If you happen to have a few hours to spare and a swash to buckle, here are two rousing epic adventures from Persia and the Middle East to fill in the time. If we think of Persian epics, the two titles which probably come to mind are Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh and Vis and Ramin by Fakhruddin As’ad Gurgani, both available in excellent Penguin translations by Dick Davis. There’s also Matthew Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum, which is based on an episode in Ferdowsi’s poem. As for Arabic ones, the massive (and anonymous) Thousand and One Nights is the best-known.
The British Eighth Army’s victory at the Second Battle of El Alamein in October-November 1942 is commonly considered one of the turning points of the Second World War—Winston Churchill called it “the end of the beginning” of the war. Historian and journalist Gershom Gorenberg, however, contends that the true turning point in the North African/Middle East campaign was the First Battle of El Alamein fought in July 1942. And the key to success in that battle was the Allied victory in what Gorenberg calls the “War of Shadows”, a war of codebreakers and spies.
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.