Arabs by Tim Mackintosh-Smith
In the early 1980s, while studying Arabic at Oxford, Tim Mackintosh-Smith decided to travel to Yemen, having heard that its people spoke the purest form of Arabic. He “has been there ever since”, said Anthony Sattin in The Spectator. In Arabs, Mackintosh-Smith – the author of several acclaimed Middle Eastern travel books – draws on his extensive knowledge of the region to chart the 3,000-year history of the Arab people. The story he tells, one of “vast scope and stunning insight”, takes in the rise and fall of tribes and empires; the emergence of one of the world’s great religions, Islam; and above all, the spread of the Arabic language, which Mackintosh-Smith sees as the “key to Arab identity”. Besides being fascinating in its own right, his book provides a “rich” background to the Middle East’s current turmoil.
What does the term “Arab” even mean, asked Malise Ruthven in the Financial Times. As Mackintosh-Smith acknowledges, it is “very slippery”. But originally, it referred to “outsiders”, reflec-ting the fact that the first Arabs were “camel nomads” who began spreading their language around the Arabian peninsula from about 900BC. Following the Prophet Mohammed’s death in AD632, two things happened: this primarily oral culture became a written one (facilitated by the Koran, the first Arabic book), and there was a “tsunami of physical expansion”. Partly inspired by missionary zeal, but also simply continuing their long-established raiding practices, Arab horsemen spread into southern Europe and central Asia, vastly enlarging the Arab world.
This religious-imperialist drive soon led to the “high point of Arab civilisation”, said Justin Marozzi in The Sunday Times: the Abbasid caliphates of the 8th to 13th centuries. Baghdad, their capital, became the “world’s greatest centre of intellectual exploration”, with Arabic functioning as the “supreme totem” of unity. It proved, however, a short-lived supremacy. Somewhat ironically, “transcontinental success” led to the “dilution of Arab culture within the larger Islamic world”, and the caliphate was toppled by Genghis Khan’s grandson, Hulagu, in 1258. Since then, the story of the Arabs has been mostly “dispiriting”, marked by ever-increasing disunity, fragmentation and violence. In telling it, Mackintosh-Smith has set himself a “monumental task”, but he handles it with “verve”. Although a “sharper editorial knife” would have helped, this is an “undoubtedly brilliant” achievement – a rare mix of “commanding erudition and swashbuckling prose”.