After Herodotus’s time, the Western world cared little about the desert until the 20th century, and even then it was mostly private expeditions by members of the Geographical Society in London. Twice a month, the members gave lectures about their desert explorations, which were mostly presentations of facts and few assumptions or theories. They focused on only “interesting geographical problems,” never people or the cost of their expeditions. The last great decade of desert exploration ended in 1939, when the desert became a theatre in World War II.
The presence of European explorers in the desert also hearkens to the dominance established through colonialism. Westerners assume that the East is not “discovered” until it is explored by them, and they care nothing about the people’s lives they disrupt to do so. The war is further evidence of this as well—nations outside of the North America and Europe (other than Japan) have little to do with the war, yet the West extends the fighting to the African desert.
Hana sits by the English patient’s bed and listens to his stories of the desert. In 1930, he had gone to the Gilf Kebir Plateau in search of a lost city named Zerzura. The English patient and his group of explorers were “desert Europeans,” and Gilf Kebir was their “heart.” The Gilf Kebir is located 400 miles west of the Nile, and according to early Egyptians, is where the world ends. There is little water, but one is always surrounded by lost history in the desert, the English patient says.
Zerzura is a mythical city for which the real László Almásy spent most of his life looking. The city is rumored to hold a great treasure, which again hearkens to the English patient’s superiority as a Westerner. He wants to find the city, presumably, to find the treasure, which he assumes he can just take. Like the desert and the Gilf Kebir, the treasure is not his to take, but that doesn’t stop him from trying.
The English patient tells Hana that his first desert exploration was in 1930 with a fellow explorer named Madox. They went on a seven-day journey to El Taj on which they were plagued by sandstorms, a supposed sign of good luck. Anything stationary was buried by sand, and at night their tents were swept from their moorings, tumbling and taking on sand like a ship taking on water. One of their horses disappeared and three camels were killed.
The desert is again described in terms of water, which makes it seem ever drier and more barren by comparison. The desert has the power to bury anything—essentially wipe it out—just as the English patient seems to have wiped himself clean of his identity. His identity is deeply tied to nationality, war, and racist assumptions, all of which he would like to rid himself of.
In 1931, the English patient met another explorer, Fenelon-Barnes, on a journey into the desert. One day, the English patient went to Fenelon-Barnes’s tent, but he had gone on a small expedition to catalogue fossils. In Fenelon-Barnes’s tent, the English patient noticed a small mirror on the wall, in which the bed was reflected. There was a small lump in the blankets and, thinking it must be a dog, the English patient pulled back the covers, revealing a sleeping and tied-up Arab girl.
The mirror in Fenelon-Barnes’s tent both literally and figuratively reflects the ugly truth of colonialism, as it forces the English patient to confront the systemic abuse and exploitation of those from the East. It is implied that Fenelon-Barnes is sexually abusing the young Arab girl tied to his bed. Fenelon-Barnes is therefore the personification of colonialism—as a white Westerner, he assumes power over the Arab girl and uses this influence to malicious and selfish ends.
For most of the early 1930s, the English patient looked for Zerzura with a group of explorers. They were German, English, Hungarian, and African, but their nationalities were “insignificant” to the native desert people. In the desert, the explorers were “nationless,” and the English patient grew to hate nations. He tells Hana that the world is “deformed by nation-states” and that Madox had “died because of nations.” The explorers went to the desert to shed the clothing of their nations, and it was easy to slip from boarder to boarder and not belong to any one nation.
Here, the English patient implies that World War II has been caused by divisions of nationality, which have “deformed” the world. Madox commits suicide because of the war, and thus the English patient believes Madox “died because of nations.” The desert, on the other hand, is so isolated that the native people know nothing of the divided state of the Western world, nor of the individual nations that make it up. In the desert, they are all just human beings, each on equal ground.
The English patient tells Hana that the end of the Earth is not a point on a map; maps simply reflect the first time a “white eye” sets sight on a mountain or desert that has always been there. He continues his story and tells Hana that one does not look in the mirror when they are young. It is only when one is older and concerned with their story that they begin to look in the mirror, the English patient says.
The English patient’s explanation of maps again reflects the dominance of the West established though colonialism, as deserts and mountains don’t exist until they are viewed by “white eyes.” His mention of the mirror again implies that colonization is amoral, but Westerners are not yet concerned with the moral implications of their story and therefore haven’t looked in the mirror.
In 1936, the English patient met Geoffrey Clifton. Geoffrey was newly married, and looking to go on an expedition into the desert. He soon came to Cairo and met up with the English patient’s exploration team, including Madox, Bell, Prince Kemal el Din, and Almásy. They were still looking for Zerzura, a city whose name occurs in Arab writings as early as the 13th century. The English patient tells Hana that he doesn’t think Geoffrey loved the desert quite in the same way he does, but that he had an awe and affection for it.
The fact that Geoffrey doesn’t love the desert like the rest of the explorers foreshadows that he may not be who he pretends to be. The fact that the expedition team is searching for a city based on Arab writings is significant—although the novel suggests that Europeans tend to have disdain for other cultures, it’s clear that they are willing to use the knowledge of other groups when it benefits them.
Geoffrey Clifton and his wife, Katharine, were still on their honeymoon, and the English patient had fallen in love with Katharine’s voice as she recited a passage from John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The English patient never enjoyed poetry until he heard it read by Katharine, and he wanted to hear nothing else except for her voice.
The fact that the English patient falls in love with Katharine as she recites Milton again reflects the importance of stories and literature. The English patient first notices Katharine when she reads the Crane poem, and he falls in love with her when she reads Milton, which implies that narratives in literature are intimately connected to one’s personal life and emotions.