The Power of Arabic

A map of the world from Entertainment for He Who Longs to Travel the World, a geographical book from 1154 by Muhammad al-Idrisi
Bodleian Library, Oxford
A map of the world from Entertainment for He Who Longs to Travel the World, a geographical book from 1154 by the Arab scholar Muhammad al-Idrisi. The map shows the south at the top, as was customary in early Islamic cartography.

At the end of a qat party, typically close to sunset, there comes a moment when the effervescence settles, conversation slackens, and thoughts turn quietly inward. This Solomonic pause—Yemenis call it lahzat Sulayman—serves as a cue. Guests rise from their cushions; hosts slip back to their own pursuits. It is a time to be alone. Cathinone, the stimulating compound in the fresh shoots and leaves of the qat bush, at this stage induces a calm, crisp focus that drivers find useful for long trips, and students for cramming.

One imagines Tim Mackintosh-Smith retiring to the library in his centuries-old house in Sanaa, picking up a well-thumbed classic, and pondering the story of the Arabs—or rather, as he suggests in the introduction to his erudite and discursive new book, of Arabs, for as he persuasively explains, the definite article implies more solidity and cohesion than its subject may merit. Mackintosh-Smith is unusual, and not only because few English gentlemen would in this modern age choose to spend four decades living in far-off Yemen, a wildly rugged country that is now in the throes of its own darkest age. Unusual too is that although he might be called a superb Arabist, as a diligent student and ardent lover of the language, and might also be called a fine historian, as a dogged seeker of truth and a skilled storyteller, he is not a professional at either.

At times Mackintosh-Smith appears a keen Orientalist in the style of those nineteenth-century autodidacts who combined a love of gritty travel “in mufti” with a bookish taste for philology. At others he seems not so much to echo as to inhabit the authors he cites, such as the often laconic tenth-century Baghdadi geographer and historian al-Mas’udi or the towering intellect Ibn Khaldun, who in the fourteenth century served half a dozen warring, conspiring princes between Granada and Damascus but composed his greatest work, the Muqaddimah, during a prolonged hejira among Berber tribesmen in the remote mountains of what is now western Algeria.

Holed up in Sanaa with a civil war raging around him, Mackintosh-Smith finds himself “unintentionally impersonating” the Arab sage in his retreat, ruminating on the perennial clash between settled and nomadic peoples and on the rise and fall of dynasties. Ibn Khaldun described how Yemen’s ancient Sabean kingdoms fell to Bedouin predation; today, Mackintosh-Smith writes, the pattern “repeats itself…outside my window, where gun-slinging tribesmen from the northern highlands”—the Houthis—“have been unleashed on the capital of Saba’s…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.