For Mackintosh-Smith, the great conquests of Arab history unfold in three phases. First, the spreading of Arabic across the Arabian peninsula in the centuries before Muhammad. Although this is a book about Arabs, the real hero is the “rich, strange, subtle, suavely hypnotic, magically persuasive, maddeningly difficult” classical Arabic, “supreme totem of Arab unity” and a language that Mackintosh-Smith has mastered more thoroughly than most Arabs.
Mackintosh-Smith has produced a book of value to experts and students of the region while remaining accessible to interested non-expert readers. He constantly connects literary or religious history to the contemporary. For example, a discussion on the nomadic nature of the Bedouin and their traditional undermining of state institutions leads him to conclude that “the central nomad institution – the raid, the ghazw – is still very much alive”. The means may have changed, he argues, but the tradition has not. Readers are told to consider “the image of camel-borne loyalists causing mayhem among the Tahrir Square protesters in Cairo in 2011”, or the “latest Toyota pick-ups mounted with heavy-calibre machine guns”.
At a time when Arab nationalism – with its anachronistic-seeming ideology of Arab unity – is on the wane, we owe a great debt to Mackintosh-Smith for reminding us that, amid all the variety and contingency, there may be something to the oneness of the Arabs after all.
Anyone writing a history of the Arabs follows an illustrious line of historians including Philip Hitti, Albert Hourani and the current director of the Middle East Centre at Oxford, Eugene Rogan. Hourani began his seminal work with the arrival of Islam. Rogan has more recently covered Ottoman and modern history in two superb books.
Mackintosh-Smith, a worthy successor, looks back beyond those two works into deep history, and forward into our own time. As a linguist, he brings to his account a very particular set of skills, as well as some unique experiences acquired over a lifetime of travelling in the Arabic-speaking world and living in a tower-house in Yemen’s capital, San’a.
But what do we mean by “Arab” and who do we mean by the “Arabs”? In answering this difficult question, Tim Mackintosh-Smith sees “Arab” as “a label that is very broad, very sticky (it has been around for almost 3,000 years), and yet very slippery”. The term is now generally applied to the more than 400m people living in the belt of territories stretching from Morocco to the Gulf. But for most of history its use was limited to nomadic “outsiders” or tribal groups who lived beyond the reach of settled society, people regarded by “civilised peoples” — such as Greeks or Chinese — as barbarians.
This is a sad book. Tim Mackintosh-Smith is a distinguished scholar of Arabic language, literature and culture, and a long-term resident of war-torn Yemen. He writes with passion in the midst of bombs and violent protest. Yet at the heart of his book is the paradox that the essence of the Arab existence is discontinuity and confusion, rather than unity and cohesion. And at the heart of that paradox is another: that the one distinguishing feature of Arab identity, language, is in fact “a forked tongue”, a “slippery diglossia” which is innately divisive... These oversights suggest that the author’s agenda has been so narrowly focussed on elucidating the essential nature of Arab identity through the ages that it has preferred not to take a wider perspective on the controversial and multicultural hinterland of his subject.
This book’s purpose is to take us on a much more ambitious journey, addressing vital questions of Arab identity and nationhood. There can hardly be a better guide than Mackintosh-Smith, who has near-mythical status among western observers of the Middle East. He has lived for decades in old Sana’a, the city founded by Shem, son of Noah, staying there throughout Yemen’s horrendous war. Between the meticulous scholarship he drops fleeting references to the military exercises and propaganda he can see from his window in the street below...Mackintosh-Smith could have done with more editing. His scholarly enthusiasm is largely entrancing, but occasionally drifts into incomprehensibility... If the book encourages a more sympathetic understanding of Arabs, though, the effort will have been worthwhile.
Mackintosh-Smith is an unusual Englishman abroad: a writer who lives, as he puts it, in a land not a library, experiencing history in situ. He combines deep learning with penetrating insights delivered with dazzling turns of phrase and illuminating comparisons... Mackintosh-Smith has an enviable ability to enrich the big picture with fascinating detail and telling parallels... Hope is kept alive by a writer who lifts spirits and fires the imagination... Words are, indeed, still the sharpest weapons.
Arabist, translator and travel writer Mackintosh-Smith's Travels With a Tangerine, in which he journeys in the footsteps of medieval Muslim traveller Ibn Battutah, is a favourite travel book of mine. Now, drawing on intimate knowledge of the Arab world (he has been based in Yemen for more than 30 years, and is currently unable to leave due to the violent political situation there), he has written this extraordinarily comprehensive history of the Arabs and their culture, which covers 3,000 years and explains why unity in the Arab world "remains a mirage".