become a hero on the front lines.  He romanticized what he could do for the Arabs and what they would receive after the war. He grew his leadership role and the importance of his presence. 

During the course of his time with the Arabs, Feisal suggested Lawrence wear Arab clothing. Some accounts by Lawrence display a strong sense of honor in being accepted by the Arabs, a sense that he also felt like had become Arab. On the other hand, accounts share that Lawrence never lost his sense of allegiance to the British and instead enjoyed the fact that it was an act for him, an opportunity for adventure, and an opportunity to play a part. According to Aldington, a critic of Lawrence, Lawrence wrote in July 1918 in reference to his actions and efforts in the war that he had been “in fancy dress” and that his actions were all “part of the pose”.22 This may have been an example of Lawrence’s ability to enjoy the drama in a situation and used this to validate his role in the Arab Revolt and draw on the larger than life feeling he got from being involved with the Arabs.

Lawrence’s personal trials and tragedy lead him seek a more rewarding, exciting and meaningful life abroad. In the Middle East he created a fantastical version of himself in a society he saw as an escape from his British homeland. He found a way to satiate his personal need for success by becoming a patriotic hero fighting for the British, while being a champion of the Middle East people. He therefore imagined and painted a Middle East that needed fixing, and lacked their own ability to save themselves. He made himself a savior of the people and propped himself up to fulfill the desire he had to be this idol. Unfortunately, Lawrence’s person needs came with great consequence for the identity of the Arab people.

The Arab Revolt

The Arab Revolt is the historical event that makes T.E. Lawrence relevant in our history. To help students understand the context of Lawrence’s literary work it is essential to give students the historical context in which his fame was generated. Depending on a particular class the Arab Revolt may be incorporated within this unit or in a previous unit on World War I, and the loss of the Central Powers. The leadership within the revolt is still a disputed topic and the events explained differently depending on the point-of-view of the narrator. Below is a basic summary:

Sharif Hussein ibn Ali was the emir of Mecca and the instigator of the Arab Revolt. His dream was to create a unified independent Arab country, from Syria to Yemen. He took advantage of the Turks’ weakening power in the region and involvement in World War I to begin this process known as the Arab Revolt.  Beginning in 1916, he sent his sons to lead a surprise attack against the Ottoman Empire. The forces Arabs initially did well. The rebels took over the holy city of Mecca along with Jeddah. Eventually, the Arabs, who were less united or even armed than the Turks, floundered and began to lose ground.23

Around the same time, T.E. Lawrence went with another member of the British military to gauge the ability and viability of furthering the Arab revolt. It is at that point that he talked with Sharif Hussein and discussed their common goals for the region. There are conflicting accounts about how involved Lawrence was in a leadership role at this point, but it appears that Lawrence negotiated terms to bring together the British and Arabs. Keen to win and use the British Empire’s military power, Feisal, the third son of Sharif Hussein bin Ali, worked with the British towards a successful Arab Revolt.24

The Arab revolt was eventually successful in attacking and weakening the Turks. The Turks, who had a well-developed railroad, and weaponry that post-industrialized nations had, was a difficult enemy to fight without the compatible resources.  The Arabs therefore had to use guerilla warfare and focused on attacking and breaking down the railroad lines. This tactic leads to the fall of Aqaba, in the north, then Jerusalem in December of 1917. By October 1918 Damascus was liberated from Turkish control. 

The revolt, though successful, did not lead to Arab independence as it was originally planned by Sharif Hussein ibn Ali. The British and French had a secret agreement, known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, that lead to recolonization of much of the former Ottoman Empire. In the treaties that followed World War I the British and French were allocated land that they referred to as mandates.25 The Arab leadership unsuccessfully presented a case for self-rule and were therefore highly disappointed by the outcome. Feisal, lead a revolt against the French in 1920 and crowned himself king of Greater Syria. The French violently kicked him out of this role. The British eventually showed some amends and gave him the Kingdom of Iraq, within their mandate. Some of the conflict in this region remains unsettled as a result of the 100 year-old Sykes-Picot Agreement.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom

This book was originally published in 1935, and was meant to depict the story of the Arab Revolt within, what is now, the former Ottoman Empire. According to the documentary titled “Lawrence of Arabia” the book is “one of the most celebrated books in the English language.” 26 The memoir tells the story of Lawrence’s escaped through the dessert of the Ottoman Empire and his role and significance in the Middle East. In the book it appears the he was commissioned by the British military. T.E. Lawrence, creates a unique role that evades some of the formal hierarchy of the military, as he takes on a facilitator role with decision making power on how to destroy the Ottoman Empire’s industrial infrastructure. In the book Lawrence is shown as instrumental to the success of the Arab revolt and therefore the British success in the region. He is also illustrated as a man who transcends the cultural divide between the British and Arab society, and stand above the rules and expectations in either land. Through this portrayal he became “perhaps the first mega-celebrity of modern times.”27 

The 665-page book is the center of this lesson because it illustrates the power and influence of the orientalist perspective on the modern understanding of the Middle East. The fact that this masterfully written piece of possible fiction is used as reality is what helps students bring the concepts and objectives of the lesson to life. The book cannot logistically be used in its entirety so excerpts are essential to making this lesson possible in a high school classroom.

 The excerpts that have been chosen for this unit are focused on three central themes. The first set of excerpts are Lawrence’s description of the Arab people. The importance is less about whether his ideas are accurate according to any individual person but how these are examples of an orientalist perspective. Lawrence may have perceived himself as someone who has been accepted and become one with the Arab people, but in reality his perspective, as a British soldier and as an Orientalist made it made it difficult to shed a completely accurate light on who the Arab people were.

 Edward Said addresses this specifically in Orientalism, “What appealed to Lawrence’s imagination was the clarity of the Arab, both as an image and as a supposed philosophy (or attitude) towards life: in both cases what Lawrence fastens on is the Arab as if seen from cleansing perspective of one not an Arab, and one for whom such un-self-conscious primitive simplicity as the Arab possesses is something defined by the observer…”28 This point can be used to help students analyze Lawrence’s word choice, opinions and overall story.

The first set of excerpts are focused on Lawrence’s description of the Arab people in the third chapter of Seven Pillars of Wisdom. In reference to the Arabs he states on page 20, “They were a limited, narrow-minded people, whose inert intellects lay fallow in incurious resignation. Their imaginations were vivid, but not creative.”29  He goes on in another excerpt on page 25:

Arabs could be swung on an idea as on a cord; for the unpledged allegiance of

their minds made them obedient servants. None of them would escape the bond till success had come, and with it responsibility and duty and engagements. Then the idea was gone and the work ended — in ruins. Without a creed they could be taken to the four corners of the world (but not to heaven) by being shown the riches of earth and the pleasures of it; but if on the road, led in this fashion, they met the prophet of an idea, who had nowhere to lay his head and who depended for his food on charity or birds, then they would all leave their wealth for his inspiration.30

According to Aldington “It is scarcely possible to speak about an ‘Arab race’ when the ethnologists report three racial groups in Arabia proper alone. There were differences also between the settled and the nomad populations, and between rival sects.”31 Even that fact cannot be taken as the only version of the story but to help students consider the significance of Lawrence’s generalizations about the Arabs it may be important to bring this point out. Another point is that though not necessarily intended to come across racist or prejudice, Lawrence’s orientation creates a bias. His perception and belief, as an outsider influenced the way in which he described the Arab people. In this case he created a partially true but not completely accurate depiction of the region.

The next excerpt is about an incident that is referenced in both the book and the movie, Lawrence of Arabia. The excerpt is found on pages 170-171 of the book and focuses on the role Lawrence played within the power structure of Arabs he fought alongside. This excerpt, can be read as a class to consider how Lawrence not only sees himself but how he describes the reasoning and choices of the people. The excerpt starts with “My followers had been quarrelling all day” and ends with “They had to lift me into the saddle.”32

According to Lawrence, in his book, he was asked to wear clothing similar to the other Arabic people. This scene is also depicted in the movie Lawrence of Arabia and illustrates another way in which Lawrence sees himself as compared to the Arabs. This excerpt is on on page 113 and begins with “Suddenly Feisal asked me if I would wear Arab clothes like his own while in the camp.”33 This part of his book juxtaposed with Lawrence’s comments about how he considered his Arab clothing a costume (fancy dress is a British English term), illustrate his Orientalist views.

This unit is flexible and always looking for new points of view. A teacher can find more examples in the text or even ask students how have read the entire book to select excerpts to analyze as a class. These become important examples of primary source context that have an extreme bias that leads us to consider whether they are even fully truthful.

Lawrence of Arabia

The movie Lawrence of Arabia was a Hollywood success that came out in 1963. It received great acclaim and is still considered a classic. Most notable is the acting and cinematography. The protagonist of the film is T.E. Lawrence. It is the retelling of his story in the Arab Revolt and the subsequent effect of it on him. Thought many consider it a respectful and endearing film about the people of the Middle East, its perspective intentionally or unintentionally creates a stereotype of the Arabs indicative of the Orientalist perspective.

I plan to use a couple of excerpts from the film. One example of a selected scene is  the scene in the dessert when Ali ibn el Kharish, Feisal’s brother, and Lawrence first meet (28:44- 34:42)34. This scene shows the tension among the tribes and random murder that Lawrence witnesses. In the scene, the arbitrary violence that takes place between people from different tribes over water rights indicates a relationship between Arabs that represents them as “callous” and “primitive”. This scene choice, which may not be historically accurate, perpetuates the Orientalist perspective. It is an example of the way in which Lawrence imagined the Arabs which was not necessarily how they actually existed.  They appear unsophisticated and ruthless.

The use of a film in this unit is ideal for teaching students how Lawrence’s skewed view of the Arab people was further exaggerated and embellished by Hollywood.  The use of media further illustrates the fact that movies and shows have perpetuated Arab stereotype instead of clarifying some of Lawrence’s points. The film further solidifies the dream world stereotype he generated through his book.

Teaching Strategies and Activities

Talk to the Text with an Article:

The technique is an effective way of working with students who are still developing annotating skills. This technique guides students through annotation by asking students to ask questions of the text and comment on the text. Students read the text and write their questions and comments directly on the text. Typically, the text is printed out for the students or put on an online platform such as Google Classroom. Students should be able to interact directly with text and come up with several questions and comments. Questions can clarify vocabulary or inquire further on a particular portion of the reading. For comments students should make connections to what they may have already learned in another class, heard from someone, or seen through the media. The process is a starting place for analyzing an article and can then be used to help students in a discussion setting.

The introduction lesson of this unit will include giving students the article titled “Arab Stereotypes and American Educators”35 to engage students in a discussion about why this particular unit is relevant and important. Students will receive the article during the class period and be given time to talk to the text. After this in-class process teachers will guide students through a class discussion. Students will be able to use their annotations to ask questions and make comments to the class in order to create an engaging and thoughtful discussion.

Headings and Highlights36 for Secondary Source Information:

Teachers will need to create secondary source readings for students to help teach about T.E. Lawrence, the Arab Revolt and Orientalism. To encourage students to read and understand the information on these handouts teachers can use a technique called headings and highlights. This is designed to help students navigate through text, pull out the main idea and connect it back to a unit or lesson focus question. For this activity students can connect the content in these texts to the following question: “What about this information illustrates Lawrence’s Orientalist belief?” Though not all the paragraphs in the handouts will directly answer this question, it will still help guide students to focus on the purpose of the reading.

For the headings and highlights activity a teacher needs to first chunk the reading into clear divisions that students can easily identify as different themes within the texts. Often a simple division represented by paragraphs can serve this purpose. Teachers should draw a line horizontally across the page to indicate divisions between sections. Then, on a separate worksheet teachers need to create a graphic organizer. For this graphic organizer teachers will need to put designated question at the top of the page and then create three columns. Column one is titled “headings,” column two is “highlights (evidence)” and column three is “What about this information illustrates Lawrence’s Orientalist belief? These columns turn into a chart with empty boxes so students can complete this graphic organizer as they read the text. The number of rows need to match the number of designated sections of the text. For example, if a teacher divides the text into five sections (themes), then the corresponding chart will have five rows.

Directions for the worksheet include the following: 1. Read the entire text on your own 2. Determine the main idea and write it next to the section of the text as the heading (keep it under 6 words) on your own 3. With a partner review together the heading and creating a common heading for your team and fill it in the first column 4. Together highlight the text that supports the main idea for each section. The highlighted part of the text should correspond to the heading words 5. Write down in the second column all the words you highlighted in the text 6. Fill in the last column by explaining how the section helps answer the focus question. 6. Summarize the entire text on a separate sheet of paper using the completed worksheet as support.

Evaluating Primary Source Content

Inspired by the SHEG approach37 designed by Stanford University the unit requires students to develop skills in the area of sourcing, contextualization, corroboration, and close reading.

In the area of sourcing students will be able to identify the author’s point of view on a historical event, identify and evaluate the author’s purpose in producing the document and evaluate the source’s trustworthiness by considering the audience and purpose. In the area of contextualization students will be able to understand how content/background information influences the content of the document and identify the point of view expressed within the time period. To be able to apply corroboration skills students will need be able to establish what is probable by comparing documents to each other and recognizing disparities between accounts. To develop close reading skills students will be able to identify the author’s claim about an event, evaluate the evidence and reasoning the author uses to support the claims and further evaluate the author’s word choice and it’s purpose and consequence.

The excerpts from the Seven Pillars of Wisdom will be placed on a worksheet in a DBQ format to give students the opportunity to use the historical thinking approach. Students will need to go through each excerpt and answer questions before answering the lesson focus question and the unit topic question. These are the historical thinking questions:

  1. What is the author’s perspective?
  2. What might the author have intended to convey in this part of the book?
  3. What are other possible documents that would help explain other points of view related to this event?
  4. Is this reliable? Why? Why not?
  5. How does the document’s language indicate the author’s perspective?

Students will work in groups of two to four to annotate the text and answer these questions. This activity needs to happen during the class period in teams such that students can be supported through discussion and teacher check-ins. Students groups will need to cite evidence from the text when answering these question and share their findings with the class to help the analysis process.

Appendix: Implementing Common Core Standards

This unit incorporates some of the California Common Core Standards38 that address skills students should gain in grades 9-10. The following are fro m the framework.

Reading Standards for Literacy and History/Social Sciences 6-12:

RH.9-10. 2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.

This history lesson specifically gives students access to secondary sources which cover historical events.

RH.9-10.6 Compare the point of view of two or more authors for how they treat the same or similar topics, including which details they include and emphasize in their respective accounts.

Students are looking at T.E. Lawrence and evaluating his work and view of the Arab world in comparison with what Arab scholars and Arab leaders at the time may have considered accurate. 

RH.9-10.8 Assess the extent to which the reasoning and evidence in a text support the author’s claims.

Through the use of secondary source historical information students will be able to evaluate the point of view and accuracy of T.E. Lawrence’s account of the Arab Revolution.

RH.9-10.9 Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources.

Students will use the Orientalism perspective to analyze the way in which information is shared in both the primary and secondary sources.

This unit also addresses the following focus questions found in the California Department of Education’s Common Core Curriculum Framework for History-Social Studies39.

How did the Europeans justify the expansion of their colonial empires?

How did colonization work?

How was imperialism connected to race and religion?

What were the consequences of World War I for nations, ethnic groups and people?

How did agreements dating from the WWI and post-war periods impact the map of the Middle East?

What were the effects of World War I upon ordinary people?

This unit allows students to review content related to imperialism and World War I. 


  1. Aldington, Richard. Lawrence of Arabia. London: Collins, 1969.
  2. Karsh, Efraim. "Seven Pillars of Fiction." The Wall Street Journal, August 9, 2013. Accessed July 22, 2016. http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887324809004578636170899662896.
  3. Aldington, Richard. Lawrence of Arabia. London: Collins, 1969, 13.
  4. "Arab Stereotypes and American Educators." ADC. November 18, 2009. Accessed July 19, 2016. http://www.adc.org/2009/11/arab-stereotypes-and-american-educators/.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. NPR, prod. "'Lawrence In Arabia' Author Examines Lasting Impact Of Sykes-Picot Agreement." Transcript. In All Things Considered. May 13, 2016.
  9. Singh, Amardeep. "Amardeep Singh: An Introduction to Edward Said, Orientalism, and Postcolonial Literary Studies." Amardeep Singh. September 24, 2004. Accessed July 22, 2016. http://www.lehigh.edu/~amsp/2004/09/introduction-to-edward-said.html.
  10. Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.
  11. Ibid, 3
  12. Singh, Amardeep. "Amardeep Singh: An Introduction to Edward Said, Orientalism, and Postcolonial Literary Studies." Amardeep Singh. September 24, 2004. Accessed July 22, 2016. http://www.lehigh.edu/~amsp/2004/09/introduction-to-edward-said.html.
  13. Greaves, Adrian. Lawrence of Arabia: Mirage of a Desert War. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007.
  14. Larkin, William, prod. "Lawrence of Arabia." In Lawrence of Arabia. PBS. October 22, 2003.
  15. Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979, 45.
  16. Ibid, 53.
  17. Larkin, William, prod. "Lawrence of Arabia." In Lawrence of Arabia. PBS. October 22, 2003.
  18. "The T. E. Lawrence Society." The T E Lawrence Society. Accessed August 01, 2016. http://www.telsociety.org.uk/author/polstead/.
  19. Larkin, William, prod. "Lawrence of Arabia." In Lawrence of Arabia. PBS. October 22, 2003.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Aldington, Richard. Lawrence of Arabia. London: Collins, 1969.
  23. Sharif Hussein ibn Ali was the amir of Mecca and the instigator of the Arab Revolt.
  24. Ibid
  25. Anderson, Scott. "The True Story of Lawrence of Arabia. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/true-story-lawrence-arabia-180951857/#62BFJscdkSkqeSo7.99 July 2014.
  26. Larkin, William, prod. "Lawrence of Arabia." In Lawrence of Arabia. PBS. October 22, 2003.
  27. Karsh, Efraim. "Seven Pillars of Fiction." The Wall Street Journal. August 9, 2013. http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887324809004578636170899662896.
  28. Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.
  29. Lawrence, T. E. Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph. Fordingbridge, Hants.: Castle Hill Press, 1997.
  30. Ibid, 25.
  31. Aldington, Richard. Lawrence of Arabia. London: Collins, 1969.
  32. Ibid, 170-171.
  33. Ibid, 113.
  34. Lawrence of Arabia. Produced by Sam Spiegel, Dario Simoni, John Wilson Apperson, Charles Parker, A. G. Scott, John Box, John Stoll, and Phyllis Dalton. Directed by David Lean. By Robert Bolt, Michael Wilson, Paddy Cunningham, Cliff Richardson, Anne V. Coates, Winston Ryder, Nicolas Roeg, Freddie Young, Maurice Jarre, Gerard Schurmann, and Adrian Boult. Performed by Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, José Ferrer, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy, Donald Wolfit, Omar Sharif, Peter O'Toole, and Howard Marion-Crawford.
  35. Arab Stereotypes and American Educators." ADC. November 18, 2009. Accessed July 19, 2016. http://www.adc.org/2009/11/arab-stereotypes-and-american-educators/.
  36. Berkeley History-Social Science Project. Accessed August 03, 2016. http://ucbhssp.berkeley.edu/.
  37. "Historical Thinking Chart | Stanford History Education Group." Historical Thinking Chart | Stanford History Education Group. Accessed August 01, 2016. http://sheg.stanford.edu/historical-thinking-chart.
  38. California Common Core State Standards. http://www.cde.ca.gov/be/st/ss/documents/finalelaccssstandards.pdf. Accessed August 01. 2016.
  39. "2016 History-Social Science Framework." - Curriculum Frameworks (CA Dept of Education). Accessed August 02, 2016. http://www.cde.ca.gov/ci/hs/cf/sbedrafthssfw.asp.


"2016 History-Social Science Framework." Curriculum Frameworks (CA Dept of   

Education). Accessed August 02, 2016. California Common Core State Standards.

These are the standards that are addressed.

Anderson, Scott. "The True Story of Lawrence of Arabia.

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/true-story-lawrence-arabia-180951857/#62BFJscdkSkqeSo7.99 July 2014. Accessed August 02, 2016.

A critique of Lawrence’s writings and an extensive explanation of the Arab Revolt

Berkeley History-Social Science Project. Accessed August 03, 2016. http://ucbhssp.berkeley.edu/.

The UCBHSSP has a lot of ideas for how to help students read and write including this technique of Headings and Highlights. Check out the website to view some of their strategies for implementing the Common Core Curriculum.

California Common Core State Standards.

http://www.cde.ca.gov/be/st/ss/documents/finalelaccssstandards.pdf. Accessed August 01. 2016.

This are referenced in the appendix.

California Department of Education.  http://www.cde.ca.gov/ci/hs/cf/sbedrafthssfw.asp. 

Accessed August 02, 2016.

"Arab Stereotypes and American Educators." ADC. November 18, 2009. Accessed July

19, 2016. http://www.adc.org/2009/11/arab-stereotypes-and-american-educators/.

This is used as part of the lesson. It is for teachers and students to read at the start of the unit.

"Historical Thinking Chart | Stanford History Education Group." Historical Thinking

Chart | Stanford History Education Group. Accessed August 01, 2016.  http://sheg.stanford.edu/historical-thinking-chart.

This is a website with lessons and tools for building curriculum that is appropriate for the Common Core standards.

"The T. E. Lawrence Society." The T E Lawrence Society. Accessed August 01, 2016.


The research of this society is helpful in the critique of T.E. Lawrence.

Aldington, Richard. Lawrence of Arabia. London: Collins, 1969.

This is a book that considers the problems with the book by T.E. Lawrence.

Greaves, Adrian. Lawrence of Arabia: Mirage of a Desert War. London: Weidenfeld &

Nicolson, 2007.

This book is critical of the Lawrence’s real involvement in the Arab Revolt.

Karsh, Efraim. "Seven Pillars of Fiction." The Wall Street Journal, August 9, 2013.

Accessed July 22, 2016.


This evaluates both T.E. Lawrence and people who have written about him.

Larkin, William, prod. "Lawrence of Arabia." In Lawrence of Arabia. PBS. October 22,


This film, which is available on YouTube, outlines the timeline of Lawrence’s life and includes the perspective of some Arab politicians and historians. It pointed out the fallacies in the Lawrence’s novel and some the reasons for his choices. It is an excellent starting place for teachers wanted to learn more about T.E. Lawrence.

Lawrence of Arabia. Produced by Sam Spiegel, Dario Simoni, John Wilson

Apperson, Charles Parker, A. G. Scott, John Box, John Stoll, and Phyllis Dalton. Directed by David Lean. By Robert Bolt, Michael Wilson, Paddy Cunningham, Cliff Richardson, Anne V. Coates, Winston Ryder, Nicolas Roeg, Freddie Young, Maurice Jarre, Gerard Schurmann, and Adrian Boult. Performed by Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, José Ferrer, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy, Donald Wolfit, Omar Sharif, Peter O'Toole, and Howard Marion-Crawford.

The film that is at the center of the unit. It is available on Amazon and should be viewed by the teacher before the start of the unit.

Lawrence, T. E. Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph. Fordingbridge, Hants.: Castle Hill

Press, 1997.

This is the book at the center of this unit.

NPR, prod. "'Lawrence In Arabia' Author Examines Lasting Impact Of Sykes-Picot

Agreement." Transcript. In All Things Considered. May 13, 2016.

This interview helps to explain how the Skypes-Picot Agreement affects the modern Middle East.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

This book defines and explains the concept of Orientalism. The first chapter is especially helpful.

Singh, Amardeep. "An Introduction to Edward Said, Orientalism, and

Postcolonial Literary Studies.". September 24, 2004. Accessed July 22, 2016. http://www.lehigh.edu/~amsp/2004/09/introduction-to-edward-said.html.

This piece helps to explain and breakdown the Orientalist perspective asserted by Said.

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