An Urbane Scholar in a Wilderness of Tigers

Robert Irwin

  • A Vision of the Middle East: An Intellectual Biography of Albert Hourani by Abdulaziz Al-Sudairi
    Tauris, 221 pp, £12.99, January 2000, ISBN 1 86064 581 X

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. In his later writings he also increasingly queried the notion that the recent history of the Arabs had to be understood in terms of responses to Western challenges.

Hourani was the son of Fadlo Hourani, a Protestant Lebanese businessman, one of the numerous Middle Eastern emigrants who had chosen to settle in Didsbury, a village suburb of Manchester, with its leafy roads and large houses. In the 1920s and 1930s there was an Ottoman feel to the place: in his autobiography, An Unfinished Odyssey (1984), Albert Hourani’s brother, Cecil, recalls how ‘we ate the food of the Lebanese villages – kibbé and the traditional dish of Saturday, mujaddara, or Esau’s pottage.’

In 1933, Hourani went up to Oxford, to read PPE: ‘a very thin young man with luminous green eyes and a diaphanous complexion’, according to his friend Charles Issawi. After graduating, he worked for Chatham House and the Foreign Office, before becoming a fellow of Magdalen and subsequently director of the Middle East Centre at St Antony’s.

Some Orientalists have led exciting lives. V.J. Parry, an expert on Ottoman warfare, escaped from a prison camp and joined a band of Italian partisans during the Second World War. David Storm Rice, an expert on Islamic metalwork, had an affair with Clara Malraux, fought as a commando in Ethiopia and, after a distinguished career as an art historian, suffered a nervous breakdown and committed suicide. Robin Zaehner carried out dangerous wartime assignments for MI6 behind Russian lines in Persia and played an important part in the coup that toppled Mossadeq in 1953, before eventually becoming Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics at Oxford. It is possible that Paul Kraus, the half-crazed student of Arab alchemy and another of Hourani’s friends, was murdered in Cairo in 1944, because of a suspected connection with the assassins of Lord Moyne. Hourani’s own life, however, was, outwardly at least, a tranquil affair – a matter of tutorial supervisions, university committees and tea parties for his students.

Abdulaziz Sudairi is only briefly concerned with the edifying but unexciting externals: A Vision of the Middle East deals rather with the life of the mind. Intellectual biography was a genre of which Hourani approved. He especially admired Ernst Gombrich’s marvellous Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography (1970), in which Gombrich explores the evolution of Warburg’s ideas about the afterlife of antiquity in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Warburg’s vision of the night-side of the Renaissance and his restless inquiries into the mysterious interactions of the manic and the depressive in the iconography of Western culture owed something to the tormented quality of his own intelligence, which took him at times to the edge of madness and beyond. Hourani was a much calmer, gentler figure. He had no taste for intellectual dogfights and his reservations about the work of other scholars were courteously expressed. He was always ready, even eager, to criticise his own past work. Unlike Warburg, he wrote a delicate, cadenced prose, which he used to advance subtle arguments in tentative and understated ways.

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