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Only the Camels

Robert Irwin: Wilfred Thesiger, 6 April 2006

Wilfred Thesiger: The Life of the Great Explorer 
by Alexander Maitland.
HarperCollins, 528 pp., £25, February 2006, 0 00 255608 1
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... 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 with spears, banners, drums, trumpets and horses draped in the bloody clothing of slain enemies processed in triumph through the Abyssinian capital ...

Mecca Bound

Robert Irwin, 21 July 1994

The Hajj: Muslim Pilgrimage to Mecca and the Holy Places 
by F.E. Peters.
Princeton, 399 pp., £19.95, July 1994, 0 691 02120 1
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Pilgrims and Sultans: The Hajj under the Ottomans 
by Suraiya Faroqhi.
Tauris, 244 pp., £34.50, May 1994, 1 85043 606 1
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The Hadj: A Pilgrimage to Mecca 
by Michael Wolfe.
Secker, 331 pp., £19.99, January 1994, 0 436 58404 2
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... In the section of The Anatomy of Melancholy devoted to the perils of religious enthusiasm, Robert Burton pauses briefly to comment on the complex and meritorious rituals of the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca: their fastings, their running till they sweat, their long prayers, Mahomets temple, tombe, and building of it, would aske a whole volume to dilate: and for their paines taken in this holy pilgrimage, all their sins are forgiven, and they are reputed so many saints ...

Top Grumpy’s Top Hate

Robert Irwin: Richard Aldington’s Gripes, 18 February 1999

Richard Aldington and Lawrence of Arabia: A Cautionary Tale 
by Fred Crawford.
Southern Illinois, 265 pp., £31.95, July 1998, 0 8093 2166 1
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Lawrence the Uncrowned King of Arabia 
by Michael Asher.
Viking, 419 pp., £20, October 1998, 0 670 87029 3
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... starring as Rafe Ashton in his former wife Hilda Doolittle’s novel Bid Me to Live (1960), and as Robert Cunningham in D.H. Lawrence’s Aaron’s Rod (1922), he may have had the misfortune to furnish the model for Sir Clifford Chatterley. Aldington’s maledictory novel, Death of a Hero, has not worn well. The parents of George, the ‘hero’, are parodic ...

Ways to hate Delacroix, and then Matisse

Robert Irwin: French art, 10 June 1999

The Allure of Empire: Art in the Service of French Imperialism 1798-1836 
by Todd Porterfield.
Princeton, 245 pp., £32.50, March 1999, 0 691 05959 4
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... the absolute power of the Dey depended on the military support of the Janissary regiment. Charles-Robert Ageron’s Modern Algeria: A History from 1830 to the Present (1964) affords essentially the same picture. In the 1830s people said Algiers was a despotism, not because they were indulging in stereotypical thinking, but because it was a fact. One of the ...

Diary

Robert Irwin: Pinball and Despair, 7 July 1994

... On my way to the British Museum to do some research for my novel, I think of pinball, and despair. Once thought of, the temptation cannot be resisted. I turn off and head for a pub a block to the south of New Oxford Street. It has a pinball machine which I have been playing a lot in the last few weeks. This particular model is called ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula ...

An Urbane Scholar in a Wilderness of Tigers

Robert Irwin: Albert Hourani, 25 January 2001

A Vision of the Middle East: An Intellectual Biography of Albert Hourani 
by Abdulaziz Al-Sudairi.
Tauris, 221 pp., £12.99, January 2000, 9781860645815
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... A remarkably high proportion of those who now teach and write about the modern Middle East in this country were taught by Albert Hourani. He encouraged the historians he supervised to take an interest in developments in anthropology and sociology. More than anyone else, he was responsible for challenging the notion that the Ottoman period was a dark age of political and cultural stagnation for the Arabs ...

Ramadan Nights

Robert Irwin: How the Koran Works, 7 August 2003

The Koran 
translated by N.J. Dawood.
Penguin, 464 pp., £7.99, January 2003, 0 14 044920 5
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... 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 centuries to explain it ...

Diary

Robert Irwin: The Best Thing since Sex, 2 December 1993

... I have been working on a review of a facsimile edition of Vivant Denon’s Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte (first published in 1802). After only a couple of hours of typing and revising, I am tense. I visualise the tension as a spider perched on the nape of my neck, where it inserts its poison-tipped legs into my flesh. From the neck, the tension spreads to the back and the head ...

Church of Garbage

Robert Irwin, 3 February 2000

The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives 
by Carole Hillenbrand.
Edinburgh, 648 pp., £80, July 1999, 0 7486 0905 9
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... In his preface to The Crusades, Yasir Suleiman, professor of Arabic at Edinburgh University, observes that ‘the author has as her primary aim the scholarly objective of balancing the skewed picture of the Crusades in Western scholarship.’ I’m not sure what he means by this. David Hume, in his History of Great Britain (1754-62), denounced the Crusades as ‘the most signal and durable monument of human folly that has yet appeared in any age or nation ...

An Endless Progression of Whirlwinds

Robert Irwin: Asian empire, 21 June 2001

Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Asia 
by Karl Meyer and Shareen Brysac.
Little, Brown, 646 pp., £25, January 2001, 0 316 85589 8
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Tibet: The Great Game and Tsarist Russia 
by Tatiana Shaumian.
Oxford, 223 pp., £16, October 2000, 0 19 565056 5
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... At the end of the 18th century the main threat to British possession of India seemed to come from France. In Egypt in 1798, Bonaparte studied the campaigns of Alexander the Great. He had corresponded with Tippoo Sahib, the Sultan of Mysore, and talked of leading the French expeditionary force on to conquer the British possessions in India. In 1800, the Russian Empire’s frontier was still a long way from that of British India and the two were separated by a (not particularly sanitary) cordon: thousands of miles of mountains and deserts populated by fiercely independent khans and tribal warriors ...

Where are the playboys?

Robert Irwin: The politics of Arab fiction, 18 August 2005

Modern Arabic Fiction: An Anthology 
edited by Salma Khadra Jayyusi.
Columbia, 1056 pp., £40, June 2005, 0 231 13254 9
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... 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 written in days of hope, before cynicism and despair found their way into Arab fiction ...

Back to the futuh

Robert Irwin, 1 August 1996

The Middle East: 2000 Years of History from the Birth of Christianity to the Present Day 
by Bernard Lewis.
Weidenfeld, 433 pp., £20, September 1995, 0 297 81345 5
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... The dust-jacket of this handsome book reproduces a medieval manuscript miniature of mounted Arabs beating drums and blowing what are probably mizmars (woodwind instruments). According to the caption, this is a ‘Celebration of Ramadan, from “The Meetings” illustrated by al-Hariri, 13th century’. Oh no it isn’t. Al-Hariri, author of the Maqamat (literally ‘Standings’, but more usually translated as ‘Sessions’) died in 1122 ...

Hiveward-Winging

Robert Irwin, 3 July 1997

Quarantine 
by Jim Crace.
Viking, 243 pp., £16.99, June 1997, 0 670 85697 5
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... I’ll just explain the central situation. Six people are trapped in a lift between two floors of a skyscraper – a musician, a surgeon, a charwoman, a conjuror and his female assistant, and a hunchback carrying a small suitcase.’ ‘Containing some sandwiches, I hope,’ chuckled the local curate. ‘They’re bound to get hungry before long ...

I am a false alarm

Robert Irwin: Khalil Gibran, 3 September 1998

Kahlil Gibran: Man and Poet 
by Suheil Bushrui and Joe Jenkins.
One World, 372 pp., £18.99, August 1998, 1 85168 177 9
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Prophet: The Life and Times of Kahlil Gibran 
by Robin Waterfield.
Allen Lane, 366 pp., £20, August 1998, 0 7139 9209 3
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... Kahlil Gibran was born in Lebanon. His father was a wealthy and aristocratic Arab, and his grandfather owned a palatial mansion guarded by lions. The child rode out hunting with his attendants and met the Kaiser on the latter’s Middle Eastern tour. Only after his imperious and incorruptible father had been brought low by the intrigues of his enemies did the family emigrate to Boston ...

Quite a Gentleman

Robert Irwin: The invariably savage Tamerlane, 19 May 2005

Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World 
by Justin Marozzi.
HarperCollins, 449 pp., £25, August 2004, 9780007116119
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... 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 (1993 ...

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