Robert Irwin

Robert Irwin’s books include For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies and Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography, as well as several novels.

At a seance in Hampstead in June 1914, W.B. Yeats was contacted by a spirit guide, who announced that he was Leo Africanus and professed to be affronted that the poet hadn’t heard of him. Over the next seven years, a curious relationship developed between Yeats and the daimon, who presented himself as Yeats’s opposite. Yeats, who saw himself as cautious and sedentary, discovered...

Only the Camels: Wilfred Thesiger

Robert Irwin, 6 April 2006

Wilfred Thesiger was born in Addis Ababa in 1910 and spent the first nine years of his life in Abyssinia. Visions of Abyssinian barbarism and splendour were to stay with him for the rest of his life, in particular his presence at Ras Tafari’s victory parade in 1916 after a battle on the plain at Sagale. The defeated but proud Negus Mikael walked in chains, while victorious tribesmen...

Gamal Abdul Nasser was inspired in his youth by ‘Awdat al-ruh (literally ‘Return of the Spirit’), a novel by one of the grand figures in Egyptian literature, Tawfiq al-Hakim (1898-1987). Published in 1933, it chronicles the tribulations of the urban poor and ends on a triumphant note, with the nationalist demonstrations of 1919. In its simple way it was an inspiring document...

Some years ago I wrote an account of the sanguinary career of Tamerlane for the Time-Life History of the World. After my editor, Charles Boyle, had read the first draft, he went home and dreamed a strange dream in which ‘Old Hoppity’ turned up at Time-Life’s London offices. The dream, in time, metamorphosed into a poem, which he included in his collection The Very Man...

Ramadan Nights: How the Koran Works

Robert Irwin, 7 August 2003

Back in the 1960s, when I was studying to become a Sufi saint in North Africa, my Sheikh told me to read the Koran again and again, stopping only for prayers, meals and sleep. At that stage in my life I had only the most elementary knowledge of the background to the Koran. Equally crucially, I had no knowledge of, or access to, the vast body of exegetical literature developed over the...

When​ Marie-Antoinette couldn’t sleep, she would ring for a lady-in-waiting to come and read to her; a rota of lectrices was on call at Versailles at any time of day or night; before...

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Winding south-east from Ouarzazate through the Drâa Valley in Morocco, the road peters out after Zagora. Beyond, lie the swelling dunes of the Great Eastern Erg, the Algerian frontier, open...

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Elegant Extracts: anthologies

Leah Price, 3 February 2000

Anthologies attract good haters. In the 1790s, the reformer Hannah More blamed their editors for the decay of morals: to let people assume that you had read the entire work from which an...

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A Book at Bedtime

William Gass, 10 November 1994

We all know about Aladdin, Sinbad, Ali Baba, the rook’s egg, the thieves’ cave. There’s a rule which requires us to begin our lives as children. We will have seen or heard and...

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