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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Book Review: A History of the Arab People by Albert Hourani

Book Review:
 A History of the Arab People
by Albert Hourani
Belknap Press at Harvard University
p. 1991

  You want to get a sense of the American mind, walk into a book store and look at the history section.  You've got like, 50 percent World War II/Civil War books, 25 percent American History and 25 percent "every other subject in history."  What, exactly is the historical relevance of World War II and the Civil War relative to the histories of other cultures that are increasingly important to our own culture?  I don't get it, but there you go.  That makes it hard to learn the right away about subjects in "World History."

     Also, it's expensive.  So basically for world history subjects you are looking for cheap survey course level books that are aimed at a general subject.  Harvard University Press, Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press. And it's ok if they are decades old, like A History of the Arab People because you don't exactly need to keep up on new trends in the history of the Abbaysid Caliphate because THERE AREN'T ANY NEW TRENDS.

   The history of the Arab people begins, at least with this book, with the advent of Islam in the seventh century.  After that, the history of the Arab people isn't exactly equivalent to the history of Islam, but only because Islam expanded into different ethnic groups: Persians and Turks specifically.  They hey day of Islamic/Arab culture lasted through the European middle ages, and the Islamic/Arab conquests made it all the way to Spain, Central Asia and India before the Europeans got their shit together, and the Turks go their shit together, gradually creating a situation where the Arabs were largely under the domination of Turks and their elites until the Europeans took over in the 19th century.

 The situation between the Arabs and the Turkish speaking Ottomans is roughly equivalent to the United States taking over England, or maybe closer even to the Aztecs conquering Spain.   Throughout the History of the Arab People the major action is split between Egypt, Damascus and Lebanon up until the 20th century, when previously peripheral regions like the Arabian peninsula and Maghrib (Arab North Africa) begin to assume greater importance.

  Perhaps the biggest surprise is simply how late in the day Arab peoples began to even notice Western cultures.  Unfortunately, this was probably more attributable to the lack of literacy outside of the religious/intellectual elites until late in the 20th century.  Outside of Cairo and perhaps Damascus, the modern aspects of life like mass communication and transport were also late in emerging.

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