A History of the Arab People by Albert Hourani

516g5ljckpl-_sx316_bo1204203200_One thing I did learn from Edward Said’s Orientalism is to be suspicious of any writer who is an expert in a particular subsection of a field and writes a general overview of that topic – particularly when it ends up in modern day politics (the expert on a niche field may not be such an expert when it comes to other topics).  Hourani was a self-labelled Orientalist who mostly wrote on the Middle East in the 19th century, but here offers a general history of the Arabic world from its origins to the modern day (or 1991, when he wrote it, although my version comes with an epilogue by Malise Ruthven taking it to 2012).  From both Chris Wickham and Karl Popper I had it drummed into me recently to distrust histories that follow a particular theory of progression or teleology.  Hourani presents the world through the lens of Ibn Khaldun’s theory of Asabiyyah, a certain sort of solidarity that can explain the rise (and fall) of empires and dynasties.  So this book could ring alarm bells.

Both these criticisms do apply, but thankfully neither are as bad as might be feared.  Despite some non-specific referencing, Hourani avoids grand sweeping statements and tackles some very dry topics in a readable way.  Between social, political, legal, literary, and philosophical sections, it’s a very wide ranging book.  Hourani clearly enjoyed the literary and intellectual side of Islamic culture, and he neglects some of the more military and biographical directions that might have dominated in other books.  He gives a sense of the changes for normal people in urban and rural societies, but only really gives a broad overview of the political and military narrative.

The definition of Arab Peoples is happily flexible – essentially working with groups that speak Arabic, so that Turkey and Persia are largely outside the scope while Sudan, for example, edges in.  Within the empires – the Ottomans and the Caliphate – we focus on the areas settled and dominated by Arab culture along with a general history of the leadership (as far as necessary).  Hourani does still look at the experience of minorities (Jews, Christians etc.) in these regions.

As the book goes on the thesis of Asabiyyah seems to fall by the way side, especially as we come to the modern Arab states, but he brings it back by the end by bringing to mind the interest groups, sectarianism and dynasties that dominate these states.  In this sense the suggestion that these states would eventually fall too seems prescient, but I’m not sure it’s a particularly daring prediction.  However, the book does seem to be an unbiased, (very) knowledgeable and sympathetic history of how the Middle East and Islam got to where it is today; and if you have the time to wade through it, it is worthwhile.


The Lust of Knowing by Robert Irwin

150px-for_lust_of_knowingI could have sworn that I wrote a post on Edward Said’s Orientalism last year.  Clearly I didn’t – possibly because it might court controversy, because so much has been written already on it, or because frankly I just wasn’t that familiar with Said’s source material.  I got the general thrust of the book – that Western academics, poets and politicians have misrepresented the Islamic world and used their image of it as justification for colonialism and foreign policy.

Robert Irwin is very familiar with the source material; at least for the Orientalist scholars of the title.  He begins starts this rebuttal of Said’s book by condemning his misrepresentation of these scholars.  He begins by slowly going through the history of the representation of Islam in the “West”.  In the medieval era I recognise some stories from Wonders Will Never Cease like the Vegetable Lamb or Tartary, or Ramon Llull being tempted by a woman who turns out to be disfigured by cancer and praises his piety.  Fundamentally, those medieval scholars are unfamiliar with the land, culture or religion; and as he will later point out, rather than truly seeing Muslims as “other”, they compare them to what they know: Arian heretics or Christian sects.

71ox2rjfehlAs contact was made, works were translated and writers started to travel we get the likes of Guillaume Postel – looked over by the Inquisition as more insane than heretical; with a Vatican official declaring that “though his ideas were definitely heretical ‘no one, fortunately, could possibly understand them except the author'”.  Orientalist scholars are seen as a small fringe to the mainstream, generally seen as eccentric at best.  Later, the likes of De Sacy or Hammer-Purgstall do still see Islam through the prism of their own experiences, for example seeing the Druzes as atheist revolutionaries in the Carbonari mold.  But the way Irwin presents this is relatively benign, it’s a search for a familiar reference and to understand unfamiliar cultures.  Although this had a big impact on the field of Orientalism, Irwin sees little on wider European culture.  For the most part, those who pushed for colonialism were dismissive of the scholars, and those who administered it had Greek and Roman culture as their reference rather than the work of the Orientalists.

That’s not to say that it was all sunshine and enlightenment: there are plenty of stories like “Professor Hamilton Gibb warned [James, 50s Durham lecturer]  Craig against spending time in the middle east as ‘it will corrupt your classical'”.  In Irwin’s view, the best work in the field, the work that sets its direction, was being produced by German scholars in the 19th century, or by Hungarian Jews like Goldhizer.  The British universities were moribund, and the French were mostly just following the trend.  Their views of history were also heavily informed by the cyclic rise and fall of Ibn Khaldun’s work.  Both of these are an issue for Said, who (even in corrections) saw the Germans and eastern Europeans are irrelevant.

In his chapter on the Post-war Hey Day Irwin describes carefully how Arab studies in Arab countries have lagged behind (Albert Hourani suggested that the good scholars just get jobs in the west), and so the English speaking writers continued to attempt to fill the gap. That’s not to say all Islamic scholarship has been slow – Turkey is very successful – though continuously ignored by both Said and Irwin.  He picks out politically disagreeable authors like Bernard Lewis and picks out their early work of merit: “anyone who wishes to determine Lewis’s merits as an Orientalist has to engage with (emergence of modern turkey) and other works of the sixties.”.  Or the many French orientalists who stood against French North African colonisation.  For him, Said has dismissed worthy scholars on political grounds, and ignored politically inconvenient sources.

As we get to the modern day, he tackles Said’s criticism of specialist scholars making generalist comments on parts of the Middle East outside their geographical or temporal expertise.  He justifies this by the small number of academic positions, and sheer lack of interest in the subject.  When undergraduate courses in Arabic are being closed down, and even senior positions go unfilled; it is easier for an academic to write a general piece, or claim political relevance, than it is to beg for funding for specialist topics (“Coins of the Almohads” vs “A history of the Arab Peoples”?).

Finally we reach his personal condemnation of Said.  It’s a polemic, a good polemic; he points out many of Said’s errors and Said’s poor attitude to criticism.  There is a bit of a personal attack at Said’s upbringing – wealthier and less Palestinian than later suggested – that seems unnecessary.  However, it is a pretty convincing demolition of Said’s use and understanding of the academic sources.  There’s a brief section on other “enemies”, but for the most part these are less convincing that Said and easier to dismiss (either you think the Quran is received wisdom from God, or it is not; arguments that Jews should not be studying Islam …).  Ziauddin Sardar is more interesting, but Irwin again narrows in on the detail.  Finally, he is actually quite complementary of Muhsin Mahdi – which is nice.

In the end though, it could be said that both Irwin and Said miss the point.  Irwin shows that the Orientalists themselves were often misrepresented – but he steers clear of the wider view that British and French cultural attitudes to Islam allowed their later (and current) behaviour in the Middle East and North Africa.  His book aims narrowly at clearing the academic scholars, then extrapolates this into a dismissal of Said and his followers.  Where an Orientalist is undeniably involved in Imperialist projects, Irwin sees it as an outlier; Irwin’s is a very individualist approach to the topic – everyone doing their own thing for their own reasons, wider cultural trends playing a minor role.  Said may have been ambiguous in his detail – but there’s a fundamental point about the difficulty of removing politics and cultural bias from pure academia that still stands despite Irwin’s rebuttal.

The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

I recently read Wonders Will Never Cease by Robert Irwin and very much enjoyed it.  One of the most striking tales from it (possibly second only to the one about the housebreaker and the tortoise) is that of the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary.  I’m now reading Irwin’s history of Orientalist scholarship, The Lust of Knowing, and the story reoccurs.  Thus I feel compelled to share this strange idea with anyone who hasn’t heard it.

220px-vegetable_lamb_28lee2c_188729In medieval tales, the Vegetable Lamb or Scythian Lamb or Barometz is a plant-animal hybrid that lives in central Asia, or Russia, or perhaps the Black Sea area near Persia.  It consists of a lamb that is rooted to the earth by a umbilical cord like stem.  The lamb can flex this stem such that is can eat grass in the immediate circle around it, but is prevented from moving beyond that and must then either starve or drop off the plant as a ripened sheep (sources seem divided as to which one; or perhaps just generally confused).


The story really came to public attention in the fourteenth century with the tales of Sir John Mandeville (whoever he may have actually been) and the travelogues of various friars.  As late as 1683, a German doctor called Engelbert Kaempfer would search for the lamb in Persia, before reasonably deciding that it was a myth, possibly due to some local farming practices.

Wikipedia quotes some priceless poetry on the topic:

E’en round the Pole the flames of love aspire,
And icy bosoms feel the secret fire,
Cradled in snow, and fanned by Arctic air,
Shines, gentle borametz, thy golden hair
Rooted in earth, each cloven foot descends,
And round and round her flexile neck she bends,
Crops the grey coral moss, and hoary thyme,
Or laps with rosy tongue the melting rime;
Eyes with mute tenderness her distant dam,
And seems to bleat – a vegetable lamb

Erasmus Darwin, The Botanic Garden

For in his path he sees a monstrous birth,
The Borametz arises from the earth
Upon a stalk is fixed a living brute,
A rooted plant bears quadruped for fruit,
…It is an animal that sleeps by day
And wakes at night, though rooted in the ground,
To feed on grass within its reach around

Demetrius De La Croix, Connubia Florum, Latino Carmine Demonstrata

Back in reality, the legend seems to be perhaps rooted (!) in an old Jewish text, or perhaps a misunderstanding of cotton fibres or even due to a furry looking Asian fern – Cibotium barometz.  Answers may also be available for the Barnacle Goose (or Bernacle), but there’s only so much of this I can take in one sitting.

Genghis Khan by Frank McLynn

genghis khan.jpgFirst off, I enjoyed Frank McLynn’s biography of Marcus Aurelius when I read it a few years ago.  He occasionally felt a bit bias towards his own opinions, and there was quite a lot of tangential material; but it was a full and detailed biography of the man.  This 2015 profile of Genghis Khan keeps the details but drops some of the more out there tangents.

We go right from Genghis/Temujin’s birth on the steppes of Mongolian, beyond his death, to the division of his empire into four on the death of his grandson Kublai Khan.  McLynn feels authoritative and familiar with the material; in all aspects – military, social, political.  The Mongols and Genghis can be a complex topic.  There is a contrast between the nomadic warriors and the ease they settle into the use of Chinese style bureaucracy; between the paranoid cruelty of Genghis (even early on) and his religious tolerance.  McLynn does catch this, but often he is telling rather than showing.

At times though, I got lost in the sheer scale and speed of Mongol expansion, along with the horrifying death toll.  A more focused approach may have presented these with a bit more skill, rather than the epic one volume history given here.  McLynn doesn’t get bogged down in too much ethical judgement of the conquest, but as a reader it is hard not to have to pause at points.

Ultimately, I don’t have the reference points for Genghis and the history of the East that I do for Marcus Aurelius and Rome.  This was quite a dry read throughout much of the book, and I found myself having to struggle against the temptation to skim read.  By the time the Mongols were pushing into Europe I was a little more comfortable, but it isn’t as easy introduction to the Mongols.

The First Crusade by Peter Frankopan

The first question that this book should pose is “Why?”.  Why do we need another history of the crusades?  What does this one add?  I had previously enjoyed Peter Frankopan’s Silk Road, he clearly has a head for both the details of politics and the big picture.  In this book he applies that talent to the role of Byzantine emperor Alexios Komnenos in the crusade.

This allows him to pick up on a couple of loose threads from the traditional story of the first crusade: why did Alexios send to the west for help?  Why and when did the Byzantine cut ties with the crusaders?  The obvious historical source for Alexios is the Alexiad, but this is written by his daughter Anna and has an pretty definite bias to it.

The answer to the first question is perhaps the more interesting: why did the Byzantines request help at that point in time?  Alexios had been in power for over a decade, and the Alexiad presents him as leading a recovery for earlier military setbacks.  The chronology is not as simple as it appears however – Alexios’ reign had military failures too and he was becoming increasingly under threat domestically.

Later in the book Alexios feels more peripheral, but Frankopan presents a case that this distance from the crusaders was in good faith.  He was unwilling to leave the capital and risk revolt there, he provided supplies readily in most cases, and where he didn’t it would have appeared futile to do so.

I don’t think this book succeeds at significantly changing the narrative of the first crusade, but it does provide a new slant and point of view.  The coverage of the campaigns in Asia Minor is particularly good.  Worth reading for anyone who thinks they are already familiar with the story of the crusades.

Babylon by Paul Krizwaczek

Sometimes I just don’t gel with a book.  This is an interesting account of the history of ancient Mesopotamia from the formation of early cities through the Sumerians, Akkadians and Assyrians to the arrival of the Persians.  There is a mix of history, myth, culture and occasional attempts to make this contemporary (generally through Saddam Hussein references).  It touches on many different sources and interpretations, and all in a very readable way.

However, some of the modern analogies are forced, and conclusions on early developments towards civilization don’t quite convince (it’s probably impossible to do so many different cultures over so many centuries justice in just 270 pages).   Despite these faults, it’s an expert story teller giving the story of an often patchy period of history in an often unexpected way, and there was a lot to love about this book.  I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of monuments and artefacts (many of which are on display in Berlin).

My problem – I’m not that familiar with the time period and as a beginner I think I would have preferred a straight forward military/political account.  I cannot really appreciate commentaries on Sargon of Akkad or the Assyrians in II Kings, or even the story of Gilgamesh, as much as I’d like without knowing the narrative!  Babylon is by no means bad – I have a much greater sense of the culture of the region than I did before, but I can’t help feeling slightly disappointed.

Paul: The Mind of the Apostle by AN Wilson

The apostle Paul has a bit of an image problem – he’s often seen as the man who took Jesus ideas and distorted them creating the rigid, repressive elements of Christianity that we still know and love today.  In this book, from 1997, he sets out to place Paul in the context of his time and culture and to re-evaluate his work.

For Wilson, Paul has to be seen within the Jewish culture of his time, rather than as an early Christian.  He sees Paul’s work as that of a liberal reformer (opening the church to gentiles, removing restrictions) who expected Jesus to return soon (rather than setting up a structure for a long lasting church).  His views on women and homosexuality are portrayed as usual for his time and his culture.  It was in the time after Paul that the gospels were actually compiled and for Wilson, these writings have as much Paul in them as Jesus – without a source unaffected by him, it becomes hard to charge Paul with a distortion of the message.

At one point Wilson describes Paul as the “first Romantic poet”.  He clearly likes Paul as a character and seems to often think the best of him, there is plenty of speculation (he speculates that Paul as a temple guard could have been present at the crucifixion).  Despite that, Wilson is critical at other points – looking for independent sources.  Through both speculation and scepticism, the author is open about his methods, which perhaps helps the book veer away from being too uneven.

Line In The Sand by James Barr

51edrh7kngl-_sx326_bo1204203200_I couldn’t help but compare this book to Robert Fisk’s epic The Great War For Civilisation.  James Barr’s book covers the conflict in the Middle East from the Anglo-French meetings in the first world war up to Israeli independence in 1948.  Fisk’s book featured his experiences of the Russian and American wars in Afghanistan, the Gulf War, Iraq, the Algerian civil war, Israel, Syria, and whatever bits of Lebanon that didn’t make it into his previous book, Pity the Nation.

Fisk’s book is much more personal.  There may be flaws or mistakes, but he is passionate, opinionated, and well informed.  It is a devastating read in places.  A chapter into his father’s experience with a firing squad in World War One provides context.  Jumping from the Armenian Genocide, to torture in Algeria and then to his own investigations into arms manufacturers – it’s not a light read.  It is however very, very engrossing.

James Barr’s book has a lighter tone (most things would in comparison to Fisk) and a tendency to focus on historical character, with the distance that seventy plus years can give.  It reads like a disaster slow unfolding (especially since we know the current state of things), but there are easier moments (the eccentricities of Orde Wingate or the adventures of T.E Lawrence).  Both books have a running theme of mismanagement from the western powers – uninformed decisions, petty diplomacy and careerist politicians and bureaucrats who have landed the role and can’t wait to leave (mixed with the occasional maverick fighting for their own pet cause).

The distance makes Line In The Sand an easier read, and it may have been easier for Barr to write, but ultimately it is a sad prequel to the modern situation in the region.  Both books are well written and even handed accounts of the 20th (and 21st) century history of the region, and definitely worth reading.