The venerable Charles Allen left perhaps his most contentious subject for his last (and posthumously-published) book. The Aryans: The Search for a People, a Place and a Myth is a wide-ranging discourse on history, science, archaeology, linguistics, the history of all four, interleaved with commentary on some two centuries of highly-objectionable politics and political discourse: he opens with a chapter titled: “The Rise and Fall of Superman: Aryanism and the Swastika”.
Narrative history at its best, Adrian Goldsworthy’s Rome and Persia is informative, readable, carefully sourced, and cautious in its judgments about events that occurred between 90 BCE and the 600s CE in the Mediterranean world, north Africa, and western Asia. It is also instructive about imperial rivalries, geopolitical competition, and human nature across the ages—including our present one.
It was common during the years of the U.S. invasion of Iraq to talk about the Sunni-Shia split—and how the sectarian violence was the result of a “centuries-long hatred” between the two different religious schools. But seeing this divide as the result of a longstanding feud—or to see it in the model of other religious schisms, like the Catholic-Protestant split and the centuries of war that followed—would be a mistake, argues Toby Matthiesen.
It’s one of the strange artifacts of history that Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania, was once controlled by the Sultanate of Oman. In 1832, then Sultan Sayyid Saïd bin Sultan al-Busaidi made the island his capital, with the empire split in two upon his death: one based in Muscat, one based in Zanzibar.
When meeting an expatriate friend on my first trip to Dubai, the host at the restaurant where we were meeting quickly ushered me up to the second floor. For foreigners, he said—before handing me a wine list. Dubai’s tolerance of alcohol is a more formalized version of Muslim tolerance—and clandestine drinking—of alcohol that dates back to its very inception, despite religious commands to the contrary. Professor Rudi Matthee tells that story in Angels Tapping at the Wine-shop’s Door: A History of Alcohol in the Islamic World.
Oman and the connected history of Zanzibar is something those of us of a certain age (and especially those of us who used to collect stamps) perhaps knew to at least some extent, but then (also perhaps) largely forgot as the Arabian Peninsula rearranged itself around the ever-increasing political and economic clout of Saudi Arabia and Gulf states. Oman isn’t an oil power, nor does it host major global sporting events or own iconic football teams or airlines.
Sometimes you must write the book you want to read. In the afterword to her debut novel Every Rising Sun, Jamila Ahmed remembers growing up with The Arabian Nights as “a cultural touchstone” while always “wanting more of her”. The “her” is, of course, Shaherazade, the teller of life-prolonging fantastical tales.