Author: Lawrence James

Although this book was first published in 1990, it was revised and updated in 2005, with new material uncovered on Lawrence’s personal life – but most importantly, there is a kind of coda by the author on the 2003 invasion of Iraq, hence this review.

Even as a disinterested reviewer Lawrence is an infuriating subject. In a way it is ironic that so substantial a biography (500 odd pages) should be devoted to a man who was, in so many ways, so insubstantial. Lawrence was a fey creature both physically and intellectually. In the cold harsh of daylight his accomplishments are slight  He wanted to be a great revolutionary, leading the Arabs to freedom, except that the Arabs he liked were a particular kind of Arab (the Bedouin) and the freedom promised was naturally within the confines of the British Empire. He saw Arabia as the first “brown” dominion.

He wanted to be a great writer but in the end, all he managed was one major work – Seven Pillars of Wisdom – a largely florid exercise in sulky petulance in which he, the hero, is always right.

And how utterly perverse that Lawrence was fighting alongside the Arabs for their “freedom” from the Turks whilst their Muslim brethren were being so ruthlessly crushed in nearby India.

Lawrence’s Arabism comes into clear focus here. As the author points out, there was only a certain type of Arab that Lawrence cared about, those Arabs who were nomads, who lived by their ancient codes of “honour”, the “clean” Arabs as Lawrence referred to them. He hated town types, those who were considered clever, or were tainted by contact with western ideas, especially western ideas about freedom. It is vastly different from say, the Arabism of Burton, who lived amongst the Arabs and spoke Arabic fluently and who delighted in the philosophical  experience of Islam.

Lawrence’s ideas then were no different to the usual construct of the noble savage so beloved by colonial types – the Sikh in India, the Pathan in Afghanistan, the Zulu in South Africa – all singled out and hero-worshipped  for their “warrior” qualities. 

There was a certain cinematic fluidity to Lawrence, so it is perhaps natural that the moving pictures played such a pivotal role in establishing the legend of Lawrence of Arabia – and no, it’s not that picture. The American film-maker Harry Chase first presented Lawrence on screen in 1919 – and at least a million British people watched the shows in London – an astonishing number for that period. With the connivance of a number of powerful people – John Buchan, Robert Graves, Winston Churchill, the Lawrence legend was born. (Glad to say that my hero George Orwell saw through his theatrics). It reached an apotheosis  of sorts in David Lean’s 1962 epic, with Peter O’ Toole seemingly inhabiting the skin of the real Lawrence (in his diaries, Noel Coward tartly observed that if the real Lawrence had been half as pretty as O’ Toole, he would have been buggered by a lot more Turks).

The legend has been chugging along fairly steadily since then.

It is mostly myth. All he managed to do was blow up a few trains and bridges. The Arabs loved him – mostly because he paid them timeously with gold sovereigns from the government purse. And ah, Damascus, well, it was liberated by the Aussies.

And so to Iraq. The author points out the striking similarities between the Mesopotamian  campaign of 1914-1918 and the Iraqi insurrection of 1920 to the invasion by “coalition” forces of Iraq in 2003. Lawrence was a great proponent of what he called “aerial policing” i.e. bombing the shit out of the natives, and then riding in heroically with the cavalry. Churchill, then in charge of some office or the other, loved him for it, and enthusiastically sanctioned the gassing of Kurds from a great height. Yup, the wheel keeps turning.

Anyway, here’s a nice quote from Seven Pillars.

All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.

Author: Tim Mackintosh-Smith  

The prophet Muhammad once exhorted his followers to ‘travel in search of knowledge, even though the journey takes you to China’. It was a stricture that the medieval Islamic traveler, Ibn Battutah, took vigorously to heart, spending an amazing twenty-nine years on the road – a travel feat unparalleled in history. Battutah left his native Tangier in 1325, ostensibly on a trip to Mecca to perform his Haj. He returned to Morocco in 1355 and proceeded to write the ultimate travelogue, The Precious Gift for Lookers into the Marvels of Cities and Wonders of Travel – an astonishingly vivid (and engaging) account of his years on the road. It was a journey that took him to the Volga in the north, as far down as Tanzania and, of course, China.He left in the dust, the travelers and explorers currently mythologized in the Western pantheon – Herodotus, Marco Polo, et al. In his own way, author Tim Mackintosh-Smith is perhaps just as unique. A dedicated Arabist, he has spent the last twenty years living and writing in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a. Over the years, he has proven himself a singular voice in the call for Battutah’s rightful place in history, churning out research and articles on Battutah’s life and work. He has recently edited an accessible collection of Battutah’s own writings, The Travels of Ibn Battutah, the first (English) collection since the nineteen-twenties. It must be said that Battutah is equally ill-served by Islamic scholars – and especially in his Moroccan homeland. In the first of a planned trilogy – Travels with a Tangerine: A Journey in the Footnotes of Ibn Battutah – Mackintosh-Smith covered Battutah’s Middle Eastern and African portion of his journey. The second volume (just published) takes in the Indian section of the journey, with a third planned on China. In many ways, Battutah’s Indian trip was pivotal to shaping his personality and the creation of his legend. Even now, it is hard to imagine one man being subjected to such a mélange of adventures and misadventures.Battutah traveled from the Indus to the Malabar coast, a swathe of land under the rule of Muhammad Shah ibn Tughluq (the eponymous “hall” is the Hazar Sutun, Muhammad Shah’s audience chamber in Delhi) – a ten-year journey that brought him wealth and prestige, robbery and destitution, the love for a slave-girl and the siring of numerous offspring. Along the way he served as a qadi to numerous sultans, earning his keep (as well as a modicum of prestige).  In tracing Battutah’s journey, the wondrously informative Mackintosh-Smith seeks to restore the validity of the great traveler’s observations. Like his contemporaries, Battutah suffered from the prevailing sense of disbelief his tales engendered. Unlike his contemporaries (Herodotus, for example, wrote of seeing gigantic ants mining for gold in India) Battutah’s writings were grounded in reality. Mackintosh-Smith juxtaposes his own witty observations with dazzling effect, creating a heady blend of both irreverence and deep respect for his subject. What comes through most though, is his passion for Battutah – and it his greatest gift that he manages to pass this on to the reader.  

The Blood of Flowers

February 15, 2008

By Anita Amirrezvani     

Publisher: Headline Review 

ISBN: 978-0755334193 

 Every once in a while, a book comes along that completely reinvigorates a genre and shakes up the often moribund world of English literary fiction. Sad thing is that in recent years, these books have often been translations – Javier Cercas’s Soldiers of Salamis, Peter Hoeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, Orhan Pamuk’s Snow. Although author Anita Amirrezvani was born in Tehran, she now resides in the US and spent nine years developing and writing The Blood of Flowers. Well, I’ve always been skeptical of writers who say this (unless of course they’re in prison and writing on toilet paper), but in Amirrezvani’s case, it’s nine years well-spent.  The Blood of Flowers is an extraordinary book. It flummoxes the reader from the very first pages and never lets up, taking you on an extraordinary magical journey into the heart of 17th century Isfahan. So it is kind of appropriate then, that carpets are central to the narrative of the book. The narrator is a nameless (in the old tradition of Persian folk-tales) thirteen year old girl who excels at carpet-making, not the sort of skill required for a woman in 17th century Persia. Following the death of her beloved father (constructed by the author in heart-breaking detail), our heroine and her mother trek to the glorious city of Isfahan to live with a long-lost uncle, Gostaham, who just happens to be an expert carpet-maker in the service of the Shah. Naturally his wife is an evil shrew who hates the newcomers and does everything she can to make their lives miserable. Along the way, the young girl is apprenticed to her uncle (unofficially), makes a great carpet for the shah’s favourite courtesan, gets forced into a sigheh (temporary marriage) and finally discovers her true self. Intersperced between the plot are old Persian tales, some traditional, others made up by the author. They don’t really work, except to distract the reader. It is to the authors credit that she takes clichéd situations (for the book does abound with clichés and improbabilities) and makes them seem fresh and exciting. At its core, it is a simple coming-of-age tale, but, like Voltaire’s Candide, the main character has such a wondrous take on the world that it leaves the reader alive to the possibilities of recreating their own lives. If that isn’t the purpose of great art, then I don’t know what is. Amirezvani is at her best in the descriptive passages of the book. She brings alive the milieu of Isfahan, its sights and smells, in vivid splashes of writing that make the reader feel as if they too, are flitting between the stalls of the Naqsh-e Jahan, the “Image of the World”, the great Isfahan square, with its silks, perfumes and spices from all around the world.

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