Arabs – 50 Years in 50 Books

First published in 2019, Arabs explores almost 3,000 years of Arab history. Tracing this history to the origins of the Arabic language, Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s book focuses on how Arabic, both spoken and written, has functioned as a vital source of shared cultural identity over the millennia.

In this blogpost, part of the 50 Years in 50 Books series for our 50th Anniversary, Tim Mackintosh-Smith writes on how his experiences living in Yemen, combined with over 30 years of research, formed the basis of his book Arabs.


Article by Tim Mackintosh-Smith

I wrote Arabs in an ancient Arabian city pounded by modern missiles; to be precise, in my house in the middle of the Old City of Sana’a, Yemen. The house stands in Dragging Alley, between the cattle and donkey markets. The cattle are now infrequent visitors, but the donkeys are residents, and the house echoes to their brays and to clangs from the blacksmiths’ suq next door. The spot also resonates with the past. Dragging Alley climbs the tail end of a tell, the ruin mound of pre-Islamic Sana’a – one of the capitals of the kingdom of Saba’, biblical Sheba. A little to the south, the highest part of the tell is formed by the buried remains of Ghumdan, a Sabaean palace that was surmounted by an alabaster skylight and by bronze beasts that shrieked and roared when the wind blew; celebrated by poets but not by early caliphs, it was demolished in the seventh century CE. If I could dig down through the floor of my own house, I would run into the ruins of another palace, the eighth-century residence of the Abbasid governor of Sana’a.


Sana’a, Yemen, via Wikimedia Commons

My own, unpalatial house is tall – five storeys rising from that storied mound – but very thin, with a narrow, winding staircase and many small rooms lit, like Ghumdan, by alabaster panes. It is protected, as were the gates of ancient Sana’a, by an anti-serpent talisman over the door, an iron snake forged by my blacksmith neighbours. (It may even work: one day it became dislodged and, before I’d had time to nail it back again, a live snake, the first and last I’ve seen, appeared up on my parapet.) I myself added the top storey of the house, a belvedere with a poetic frieze in thuluth script, celebrating the far-reaching view (‘ . . . Paris is beneath you in beauty, and London, / And the capitals of the Romans and the Americans . . . ’). From here, thirty kilometres to the north, the peak of Jabal Din is visible; the Prophet Muhammad decreed it the qiblah of Sana’a – the direction of prayer, the pointer to Mecca. To the west are nearer mountains; to the south, rooftops. To the east, over a cityscape punctuated with minarets, looms Jabal Nuqum, topped with an Ottoman-era fort.

In recent years, the house has also resonated with other sounds than those of donkeys and blacksmiths. While the trajectory of Arabs was being first discussed, mortars were being lobbed across Sana’a as Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president, tried to cling to power in the ‘Arab Spring’ uprising of 2011; old scores were being settled, peaceful protestors massacred. Then, in September 2014, as I was sketching out chapters, the Huthi rebels took over the city. In the spring of 2015, as I embarked on the actual writing of my book, the ousted government began their long and so far vain war to dislodge the Huthis, with the help of the Saudis and Emiratis and their American- and British-made missiles. My house swayed to seismic waves from explosions; one evening it seemed momentarily to leap in its foundations, as two missiles slammed into another house a hundred metres from mine. The looming Jabal Nuqum erupted regularly, as bunker-busters penetrated its innards and loosed swarms of hidden rockets. Luckily for me, they all flew over my house. But I abandoned my belvedere – less through fear than through disgust at the assault, from within and without, of our beautiful city (‘ . . . Your beauty is innate,’ my poetic frieze, now cracked, goes on, ‘the gift of your Creator.’).

The bulk of Arabs was thus written, over the following four years or so, in a lower room less than a metre and a half by three and a half in size. My laptop and light bulb were powered by a single small solar panel (mains electricity went off in August 2015; nearly eight years later, it hasn’t come on again). When the bombing was particularly bad and the windows were in danger of shattering yet again, I would move further down the house to my library, lit only by tiny alabaster panes that peep between the books. It was a relief, in that windowless chamber, not to be faced with the scene immediately opposite my house – a row of smiles, beaming from the enlarged photographs of ‘martyred’ (read ‘murdered’) boy soldiers, sons of my friends and neighbours; smiles blown up in both senses. The doomed youth hang not only in the cattle market, but throughout the city, the country, in their tens of thousands.


Speaking of blown-up images, I was always aware that writing history in the thick of history was like trying to watch a movie with your face shoved up against the screen. To make sense of it, you need distance; not necessarily the physical remove of an academic grove on another continent, from which most historians write; but some kind of mental distance. For me, strangely, it was provided by simultaneous work on another book, an edition-translation of an Arabic work written 800 years earlier describing Egypt and, in particular, a famine that the author witnessed there.* Filled with first-hand accounts of murder and cannibalism, it is not for the faint hearted. But it worked some kind of sympathetic spell: both that earlier author and I were in it together, dealing with the dissolution of society. The horrors of the past took me, at least from time to time, away from those of the present.

So much for the immediate circumstances surrounding the writing of Arabs. The thinking behind it came from calmer times and, in part, from thirty years of reading. Pleasantly propelled by the stimulant leaf qat, that accompaniment to Yemeni afternoons, I had already ranged far and wide through the Arabic sources: early general histories like al-Mas’udi’s, regional histories like al-Maqqari’s on Islamic Spain, biographical dictionaries like Ibn Khallikan’s; a lot of poetry. I knew, however, that I had to rebalance Arab history to give due weight to the 1,400 years of recorded history before Islam, as well as to the 1,400 years since. The Islamic-period sources weren’t enough; you had to look not only at the ancient epigraphic record, but also at pre-Islamic poetry and, of course, archaeology. Valuable too for thinking the book through were my decades of intermittent travels across the Arab world and beyond. To have discussed migration in a Mauritanian mud fort with the descendant of an eighth-century Iraqi exile, to have chatted with an imam in China about his medieval Moroccan ancestor – such conversations across time and space can only help when you’re dealing with a huge swathe of history and humanity.

I’d thus ended up with a three-point perspective for Arabs: from the reasonably solid ground of both the readable and visitable pasts; and from the swaying, leaping ground of the present. Not all historians are given the chance (or the misfortune) to see their subject from that third point of view; but it has done no harm to those who have, from Thucydides to Braudel. Perhaps, though, the predecessor I felt most akin to was Ibn Khaldun, born in fourteenth-century Tunis to a distantly Yemeni family: he took refuge from his own troubled times in a tower-house in Algeria where, as he described the experience, ‘such a flux of outpoured words and meanings flooded my thinking, that their cream was churned into butter.’


Statue of Ibn Khaldun in Tunis, via Wikimedia Commons

I’m now working on the first English translation of Ibn Khaldun’s autobiography, from which those words are taken. And I give daily thanks for the fact that I’m here to do so, despite rebels, missiles,  and potentially terminal depression at the state of my adoptive land, Yemen, in particular, and of the Arab world in general. It may have been the act of trying to make sense of it all, in Arabs, that saved me from that last, insidious threat.

It hasn’t saved me from physical dislocation. Like so many Arabs past and present, I myself am now a wanderer, uprooted from my house on its memorious mound. So far the house stands, full of dust but still intact. However, rumour has it that the current Huthi rulers of Sana’a are planning to bulldoze the entire neighbourhood – markets, donkeys’ stalls, blacksmiths’ forges, houses – and to add another storey to the tell by building a gold-domed shrine to their supposed ancestor, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali. But that’s one for the historians to come.


About the Author:

Tim Mackintosh-Smith is an eminent Arabist, translator, and traveler whose previous publications include Travels with a Tangerine and Yemen. He has lived in the Arab world for thirty-five years and is a senior fellow of the Library of Arabic Literature.


About the book:

Arabs
A 3,000-Year History of Peoples, Tribes and Empires
Tim Mackintosh-Smith

This kaleidoscopic book covers almost 3,000 years of Arab history and shines a light on the footloose Arab peoples and tribes who conquered lands and disseminated their language and culture over vast distances. Tracing this process to the origins of the Arabic language, rather than the advent of Islam, Tim Mackintosh-Smith begins his narrative more than a thousand years before Muhammad and focuses on how Arabic, both spoken and written, has functioned as a vital source of shared cultural identity over the millennia.

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Further reading:

Yale University Press is celebrating 50 years of publishing in London. To celebrate, we have selected 50 important Yale London books from our past, present and future to tell the story of our publishing through a series of articles and extracts.

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