“Who are you?” Watching “Lawrence of Arabia” through expat eyes

"Who are you?"

“Who are you?”

Shouts the unknown motorcyclist across the Suez Canal. He is calling to T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”), who is dressed as an Arab and who has just emerged from the Sinai Desert. In the forgoing weeks, he has been transformed from a bookish, but adventure-seeking, junior-something-or-other in the British Army, into a murderous leader of the Arab revolt ready to launch a guerrilla war against the Turkish. This moment is his first contact with “civilization” since his transformation and it is clear that he, himself is also wondering, “Who am I?”

From there, he returns to Cairo where he is both morally sickened by the deaths he is to blame for, but also fiercely drawn to the cause of the Arabs, despite their interests not always aligning with the interests of his own country.

Who are we? Surely many expats and immigrants face this same tension between new and old lives and questions of identity, belonging and loyalty. You’ve also probably stepped off a place back home, looked around and thought “Who am I?” and “Who are you people?” (And why is everything so big and expensive?)

While few are as brave, adventurous and history-making as T. E. Lawrence, most of us have shared this feeling of being changed, having our loyalties divided, and wondering what to do next.

It’s not all camel riding adventure. But, the world of the “romantic internationalist” is not always glamorous. We all — even Lawrence of Arabia — also have our share of tediously boring days abroad waiting for something to happen or for the chance to make something happen.

"Dark little room"

This sense of tedium is perfectly captured by an exchange near the beginning of  the film. Regular — just another face in the British Army  — Lawrence is in a below-ground-level room in Cairo (camel and human feet can be seen passing outside). He is painting in a survey map with watercolors and talking lackadaisically to a colleague (“Hartley”). Here is the exchange:

T.E. Lawrence: Michael George Hartley, this is a nasty, dark little room.
Hartley: That’s right.
T.E. Lawrence: We are not happy in it.
Hartley: It’s better than a nasty, dark little trench.
T.E. Lawrence: Then you’re an ignoble fellow.
Hartley: That’s right.

There are plenty of expat days spent waiting for things to happen: waiting in the small hotel room on first arrival for life to re-start, waiting in an empty apartment for the telephone/cable/internet engineer, waiting for decisions to be made by unseen people that will influence next options. This waiting for the adventure to begin (or change) is a “nasty, dark little room” that none of us are happy to be in.

Sometimes we’re happy to stick our heads in the sand. But honestly sometimes, we’d also just like to be “Hartley” and keep things as “safe” and “normal” as possible. Aren’t there some evenings when you simply want to watch an old TV show while eating imported ice cream, rather than venture out to that hole-in-the-wall down that street with no English menu that’s supposed to be very tasty?

The film. “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) stars Peter O’Toole, was directed by David Lean and won almost every Academy Award (including Best Picture) in the year it was released. The cinematography is epically beautiful and T. E. Lawrence’s story is gripping. Re-watching “Lawrence of Arabia” as an expat is to see this classic film through fresh eyes. Make a night of it.

Lawrence at sunset

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9 responses to ““Who are you?” Watching “Lawrence of Arabia” through expat eyes

    • Oh right, I guess I’ve never really fully explained “who I am?” and what am I doing overseas? Good question.

      Strangely enough, we moved (and continue to move) for my husband’s work (as an engineer for an international company). This is despite that I was the one with the internationally-focused job. Before moving, and for the first half of our time abroad, I worked for, Landesa, a non-profit law firm dedicated to securing land rights for the rural poor in Asia and Africa. I left paid-employment when time zones, children and life, complicated conference calls and international travel. I am currently a part-time student of statistics.

  1. I hadn’t thought about “Lawrence” as an expat/assimilation movie before, but it is the urtext of “going native,” isn’t it?

    I doubt I’ll ever settle on one national identity (having always had at least two) but I do know that when I go stateside and see my best friend for the first time, it’s likely he’ll yell “Orance!” Ever since I took him to see “LoA” on the big screen years ago, he’s taken to calling out to me as Sharif did to O’Toole. I’ve been called worse.

  2. LoA is one of my favourite movies, in part I think because I’ve lived in the region. Your analysis is spot on. Thanks for such an enjoyable post!

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