Albert Hourani’s great study A History of the Arab Peoples was published in 1991. It was an erudite and eloquent work of synthesis. Hourani researched and composed it shortly before the outbreak of the Gulf War. This was, for the most part, an era of stable Arab regimes presided over by monarchs or self-made despots. His narrative emphasised the positive and tended to glide over the bloody schisms and dynastic wars that have characterised so much of the history of the Middle East. One reviewer who admired Hourani’s achievement nevertheless remarked that in reading it one might get the impression that no Arab had ever waved a sword in anger at another.
Tim Mackintosh-Smith loves the Arab people and has chosen to make his home among them. But his Arabs offers an interpretation of their history that is less sunlit. For one thing, as he points out, whereas Hourani surveyed Arab history from the safe perspective afforded by a fellowship at St Antony’s College, Oxford, he has written his book in a medieval tower house in the heart of Sana‘a, Yemen’s largest city. From his window he can see heavily armed militiamen on patrol and take note of the damage done to the city by the prolonged civil war there. For another thing, as this may suggest, things have not gone well in the Arab world since the 1990s.
Hourani’s book was remarkable, but this one is yet more so. It is a passionate and highly original meditation on Arab history in which etymological insights, snippets of poetry and historical anecdotes (a large number of which are apocryphal) are used to shed light on the Arabs’ past and their