Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Book review: Arabs: A 3,000-Year History of Peoples, Tribes and Empires, Tim Mackintosh-Smith (2019)

This book is a mammoth tome but, paradoxically, it’s a quick read, too. What it did in my case was to confirm many things I had already thought about the Middle East but it also added to my store of knowledge because it explained in detail the “why” where previously I had only had isolated ideas.

I hesitate to use the expression “a must-read” – because this expression is often used by unthinking people on the left of the political spectrum, a part of the community that seems to want everyone to think alike – but if you do by any chance come across this wonderful book and sit down for a few days to read it you will come away with more insight about the contemporary world than you had before.

Mackintosh-Smith is a Brit but he lives in Yemen and so accomplishing a task of this nature was doubly difficult in his case. Not only is the book erudite and well-written, but the author had to write it in a way that would not compromise his safety. Covering a whole civilisation in 630 pages, including the parts about the Quran and Mohammed, the founder of Islam, could have placed him on the horns of a dilemma, but he is not only scholarly and dedicated to the truth. He also respects the feelings of his hosts. I was deeply impressed by his approach to such a work of this nature.

As I said earlier in this review, this book confirmed many of the things that I already thought about the Middle east, notably the sense that the problems that exist there now are endemic to the cultures of the places that make it up. But Mackintosh-Smith puts meat on the bones of these ideas by signalling to an old dichotomy between the nomadic lifestyle of the Arabian Peninsula and the way of living of its settled communities.

Within this bipolar schema lies the difficulty that these societies have always had to exist in peace. There are centrifugal forces that little, it seems, can overcome. A unified Islamic state would, therefore, be quite impossible.

It works like this. The raiding tendency of the nomad preying on the settled towns and on the trade that ran between them was an early symptom of this schema. In more recent times the strongmen who have led these countries have also preyed on the people who live in them, siphoning funds into their own bank accounts and jailing opponents where any sort of democratic settlement has emerged. Further symptoms of the same dynamic are such organisations as al-Qaeda and ISIS.

But there is a lot more to the Arab world than political unity. It is, for a start, a world largely characterised by its language, and its influence has been broad. In the earliest times, starting in the 7th century AD, the Arabs coalesced in opposition to the two major powers of the day – the Byzantines and the Persians – and congregated under the leadership offered by the Prophet. But once Mohammad died the social glue that had held people together disappeared and so the Arabs began to expand – much in the same way that, after 1789, the French was spurred by internecine struggles to seek cohesion through military expansion throughout Europe – in order to remain unified as a group.

Insights such as these are hard to come by and require much study, but Mackintosh-Smith belongs to a long tradition of British scholars who have learned foreign languages and who have written with clarity and wisdom on countries other than their own. The complexities of dynastic successions and the many revolts led by different potentates from the various communities that made up the Arab diaspora were, for me, sometimes hard to follow, mainly because the unfamiliar names of the people involved, but central themes emerge and it was these that for me brought life to this fascinating work of history. Highly recommended.

No comments: