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The Enigma of the Arab World

A new book unlocks a magisterial history of three millennia—and language is key to understanding the Middle East.

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Arabs: A 3,000-Year History of Peoples, Tribes and Empires, Tim Mackintosh-Smith, Yale University Press, 656 pages

And if your Lord had so willed, He could surely have made mankind one community. But they will not cease to disagree. —Qur’an 11:118

During the willy-nilly lead up to the United States’ invasion of Iraq in early 2003, I was caused to consider whether any of the policymakers had considered Edward Gibbon, who died 225 years ago. Or, read Elizabeth Monroe’s perceptive Britain’s Moment in the Middle East, 1914-1971? Gibbon’s perspicacity clearly presages the contemporaneous relations between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, and the supposed nature of the Arabs in comparison with the Greeks and Romans. In his sophisticated manner, Gibbon takes polite exception to racial or ethnic stereotyping. Monroe clearly illustrates all that can go amiss when an outside power interposes itself onto the Arab world. Gibbons clearly implies while Monroe clearly demonstrates what Tim Mackintosh-Smith clearly states, “And wounds to national pride—wounds inflicted by outsiders—can be made to hurt out of all proportion to the deaths they cause.” 

Arabs: A 3,000-Year History of Peoples, Tribes and Empires is a magisterial survey, covering over 3,000 years of language, art, geography, culture, and religion, and, yes, history—pre-Muhammad language and spirituality engagingly covered—and the ever-evolving resultant attitudes and assumptions. The book delves deeply into a reality so very few outside the Islamic, more so outside the Arab, world either understand or appreciate. There are, to be sure, also a goodly number of folks who just do not care to bother themselves for myriad reasons, some less than laudable. The unwillingness of the body politic to be informed has been the bane of U.S. foreign policy at least since the Korean War, particularly vis-à-vis the Viet-Nam imbroglio.

Our embroilment and ultimate failure in the Arabic and Islamic worlds were foreseeable, not through soothsayers, mediums, or clairvoyants, nor haughty, self-important, pontificators of the Ultimate Truth, rather through the hard work, dedication, and committed sense of self-sacrifice entailed in truly learning a foreign language, completely immersing oneself in a foreign culture, as Mackintosh-Smith has so commendably done in Yemen for over 35 years. Recognized as one of the most accomplished Arabic translators today, Oxford-educated Mackintosh-Smith is author of six splendid travel books; one, Two Arabic Travel Books, with James E. Montgomery (2014). He’s translated and published The Travels of Ibn Battutah (2002), on a 14th-century Moroccan scholar and explorer.          

Mackintosh-Smith correctly states that Arabic, a Semitic language developed and refined through the peoples of Peninsula of Arabia around the time of Muhammad, is an intrinsically difficult language of great fluidity, whose complexity and nuances take an inordinate amount of time even to begin to comprehend. And, “an Arab,” what does that mean? Tim Mackintosh-Smith views “Arab” as “a label that is very broad, very sticky (it has been around for almost 3,000 years), and very slippery.” Yet, today it is generally understood to encompass peoples living from Northwestern Africa to the Persian—or Arabian—Gulf.

Arabs is unique in that it recounts the history of a people through its language, dating back to an Assyrian inscription of 853 BC. But, it is not just language per se rather the poetics of language that flows through all of Arab history. A language that formalizes itself and reflects its intrinsic beauty through the Hijazi dialect in the Qur’an, which added to the bindedness of “Arabness,” urubah or asabiyya. As Mackintosh-Smith sees it, Arab history, is above all about the formidable power of the Arabic language.

Predating the advent of Islam, and the “tsunami of physical expansion” as the author of Arabs says, dialect differences had been somewhat assimilated, and “the nomad tongue…wormed itself into settled populations.” Concurrently, the means of carrying out that expansion had evolved, a contemporaneous “revolution in military affairs” of sorts, if you will: “Add the camel to the horse, and you have the perfect double act…you plod to battle on your camel, which carries your horse’s fodder and water, and then rush headlong into the fray on your steed,” he notes. “The camel is the spear that gives you reach, but the horse is the spearhead.

From a long tradition of tribal raiding, possibly dating back to the fourth to second century BC, a singular set of military skills emerged from the Arabian Peninsula that eventually created one of the significant, and far-reaching, empires of history. The camel was domesticated during the third or second millennium BC. The Great Dam of Marib (in contemporary Yemen, Arabia Felix of Roman times), “probably reached its final shape and size in the sixth century BC; it continued to function from that time for over a thousand years. Designed to divert and distribute seasonal run-off from the mountains (rather than to store water), it may be one of the most successful of civil engineering works in human history.” 

Coupled with the language of God as revealed in the Qur’an Arabic also became the written language of bureaucracy under the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik (reigned 685-705 AD). “No other comparable diasporic groups—Scythians, Turks, Mongols—have had such a strong and long-lasting sociolinguistic ‘glue’.” “Arabic was joining the exclusive club of great world languages.” Though language unifies, even glorifies, the sense of Arabness, the reality of a sustained unity remains elusive. To be sure, the Umayyad Caliphate, or dynasty (661–750 AD), out of Damascus; the conquest and occupation of Spain, or al-Andalus, (771-1492 AD) by the “Moors”, that is, the Berbers; and, the Empire of Baghdad under the Abbasids (750-1258, ending with the Mongol destruction of Baghdad and its conquest of the Middle East under Hulagu Khan). These caliphates demonstrated some longevity; but, as Harold Ingrams observes, within the broader context, unity remains illusive:

“Thus we had upwards of 1,400 separate tribal ‘governments’ in the two [Hadhrami] states. There were also several hundred autonomous towns of unarmed men…Altogether I calculated there were about 2,000 separate ‘governments’ in the Hadhramaut.”

One of the many great strengths of Arabs is Mackintosh-Smith’s scholarly erudition and limpid prose—setting aside the challenge of having mastered the Arabic tongue—elucidates and illuminates an immensely difficult, nuanced, and complex subject with absolute brilliance. Nor is irony absent. “Thus Arab personality advanced rapidly from adulthood to middle age, to the climacteric, the age when all will begin to decline and decay. As with the ‘gigantic bluff’ that was the British empire, when the small and rag-tag population of a marginal island (or in the Arab case, peninsula) get to rule a large slice of the world for a couple of hundred years, they need to have tales about heroic pasts; all the more so when their rule is under threat from others.”

One can greatly lament the absence of Mackintosh-Smith’s masterly study before we, the United States, all but blindly trundle off to do battle with a people and culture we did not, do not, understand. On the other hand, neither Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, first published 1776-1789, nor Elizabeth Monroe’s Britain’s Moment in the Middle East, 1914-1971 (revised in 1981), seems to have elicited any serious reflection. Would the availability of Mackintosh-Smith’s Arabs made a difference?History suggests otherwise. But, so does history demonstrate a dearth of serious consideration and learned thought before recklessly trotting off to wars of choice. Nevertheless, Tim Mackintosh-Smith has brought forth a major tour de force.

Colonel John McKay (ret.), a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, is a twice combat-wounded veteran. An Olmsted Scholar (Spain), he holds masters’ degrees from Georgetown University and the National War College. He is currently an adjunct professor at California State University, Sacramento.

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