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

Reviewed by Richard Wirick


Yale University Press 656 pp.

Tim Mackintosh-Smith was raised in England, educated at Oxford, and lives part of the year in Sana’a, Yemen’s dusty, turbulent capital. In this breathtaking book, he takes us through 3,000 years of Arab history. The unifier is not, as one might guess, Islam. Much of the volume deals with Arab life and customs as much as 1400 years before the birth of the young Mohammed in the seventh century. The far more sinuous and problematic chain that runs through the narrative is the Arabic language, with its near infinity of dialects. The first known inscriptions mentioning Arabic date from 853 B.C. For hundreds of years, from Indonesia in the east to Mauritania, the westernmost reach of what could be called the Arab Empire, the script that worked its way into the Qur’an was “the founding text of Arabism. . .with all the weight of a Pentateuch, a Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence. All of it emerged from the “golden swirl” that finally culminates with “La ilaha illa allah”—“There is no god but Allah.”  The first victory this ethnic group secured was the tongue that bears their name.

Though Mackintosh-Smith goes on to say that the “grammar of [the Arabs’] history would be unstoppably active, and they would earn not just a capital letter but also a definite article,” there are two other forces of unification at work as well. One is Islam, the other the tide of warfare that swept these desert people from the moment of their inception in history. He starts when jewels and spices from oasis cities were the pre-Christian equivalent of oil. Caravans moved west laden with dates and incense, and returned with garments and stoneware incumbent upon a nomadic or itinerant life. There were the Sabaeans and Himyaris, the Abbasids who settled Baghdad and the unconquerable Umayyads who dominated the valleys beneath Asia Minor, in the kingdoms that came to be called Trans-Jordan and Jordan. The development of empires brought eventually by the family of Saud, the reciprocity of desert and village life, and the animated drama of the caravan, are constant themes in this rich, almost cinematically delivered narrative. It has the marvelous, brisk velocity of a good novel and will be the gold standard of this fabulous peoples’ histories.

After taking us through the pre-Islamic world, we land at the transformation that took place with Mohammed’s prophecy in 622 A.D. Surrounding war and clashes of cultures in zero-sum lands show that a key to Arab culture was their capture “on their rock between predatory powers.” There were invaders long before Napoleon, but his arrival in Egypt in 1798 brought fashions and technologies that culminated with a Christian convert, the Lebanese Ibrahim al-Yaziji. Fighting over desert lands was vividly shown in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. In the film Omar Sharif fatally shoots the guide of Peter O’Toole (T. E. Lawrence) for drinking from his tribe’s well, thus demonstrating that sharing with outsiders is dangerous and perplexing and could amount to disloyalty. Of particular interest, and interloping, is of course the British Empire. During and after World War I, the creation of nation-states “on the back of a lunch napkin” (Churchill’s words) left a line of disquiet from the Sykes-Picot pact to the much ballyhooed Balfour Declaration in Parliament, which delivered on the long promised wish for a Jewish homeland in the middle of historic Palestine. Of the British, Mackintosh-Smith proclaims, “[i]mperialists certainly divided and rules, but more often than not they were driving their wedges into old splits.”

The battles between Arab empires and Christian or Jewish neighbors persists into the twenty-first century. In Northern Syria, particularly the “ISIS capital” of Raqqa, a tax on Christians was levied in 640. It was reinstated by the “Islamic state” in 2014. Hopes for democracy and representative government across such a wide swath of territory have been met with some success, but clouds have blocked the sun at opportune moments. Much of it came down to Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011, the birthplace of the first wave of the “Arab Spring.” Would it lead to something like English colonists achieved in 1776, or would it sputter and invite bloodshed, like Tiananmen Square in 1989? Mackintosh-Smith would have it that the only success has been Western-oriented Tunisia, which made much of what happened in Cairo and moved it forward with geopolitical baby steps. The new kingdoms are ruled by autocrats that the author dubs as rulers of conspicuous skyscrapers and shopping malls. The police-repressive apparatus of Egypt is probably worse now than it was in 2011 when Mubarek was deposed.

Gamal Abdel Nasser, the potentate of Egypt in the fifties and sixties, followed the rotund and autocratic King Farouk. Nasser was a dazzler, a handsome drake not seen in Islamic politics since the (ironically secular) Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, “Father of the Turks,” earlier in the same century. First, Nasser humiliated the British over the Suez Canal. Yet it was this same blunderer who goaded Israel into the Six-Day War and set sympathies for surrounding Arab states back at least a hundred years. Little was helped by his embrace of Russia, though as a nation Egypt was propelled forward by Soviet inspiration, education, technology, and a shared sense of marginalization from the Western world. I recall the great news photograph of Nasser and Khrushchev raising their joined fists together in a Bedouin tent, surrounded by exotic weavings and hopeful acolytes. It all crumbled after 1967, when a rollback of granted land stranded West Bank and Gaza residents under the thumb of the “Zionist infidels.”

The author deftly analyzes the great debate about “modernization” of the Arab world. We are told that Arab and Islam are not synonymous, and yet Islamic culture, often very advanced for its time, provided a sort of “Arab information technology” in the form of writing and painting, and when Arabic script, famously difficult to the printing press, began to be printed on cheap paper rather than the parchment made from Nile weeds. The class divisions within the identifying language also led to dissidence, confusion and neglect. While printed Arabic led to “new ways to use and control language and thus form identity,” the Koran—as in the Hindi-Urdu distinction—insists on a “high” Arabic, a near Biblical tongue more proper even than the “Standard Egyptian.” Proselytizers of the Qur’an admit that an essentially nomadic people may have trouble finding madrasas, or schools, to teach it to peripatetic students. People who are by nature rootless hunters and gatherers cannot live and may not be able to be unified by such a rarefied tongue. Though the whole nature of Arab identity can seem foreign to democracy, commerce and urbanization, Mackintosh-Smith still has hope for the people he writes about fondly.

His achievement here is one of quality as well as scale. He shows how a people skirted into the wrong pockets of history, and sometimes, led by despot after despot (look at last week’s developments in Sudan), could reach forward into unity and freedom, although their past was a torn canvas of poverty and dispersal. The book is a doorstop but reads with a breathtaking briskness. Its end notes are a luxuriant catalog of cultural and political materials from this intrepid people. They have found their historical champion at last, as this book has little chance of being surpassed.


Richard Wirick recently wrote about Tiananmen Square for ACM.