Many years ago a Parisian dance act from Pigalle received an invitation to play at a nightclub on Cairo’s Pyramid Road. Like “costumes” at the Crazy Horse today, the dancers’ body stockings left nothing to the imagination. The audience of worldly Cairiotes, the tarbouche-wearing musicians with their lutes and durabukas, the indefatigable army of busboys, gazed on this spectacle of female nubility with a mix of indifference and condescension.
The area where the country of Yemen is now found was long known to geographers by the Latin Arabic Felix; felix meant “fertile” but also “happy” or “lucky”. Yemen is much in the news today and little of it is either happy or lucky. When Peter Schlesinger visited the Yemen Arab Republic (the northern half of a country still split in two) in 1976—hitching a ride, as it were, with his friend Eric Boman, who had been invited to do a story for a French fashion magazine—the country had only just emerged from civil war and entering an all-too-brief period of peace and hope.
The Hijaz, that part of the Arabian Peninsula which contains the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, was long subject to imperialism, but not of Western variety: it was instead subject to the Ottomans. Although nominally under Ottoman suzerainty for centuries, it was ironically 19th-century British imperialism that forced Istanbul to attempt to consolidate its control over the region.
Visitors around the world have traveled to Europe to see the tall spires and stained glass windows of the continent’s Gothic cathedrals: in Cologne, Chartres, Milan, Florence, York and Paris. The trappings of Gothic architecture have become shorthand for “medieval Europe”. Yet in Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe, Diana Darke investigates the Islamic origins of Gothic architecture, tracing its history through pre-Islamic Syria through the Islamic empires to the tall European cathedrals between the 12th and 17th centuries.
This year’s 75th anniversary of the end of WW2 and, in particular, the end of the War in the Pacific, has coincided with a number of books, some broad, some focusing on individuals. But few perhaps look at what is—at first glance—as unlikely a corner as Kelly A Hammond’s China’s Muslims & Japan’s Empire.
In a year when the world is being seriously beleaguered by a never-ending pandemic, conflicts, economic recessions, and natural disasters, Adrift by French-Lebanese author Amin Maalouf seems an appropriate read. Focusing on the Middle East, especially the unravelling of the author’s native Lebanon, Maalouf attempts to explain how the world has become the way it is now through a set of interconnected crises.
“How did Ibn Battuta support himself on his travels?”, asked a student once. It’s hard to imagine a world where erudition and charm enable a man to travel the world as the honored guests of kings and scholars as well as humble folk, but that is how things worked in those days. It also helped to be able to sleep as soundly in silk sheets as on a crofter’s mat. A world like that, a man like that, does not belong to a remote past, but it may belong to a past that is fading fast. Tales from the Life is an outpouring of praise and sadness on the occasion of the death earlier this year of Bruce Wannell, the last great English traveler in the Orient.