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.

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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.

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.

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.

Pergamon Museum, Berlin

On a weekend away in Berlin a fortnight back (part of the reason there have been so few posts on here recently), we wandered onto Museum Island and took a walk around the Pergamon Museum.  In short, it is fantastic!  The early 20th century Germans seem to have just transplanted or reconstructed parts of ancient cities through the Mediterranean and Middle East.  Whatever the ethics of this may be, the sheer scale of these exhibits is astonishing (the photo below shows me being dwarfed by the Ishtar Gate of Babylon).

Ishtar

The Pergamon Altar that the museum is actually named after is currently closed for remodelling, but the Market Gate of Miletus, the Processional Way (also from Babylon), and a room from Ottoman Aleppo impress on an epic scale.  The so-called Aleppo Room has a particular poignancy, with a display outside showing the damage to the original district of the Syrian city.

Other exhibits are on a smaller scale, but displays from Assur, Sumer, and a dozen locations throughout the islamic world (in the Museum fuer Islamische Kunst in the same building) are engrossing.  With each culture or location house in their own separate display, it highlights these unique cultures a lot more than other museums – where one can seem to blend into another around time and space.

I am definitely looking forward to returning in a few years for the updated and reopened Pergamon exhibit.