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Classics of Arabic Literature

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Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography by Robert Irwin

Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography
by Robert Irwin


The distinguished Arabist, novelist and historian Robert Irwin selects five classics of Arabic literature, from the Life and Work of Jahiz (aka ‘goggle eyes’) to a strange and complex Sudanese masterpiece

Interview by Thea Lenarduzzi

Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography by Robert Irwin

Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography
by Robert Irwin

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When I asked you to recommend classics of Arabic literature, you said it would be tricky because not many works are translated. Why is that? Is it changing?

Well now in fact we’ve got the New York University programme of translating Arab texts and publishing them in English and Arabic parallel translations, modelled on the Loeb translations of Latin and Greek texts. A somewhat random, but very interesting, selection has appeared so far.

Why is it? The blunt truth is, first, Arabic’s a difficult language; second, there are very few translators, capable translators, in the United Kingdom. An awful lot of them are working on modern novels and I suppose an even larger number will be working on commercial documents.

“If you are an independent minded academic and you learn the Arabic language – my God the amount of stuff you could do!”

The number of people working on the Mediaeval or pre-modern stuff is minuscule. There is really only a handful. I’ve met very nearly all of them. You could fit them all into this room.

Is it not a field that’s attracting many young academics? You would think now of all times perhaps is an occasion to get to know this ‘other’ culture.

In fact, it goes the opposite way. I don’t think everyone’s going to want to give lots of funds for translating Arabic. Most bodies are putting money into mathematics and engineering – that’s the prejudice of the age. If you are an independent minded academic and you sit down and learn the Arabic language – my God the amount of stuff you could do! The amount of work that’s waiting to be done, the sources yet undiscovered or under appreciated that one could seize and take; one could take almost any major writer in Arabic literature and produce something genuinely new on them, instead of writing minor footnotes to certain interpretations of Great Expectations, or whatever.

It’s such an enormous field to get into – dizzyingly so. If you’re talking about Arabic literature you’re talking about a literature that expands from Mauritania to Iraq and everywhere in between and above and below. Is that vastness and heterogeneity part of why people are reluctant? They don’t know where to start. How does it – if it does – cohere as a literature?

I think it does cohere in an odd way. Perhaps even more than English language literature, which extends from the United States, through Britain and on to Australia, with all sorts of people choosing to write in English who aren’t English. There is a lineage and particularly if one’s looking at literature as it evolves in the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, we’ll be talking about Tayeb Salih, for instance, who is Sudanese. It’s very clear that he’s writing in a tradition that goes back to Lebanese and Egyptian writers, so his writing is revered by people in Lebanon and Egypt, and throughout the Arabic reading world.

Is there a heart of it, in the way one might say of Western literature that Germany was in the 1500s, for mechanical reasons, and Paris was in the early 1900s for cultural reasons. When and where were the boom times?

The booms have always been in Egypt and Syria – Syria plus Lebanon, which might be seen as a part of Syria. Many Arabs do see it as a part of Syria. Those are the places where it’s been easiest to get published and in the case of Lebanon, where there’s the least censorship. The other thing to be said is that they’re awful at doing it on their own. There’s a case for making the twin capitals of Arabic literary fiction and poetry Paris and London because there are so many major writers who have lived there, or still are living there, in exile, and have chosen to become academics or intellectuals. In the US, Britain and France the importance of the intellectual diaspora is enormous, and there’s a whole school of literature, the Mahjar school, founded by exiled Arabs living in South America. That is a major sub school of Arabic literature.

Why and when did they go there?

They immigrated in the ways particularly Christians migrated to South America, after massacres or major clashes between the Jews and Christians in the 19th century. Then there were purges and there were famines and locusts and so on. I was in Cuba about 15 years ago in an art gallery and I picked up a pamphlet on the Arabs in Cuba, and I burst out laughing and thought “this will never be of any use.” In fact, it was, because Maalouf, who writes in French and won the Prix Goncourt a couple of times, wrote a novel about his family and about that section of the family that migrated to Cuba and Latin America. And so I did find a use for this seemingly ridiculous pamphlet. There really are a lot of Arabs in Cuba and other parts of that world.

The British, French, Germans and Austrians began to play a really serious role in Arabic literature in the 1800s, didn’t they? In terms of translation and introduction, I mean.

Yes. As I was thinking about what sort of things we would be talking about today, I suddenly realised for the first time that four of the texts I’ve chosen – the Arabian Nights, Masudi, Jahiz and Ibn Khaldun – were first brought to us in the West by the French.

By people like Charles Pellat?

Yes. The French still predominate in most of the secondary scholarship, too. In general, historically, the French and Germans were the dominate people in Orientalism, but as far as literary material is concerned, it seems to be the French have led the way, almost everywhere. Of course, there is a very large body of Arab francophone writers in France – Arab and Berber and Kabyle writers.

Let’s talk about Jahiz then, whose Life and Works, translated and edited by Pellat (1969), is on your list. Who was Jahiz?

Jahiz was a ninth-century figure who came from a very humble background and had nothing that we would characterise as a formal education – but he picked up a lot. Particularly from hanging around a mosque. Mosques in Basra – which is where he was, in Iraq – were treated like clubs where people hung around and debated issues and talked and, in fact, often published their books – not formally so… but they sat and read the books out in the mosque and people took notes, so it was a form of publishing.

The mosques were a bit like the coffee shops of Europe?

Yes, very much so. Eventually that all disappeared, though, within a century or two.

But Jahiz developed his skills as an essayist and found some patronage with the Caliph in Baghdad, although not much. He never had much of a formal occupation – at one point he was given the post of tutor to one of the Caliph’s children. The children got so scared of him because of his goggle eyes. That’s actually what Jahiz means, “goggle eyes.”

Really? So that wasn’t his real name?

Well, I suppose it wasn’t, but everybody calls him Jahiz.

I should say, by the way, that he seems to have an African background, though it’s not clear from which area of Africa his ancestors came.

“Jahiz wrote on everything: theology, philosophy, he wrote at enormous length on animals and birds and fish. He wrote on mice, on the bum and the back and the belly…”

Anyway, he wrote essays – he wrote on everything, everything that it was possible to write on. He wrote on theology, he wrote on philosophy, he wrote at enormous length on animals and birds and fish. He wrote on mice, he wrote on the bum and the back and the belly. He wrote on round things and square things, he wrote on stranglers…. and it just goes on.

He was writing in prose in a culture that then – and now, in fact – very much preferred, and prioritised and celebrated, poetry. Was he seen as elevating prose?

Yes, poetry is considered ‘real, true literature’…. But Jahiz was seen in that way, I think, yes; it’s fair to say he was recognised as the first great prose stylist. One of his problems though, was that he was a Mu’tazilite, which was a version of Islam that began to flourish in recent decades, during Jahiz’s youth. It was for a time the dominant orthodoxy. It’s a kind of rationalist philosophy and, while there are many aspects to Mu’tazilism, part of it was the belief that the world is marvellous, a manifestation of God’s justice, and that man has free will. There is no predestination, so one makes ones own fate, whether for salvation or not.

The age of Mu’tazilism comes to an end within Jahiz’s lifetime, and the Caliphs reverse their position and go to a much more orthodox, less rationalist position. Which makes Jahiz unfashionable and he gets dumped and widely attacked by following generations of writers. They can’t knock him in talent because he is so good, but he is rather discounted nonetheless – ‘You don’t want to pay much attention to this buffoon, this joker, this liar’, and so on. That’s another thing actually – Jahiz’s ‘thing’, you could say –there a lot of jokes in his work. He is a serious writer, but all the time he breaks it up with jokes and digressions – brilliant digressions that remain in fashion until well into the 10th century, maybe later. It’s called al-jidd wa al-hazl, ‘seriousness and joking’, the good discourse of a cultured man. The writing of a cultured man should alternate, you see, it shouldn’t just be boringly serious all the time, and Jahiz was brilliant at that. But the fact that he goes so much for comedy did rather count against him in the long run.

Did that transition towards a more orthodox system coincide with the end of the Golden Age? I know it’s a hotly contested matter, but when do you think the Golden Age finished?

It’s certainly moot. Any age that can support Masudi, who comes in the next century, is still pretty golden. There are many factors to consider: partly the socio-economic breakdown of the Abbasid Caliphate didn’t help, and the devastation brought by Qarmatian heretics and the Zanj slave uprising. All that did a lot of damage to literary culture, indirectly. Possibly the main thing is the development of religious colleges, the madrasas, which placed religion in the centre. So people were encouraged to study the Qur’an, Qur’an commentaries, transmission of hadith (sayings of the prophet), religious jurisprudence and a therefore a corresponding discounting of history and geography, and all that.

Then, there’s a great suspicion of the learning of other cultures, of ancient cultures; a suspicion of what might be picked up that’s heretical or just not Islamic, from the Greeks, the Indians and Persians.

But Masudi’s The Meadows of Gold would, you said, be classified as a Golden Age text. It certainly sounds like a vast, bold undertaking.

It is vast, it’s a huge book, and I’m sure there’s no complete English translation, though there is a French one. It is a great book and yet it’s an abridgement, perhaps an abridgement of an abridgement of an abridgement – he wrote, allegedly, a much vaster thing of which this is a part. We’ve only got a fragmentary translation in English, very well done by Lund and Stone. It selectively covers the Abbasid period, but the selection is really good.

Masudi doesn’t – unlike most of the historians who follow him, who write strictly Islamic history that perhaps give some nod to pre Islamic Arabia, but for whom history really only gets exciting at the coming of the prophet – provide a history of the Islamic world and think ‘job done’, perhaps finishing off with what’s known about how the world’s going to end. On the contrary, Masudi travelled widely, well beyond the frontiers of Islam, and was particularly interested in all the non-Islamic cultures he visited. He seems to have gone a bit farther east than his contemporaries. It’s conceivable he went to China – although probably not – but he did at least try to find out about China, and he was in Madagascar.

He was very interested in the Slavs, he got a list of the French kings from somebody he met on the Abbasid frontier. He was also very interested in the history of the Israelites, and in what you could get from the Bible. So his is a global history, but it’s not restricted to what we would regard as history, even; he is very interested in geology and astronomy and geography. Anything scientific or natural history – and this is a big difference with him – he loves wonder stories. He loves tales and things like the nasnas, the man who only had one arm and one leg, so he’s only half there. Or the city of brass, which is somewhere in the North African desert and has no gates and is constructed only of brass and all the inhabitants inside it are dead. He loves these stories – he didn’t believe them, I don’t think, but he loves to tell them. He knows that his audience isn’t going to believe him, either, but he knows his audience is going to enjoy reading and hearing about it nonetheless. So he writes for entertainment and, like Jahiz, he’s great at digression.

“It’s called al-jidd wa al-hazl, ‘seriousness and joking’, the good discourse of a cultured man”

In those days there were people called nudama, who were paid professionals who sat at the Caliphs’ tables at dinner and entertained them with what they had learned. Some of it might be about the Qur’an, but some of it might be about the strange habits of the Scythians, or about famous misers, or whatever. That sort of stuff gets incorporated into Masudi’s work. It’s the reverse of dull.

How does his style differ from Jahiz’s?

With earlier historians there’s a heavy dependence on chains of transmission. The most famous example is Tabari, a generation before Masudi, who finds information about, say, a battle and provides you with three different accounts of it, two of which contradict each other completely. Then he’ll say: ‘I heard this on the authority of Abdullah who had it from Daoud, who heard it from…’, and you end up with these great chains of transmission, which clutter the narrative. And at the end of it he’ll say, ‘well, that’s it and now we’re on to the next topic.’ So history becomes a huge unsorted information dump. But Masudi can’t be bothered with all that chain of transmission, so he’ll say, ‘all these sources are obviously ridiculous, so here you go, this is my story which you’ll find preferable.’

So he makes all the judgements for you?

Yes, he provides an authoritative narrative.

The translation you’re recommending is the 1989 one by Lund and Stone. But again, Pellat got there first, didn’t he? And before him was the Austrian Aloys Sprenger. Presumably each editor/translator shaped the work depending on his own specialisms and readership?

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Well, the Lund and Stone is accurate, and just really excellent all round. Pellat is much more complete. And Pellat did rely quite heavily on the German translation, but he found many errors in it. The Pellat translation is quite difficult to use – I’ve tried to find things in it and really one can get very lost. It is very poorly sign posted and organised.

What kind of figure was Pellat? What was he praised for, and what was he criticised for?

It was his focus on the literature rather than the history, say, that set him apart, really.

He had the pick of the crop then?

Yes. After him, André Miquel worked in a similar vein. The English – figures like Arberry and Nicholson – tended to be a bit grand, looking for difficult texts that would make one’s reputation. Whereas Pellat and Miquel were simply more interested in finding something that might be readable.

And they succeeded. Tell us about your next book, the Arabian Nights – a favourite on Five Books. It’s no surprise that it’s on your list – it’s a work you’ve been very involved with yourself. What drew you to it in the first place?

I’d like to say I read it as a child but it’s not true, I didn’t. It wasn’t until a student in my history department was doing a final year paper on the Arabian Nights that I was alerted to the existence of a rather good book on the Arabian Nights by a woman called Mia Gerhardt called The Art of Storytelling. Gerhardt was a Dutch woman and she relied on Enno Littman’s very accurate, very scholarly German translation of the Arabian Nights. She chose to write in English, a guide to the Arabian Nights, without knowing any Arabic. She did a remarkably good job of it actually. So I read that and it was really rather inspiring, and it led me on to write a novel called The Arabian Nightmare (1987). And I offered to write a guide to the Arabian Nights for Penguin to sort of complement the novel, in a way.

So that’s how I first became involved with the Nights, but it has continued to feed into my fiction. While I was working on the guide I had to think a lot about fate and destiny, and that fed into another of my novels, which was set in Britain in 1930s. There’s a constant crossing of currents in my work – even my latest novel, Wonders Will Never Cease (2017), has concealed bits of the Arabian Nights in it, even though it is set in 15th-century England.

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What’s wonderful about the Arabian Nights is that the tales are really rather stripped down and there’s not a lot of deep psychology. You’re not reading Middlemarch. There’s not all that much in the way of description. The palaces would be conventionally described, the beautiful woman would have eyebrows like this and lips like that, all conventional similes – they rush through it. What you’re getting is a pure story; the Nights is kind of like an engine of stories. It’s wonderful to see how stories work in a very nuts-and-bolts way as you work through them: how tension is managed and how characters are introduced and so on.

And yet the stories in the Arabian Nights weren’t really considered literature, were they? They’re street stories.

It’s somewhere between street literature and high literature. It was generally disparaged until Antoine Galland translates it in the early 1700s, and then it becomes a massive success among the smart and the fashionable in France.

And in Britain.

Yes indeed, they instantly started translating it – before Galland had even finished his translation it was being plagiarised, and printed without permission all over the place. And then it gets translated into Persian and Hebrew and on and on. Inspired by that, people started going out to the Middle East asking for copies of the Arabian Nights, and in fact there were very few because it was not even highly regarded by professional storytellers, who preferred to work from other texts.

Then because of all this foreign interest, the tales are eventually printed in Arabic, both in Cairo and in India. The Cairo one was because a man called Tahtawi, a great Arab-Egyptian scholar who studied in France and who saw it the Nights as one of Arabic culture’s glories. It was printed in India because – the Arabic being colloquially and quite simple – it was a good way of teaching people Arabic.

“What you’re getting is a pure story; the Nights is kind of like an engine of stories”

I should say these subsequent printed editions have far more stories in them than the Galland translation because the Galland was fairly restricted. I think Galland translated about 62 whereas there are hundreds of them in other editions.

Did Galland only use the ones that he liked?

He took all the manuscripts that he had and translated it all. Interestingly, there are what’s known as ‘orphan stories’, a band of about 10 stories of which we have Galland’s French but don’t seem to have the Arabic. This has led to speculation that Galland made these stories up. It’s an area I’ve been exploring recently and, digging around, it seems pretty clear to me that these French stories do have genuine Arabic originals. Not exact originals, but it’s clear they come from the Arabic world and that Galland did not make them up. They were indeed told to him by an Arab, a wondering Arab storyteller.

How is this work, seen by us in the west as perhaps the work of Arabic literature, seen in the east? If it was once dismissed as rough and vulgar, has it since been rehabilitated?

To a point. Whereas Egyptian creative writers and scholars of the first rank saw the importance of the Arabian Nights and its inventiveness, not many other Arabic scholars did. In general, it was novelists, playwrights and poets who championed it against the scholars and against the religious establishment. But it has established itself in the culture, cropping up in all sorts of plays and poems – actually, Mahfouz wrote, in my opinion, a very poor novel, which plays around with the characters in the Arabian Nights.

But it’s a split story in a sense, because the Arabian Nights is banned in Saudi Arabia, and there was a movement about 10 years ago to have it banned in Egypt, or at least to have the full, unexpurgated version banned. A novelist Gamal El-Ghitani who was a close friend of Mahfouz oversaw the reproduction of what’s known as the Bulaq edition of the Arabian Nights, and they were going to prosecute him and send him to prison for it. Luckily the ban never happened, and he survived and the edition came out and is on my shelf.

Let’s have your next book, Ibn Khaldun’s The Muqaddimah: A Introduction to History, translated by Franz Rosenthal. Who was Ibn Khaldun?

He was born in Tunis early in the 14th century. And from the beginning it was a catastrophe: Tunis was invaded by forces from Marrakesh; the Black Death struck, sweeping across North Africa on its way to Spain. Ibn Khaldun lost his parents and most of his teachers and a lot of his friends. So he starts out with this sort of gloomy grim perspective; as he looks around himself he sees deserted villages and ruins everywhere – some of them recent ruins, some are ruins produced by Arab invasions of the 10th and 11th century.

Surveying this devastation, he asks himself, ‘What is the meaning of all this? Given that things are so different now from how they were in, say, the time of Masudi, this calls for a new kind of history,’ he decides. But it’s a while before he gets down to it. He tries his luck as a scholar and courtier, and he occupies high offices in various North African regimes as well as in the Court of Grenada and Muslim Spain. Sometimes he does well and sometimes he doesn’t.

The problem with being this kind of scholar-administrator is that it’s not like being a civil servant in Britain, where you retire with a pension. In Ibn Khaldun’s day you were lucky to retire with your life. You made a lot of money as an administrator in 14th-century North Africa but eventually people would turn against you, and torture you to extract that money.

So he and all his contemporaries in the same line of business end up in prison at one time or another. Sometimes they are murdered – Ibn Khaldun’s brother, who himself held high office, was murdered. Several of his rivals were murdered or executed. So it’s a dodgy business and after a while he retires to a remote castle in western Algeria – a tribe lends it to him.

He spends about two and a half years writing the first draft of the Muqaddimah, which he will work on for the rest of his life. It’s one hell of a great work. It’s intended as a prolegomenon – an introduction to what he is going to write – and the complexity starts there, really, because he started out with one idea of what he was going to write about….and then he broadens and broadens. Originally he was just going to write a history of Berber dynasties in North Africa; then he decided, ‘Well, I’d better do the Arab dynasties as well. Then he broadened it to the whole Arab world and then he tried to look also at Byzantium and India and the Israelites, but then why stop at history? What about musicology and poetry and medicine and philosophy and theology and the occult and so on? So it’s kind of an encyclopaedia, but primarily and originally it’s to understand the underlying principles of history. He starts by saying what counts as good evidence and what counts as bad evidence, and he gets rid of the whole business of chains of transmission (isnads), and tries to establish logical ways of assessing the truth of things.

He was particularly interested in groups, wasn’t he? The how and why people band together?

Yes, he asks why men and women come together to form distinct groups or cultures. So he looks at the rise and fall of dynasties, and he’s particularly aware of, firstly, the rise of the caliphate, of the prophet and the first four rightful Caliphs. Then he’s aware of how the Almoravids, Almohads and the Marinids came to power in North Africa. What he fastens on, through looking at the way these things happened, is a kind of pattern: tribesmen in the hinterlands come together and they form social bonds because they’re hardened by the rigours of desert life (including the threat of camel raiding). They have to depend on one another, and they get a group feeling known as asabiyya – this propels them and gives them the strength to invade settled civilizations and occupy the towns, establishing a new dynasty. As the dynasty establishes itself it gets softer, no longer facing the desert’s challenges, and it relies on professional administrators, and it has mercenaries and uses slave troops rather than tribesmen. It needs to tax more and more. And the asabiyya declines and they’re vulnerable to the next wave of hungry tribesmen coming in from the hinterlands. And so that’s the motor of change.

I imagine it’s all this discussion of how powers rise and fall that made Ibn Khaldun so appealing to the West – didn’t Ronald Reagan reference him in a speech when he was president?

Yes, misused him actually. Reagan’s simple argument was that the more you tax, the less revenue it brings in. Ibn Khaldun does say that, but he gives other factors as causes of this effect – it isn’t just that more taxation causes a loss of revenue. It’s also that the ruler is spending more money on hiring mercenaries and trying to establish trade monopolies. It’s much more complicated than Reagan would have you understand.

Perhaps it was too complicated for Reagan to get his head around.

And mine too, again and again I find myself banging my head against him – he’s not easy. He’s a very rigorous thinker, but also sometimes strangely illogical.

He’s a perfect example of the scholar-politician, a figure in short supply these days.

He has some similarities with Machiavelli, who was also a scholar and a politician, and whose life was probably also endangered sometimes.

“It’s one hell of a great work. It’s intended as a prolegomenon and the complexity starts there, really…”

There is in fact a tiny and not very respectable school of thought that thinks that Machiavelli might have read some version of Ibn Khaldun’s work – but that’s almost certainly nonsense. When one gets to the crunch there’s not much resemblance between the two of them in terms of what they write: Machiavelli believes that sometimes the ruler must do for the good of the state all sorts of dodgy things; he values virtu (martial spirit and leadership qualities) and honour and cunning and so on. Whereas Ibn Khaldun believes in Islamic values alone, and would never transgress or do anything the Qur’an says is wrong.

Machiavelli is interested in how to get power and how to continue to hold it. Ibn Khaldun is not interested in that at all, he has no interest in advising a ruler how to do anything. Rulers are just a phenomenon, which he studies. It’s a mistake that some readers of Ibn Khaldun have made, they’ve tried to present him as kind of would-be Aristotle who would advise Alexander. He never does that in fact, and his book doesn’t offer guidance for kingship. What it’s for is a possible question, but it’s not that. It is perhaps an intent to systematise the perceived world.

Of all the people we’ve talked about so far, especially perhaps the Golden Age thinkers, does anyone come close to questioning the centrality of Islam? Masudi was, I think, very curious about other religions and he was allowed to explore and write about it freely – but was there always a Descartian inability to do away with his God?

There’s a famous book by one of the Annales historians, Lucien Febvre, about the impossibility of atheism in the age of Rabelais, and I think it’s true – it never would have occurred to Masudi to move beyond Islam.

One more thing about Masudi, actually: Masudi, like Jahiz, became rather unfashionable after his death, but his problem was, not that he was a Mu’tazilite but rather that he was a Shiite. So Sunni historians tended to say ‘Oh no, he’s not really good’, just simply because he was Shia and so he was seen as untrustworthy, and a promoter of the Alid cause.

So how was Ibn Khaldun rescued from this demotion?

Ibn Khaldun, having eventually having got a draft of the Muqaddimah out, goes to Egypt where he finds good patronage from the Sultan. He continues to work on Muqaddimah there, and he behaves with enormous arrogance. He’s made chief qadi, but he won’t wear the qadi’s robes, he’ll wears only North African clothes; he’s absolutely rigorous in his interpretation of the law and won’t take any bribes…. And so, for these and all sorts of other reasons, he’s widely detested by the intelligentsia of late-14th, early-15th-century Egypt. He has almost no disciples. He’s neglected in the Arab world.

But then his work is picked up by Ottoman intellectuals and administrators in the 17th and 18th century, who are looking at their empire and recognise that they’re beginning to lose bits of it. They get really interested in Ibn Khaldun and his presentation of the rise and fall of dynasties. Quite a few of them study him and reinterpret him – they think he’s really great.

Then I think it’s Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, an Austrian, rather crack pot, eccentric orientalist, who picks up on this, because he really does know his Ottoman sources and was producing an enormous history of the Ottoman empire. And then he passes it on to Silvestre de Sacy, the éminence grise of French orientalism in the early 19th century.

Sacy translates miscellaneous bits of the Muqaddimah, and I don’t know why he chose the bits he did, but he insists that Ibn Khaldun is a great man. Then Étienne Marc Quatremère, another scholar, chooses to translate the whole Muqaddimah, and he does it very badly because he doesn’t have very good dictionaries and also he’s a bit bonkers and ill by the time he’s doing it.

But, from then on, the French have got a substantial text, which they can work with – and indeed, that’s the text that one day Arnold Toynbee will pick up and use when he produces his A Study of History [1934 onwards], published in 12 volumes and intended to understand how civilizations rise and fall and how they inter-relate. Toynbee presents Ibn Khaldun as a kind of demigod, and thereafter he’s been picked up by one historian after another, and by sociologists and anthropologists and so on.

So, the French are really following the Ottomans but they are the pioneers of promoting it. And they have a reason for doing so, because Ibn Khaldun, apart from the Muqqadimah, did this history of the North African dynasties – of the Berbers and Arabs – and the French are busy invading that part of the world. So they think, ‘Well, we’ve just invaded Algeria, we’re probably going to do Morocco, and if we’re lucky we’ll get to Tunisia – we must study! We need a good book to show us how they think and how they lived.’ Some of what Ibn Khaldun said is misinterpreted as suggesting that there’s an eternal antagonism between Arab and Berber, and it all suits the French colonial enterprise quite nicely.

How is he seen back home in the Arab world now?

Oh, he’s a great man. He’s on stamps and bank notes and he’s the national hero of Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt. They all claim him and they have conferences devoted to him. There’s a huge literature on him – the oddity is that the best edition of the Muqaddimah is Rosenthal’s three-volume English translation. There is no full scholarly edition of Ibn Khaldun in Arabic. There was a man that was working on it, but he died and as far as I know it’s never been finished or printed. So one has to go to this English translation rather than the Arabic. Which is really quite an unusual situation.

Let’s move on to your final book: Tayeb Salih’s novel A Season of Migration to the North, written in 1966 and translated into English in 1969, by Denys Johnson-Davies. It’s now a Penguin Modern Classic. I know you feel strongly about this book because it was the first title you fired off, without missing a beat, when I asked you to do this interview. Tell us about the author first, please.

He was Sudanese, from northern Sudan, where he grew up in a remote village that you can’t find on maps or in guidebooks. He was a very bright lad and went on to be educated in Khartoum and then London. He was to spend the greater part of his life in London, working as a journalist partly, and then later he worked as UNESCO official in Paris and elsewhere. So he spent most of his life outside the Arab world, but he was often at conferences and so on. His oeuvre is not vast – four novels, plus one that’s not finished, and some short stories, some of which are very important, and they almost all of them focus on a small village in the Sudan and a small troop of figures who reappear in the novels. Most of the stories and novels deal with a self-enclosed Sudanese Islamic community and, insofar as they relate to any other works of literature, they draw on the Qur’an, sayings of the prophets, Sufi legends and folklore.

A Season of Migration to the North is different – it’s the same village, the same cast of characters, but it’s a novel about the clash of cultures, the intermixture of cultures. It’s a novel about what happens to a man, or two men, when they leave their village and go north, to England, the land where the fish die of cold, and get a western education, and some of the dangers of that. It’s a very strange and very complex novel. There’s no way of summarising its plot in an ordinary way because any summary will elide what’s actually going on.

It’s a very subtle novel. There’s an awful lot to be said about the Arabian Nights references in it – the Nights is one of the novel’s major sources – but I’d also point out echoes of The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Student of Prague, Jekyll and Hyde, fantasy literature…

Joseph Conrad is a big presence, too, I believe?

Yes, the novel is clearly playing a game with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and it’s complicated. In this case the actual heart of the darkness is not a compound with heads on stakes and a man who’s dying and whispering horrors, it’s a little bricked room in this house kept by one of two men returned from England. No one is allowed in it, it’s locked. When eventually it’s forced open after his death, it’s full of English books, just full of western culture. That’s the heart of darkness here.

The plot that leads us to that point is…slippery?

Yes, the story concerns a man who goes to England and who successfully seduces three women. Two of them commit suicide and the third dies of cancer and then there’s a fourth woman whom he can’t seduce. Eventually they are drawn, hideously, to one another and they marry and they hate each other. They fight and she lures him into killing her. He spends a surprisingly short time in prison and then returns to Sudan.

“In this case the actual heart of the darkness is not a compound with heads on stakes, it’s a little bricked room full of books”

Then there’s this other man who has a much more straightforward life.

The narrator?

Yes, the narrator – he’s a big problem in this novel. Who is he? As I read the novel, either Mustafa Sa’eed is the double of the narrator, this sort of sinister extra figure, or the narrator is the double of Mustafa Sa’eed – it plays either way. So, it’s a pretty complicated novel and the title is ambiguous, the ending is ambiguous, and who is being addressed by the narrator is ambiguous – these are wonderful problems that it throws up.

And there’s the interesting, pointed inversion in that it’s London where all of these exotic things happen…

As far as the villagers are concerned, it’s an utterly amazing land where a woman will want to have sex with you at the drop of a hat, and all that kind of thing – the novel is very frank about sex.

He goes to London – and London, of course, from the Sudanese perspective might be seen as a land of marvels – and he presents himself in a very particular way. In one case while he’s doing a seduction, he seems to be wilfully acting like Othello talking to Desdemona about the land with the men with no heads, and all the rest of it – he’s doing that kind of selling talk to seduce her. In another case, he presents himself as a kind of reincarnation of somebody who was alive in the days of Harun al-Rashid in old Baghdad. So he’s sort of pedalling a vision of the Orient or of Africa in order to have sex, and for him sex is strangely a form of vengeance against the west for their imperial invasion of Sudan and elsewhere. It’s an absurd sort of fantasy of his.

A nod to Frantz Fanon?

Probably, yes. I wondered about that myself, but wasn’t sure if Salih had read Fanon. I’ve recently been told that he had.

Presumably the sex alone accounts for its being banned on publication in Sudan?

Yes, but for a while, now I think it’s not banned. The weight of approbation has just been too much. He won all sorts of awards in his lifetime and subsequently.

The general consensus is that it’s the most important Arab novel of the 20th century.

Yes, that was voted by a whole gang of Arab intellectuals in Cairo some years back, and I’m certainly not going to challenge that verdict.

How relevant to this novel is the very specific historical moment in which it was written and published?

It was written very soon after Sudan had achieved independence, and already the glowing hopes were being disappointed. You get this sort of current of thought in the novel, that ‘oh, the imperialist are pretty bad and they built railways in order to help their troops conquer us faster, and yet…independence is not what it’s cracked up to be either.’ There is a lot of discontent in the village with the way Khartoum is a fantasyland, cut off from and not caring about what’s really happening in the villages. So we see the discontent of the agriculturalists with the bureaucrats in the centre.

You mentioned earlier that you met Salih. Can you tell us about that encounter?

In the early 90s I did a series of radio programmes on the Arabian Nights and I went to interview Salih on the Arabian Nights and what it meant to him, and what story telling was like in Sudan, and what was it like in the village he grew up in. He spoke wonderfully, in a very rich voice, and invoked the sheer boredom of nights in these villages without television or anything, just story telling.

I’m making no connection between all that and Guilford in the 1940s, where you grew up, but can you, as an aside, tell me what drew you to Arabic stories and culture? I can’t imagine it was something that many people there were doing at the time, were they?

Buddhism was a more obvious thing to get interested in, I think. But, no, from a fairly early age, around the age of 10 onwards, I got really interested in the Crusades and I read more and more… So I decided I wanted to work in Crusade history, but all the work had been done and, I thought, there’s no more to be said. All the Latin and Greek sources had been covered – but what about the Arabic?

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So that was in the back of my mind when I went to Oxford University to read history. There, I fell in with a disreputable company, but also an interesting company, and I was led through them to go and look for miracles and spiritual truth in North Africa in the Sufi monastery. It was extraordinary – apart from the sheer weirdness and the magic of it all, it is very odd for someone who is studying the Middle Ages to find oneself walking through the door into the Middle Ages, where the miraculous exists in everything.

After that, and after a not terribly brilliant history degree, I went to SOAS [School of Oriental and African Studies, London University] and signed up to do what eventually became an incomplete PhD, on the re-conquests of the crusader states by the Mamluk Sultans.

You were already an adherent by this point of Sufi Islam?


What had led you to convert?

It seemed to me to be true. Sufism isn’t something that you can practise or believe in outside Islam; Sufism is the very heart of Islam. It’s not a philosophy – philosophy is far too arid and academic – and there are many different types of Sufism and even more interpretations of what Sufism is, but at the end of it all, it’s the spiritual heart of it Islam.

Historically it begins as hardly more than asceticism and devotionalism, and as it evolves it builds up to have its own rituals and religious orders and initiations and chains of transmission. You even get, particularly in India, Sufis fighting one another in these spiritual battles in which one Sufi will force another Sufi out of the village by performing miracles better.

The order I was in relied on regular performances of prayer, all very strictly orthodox, and one got up not only for dawn prayer but an earlier one too. We lived very simply. One relied, apart from the strict performances of the rituals, on recitation of the dhikr, a formula in praise of God, often phrases from the Qur’an or elsewhere, which we would say again and again.

Were you aiming for a trance state?

Not a trance state, no, but the recitation does things to one. Then there would be, at least once a week, a dance – not the sort you see with the Mevlevis, but very beautiful, a fast-moving dance involving the voicing of the name of God and it gets faster and faster until some sort of climax has been reached. Then it recommences and everybody’s arm in arm, going up and down. It’s quite frightening; from the outside, it’s quite like a war dance. And every now and again someone will make some garbled noise and fall to the ground, with lots of screaming and tongue rolling and everything – he’s been seized, he’s in a fit. And that’s a sign that something is wrong with that person that particular week, or something’s not right.

Outsiders say it’s all to achieve ecstasy and other such garbage – that’s not the point. It does seem to have a purifying effect. It’s a great social bonding. Apart from the dhikr and the dance there’s an awful lot of teaching of parables and things like that. I sat endlessly at the feet of one particular teacher, who happened to be a holy fool, but he could still teach the parables.

Let’s end on the literature. You’ve given us five classics to be getting on with, but what are the new developments in Arabic literature? What are people writing and reading now? What is being translated from the Arabic?

I’m quite prejudiced. I went to a conference in Greece about how to get more Greek literature translated and all sorts of publishers and authors came up to me saying, ‘You must do this one. It takes the lid off what the Greek colonels were up to’, or ‘It shows what villains those communist were’ – every novel that’s proposed has some political subtext. And to a large degree that has been a big problem with modern Arab fiction. I’m not really competent to talk about the poetry, but certainly with the fiction, it’s very politicised. I’m not really a political person.

“Now and again someone will make some garbled noise and fall to the ground, with lots of screaming and tongue rolling – he’s been seized”

What is a new trend and has been happening in the last twenty years or so, is the rise of the historical novel. Several have been winners of major prizes in the Arab world and successfully translated into English, for which they’ve won further prizes. There’s one about Ibn ʿArabi, the 13th-century Sufi, and another well-known novel about Ibn Khaldun that’s been translated into English.

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These don’t seem to have a top-heavy political agenda; they do seem to be genuine historical novels, so that’s good. I still wonder, though, where is the Arabic equivalent of P G Wodehouse, or James Bond? What about science fiction? There is some but not nearly enough. And I wish Arab literature could develop more genres. To a much lesser extent, this goes for Europe as a whole – it’s very striking how Germany, for instance, still relies on Anglo-American literature for its thrillers and popular fiction.

Have you put out a call? That new genre must be there, only that subcultures are so much harder to tap into than the academic circles.

I have put out a call. I was at a conference in Morocco last summer and the end of my talk I said, ‘we really need to focus more on genres.’

But I’ve been too hard on Arab fiction. The problem is that the economics of it are terrible. Readership is small in the Arab world – there’s still a high rate of illiteracy and then even those who are literate aren’t necessarily so literate that they take great pleasure in reading novels. Publication runs are very small, copyright is poorly enforced, book production quality is very poor, too, and even someone like Naguib Mahfouz couldn’t make a living writing novels.

Most novels that get published follow a route described to me by one Beirut publisher like so: some person publishes a novel with a print run of 500, and he will sell 50 of them to his relatives, and 50 to his friends, and so on. Really, as far as a lot of Arab writers are concerned, they’re not really published until they’ve been translated into to German or French or English – that’s the target, and that has a slightly deforming effect on what’s being written. Arabic writers may be writing in Arabic, but quite often they’re targeting a western audience

Interview by Thea Lenarduzzi

February 19, 2018

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Robert Irwin

Robert Irwin

Robert Irwin was born in 1946. He read history at the University of Oxford and, while still an undergraduate, made regular trips to Sufi centres in Algeria and Paris. His novels include The Arabian Nightmare (1983), The Limits of Vision (1986), The Mysteries of Algiers (1988), Exquisite Corpse (1995) Prayer-Cushions of the Flesh (1997) and Satan Wants Me (1999). His many works of non-fiction include The Arabian Nights: A Companion (1994), For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies (2006), the editing and introducing of The New Cambridge History of Islam volume 4, Islamic Cultures and Societies to the End of the Eighteenth Century, both published in 2010, and Memoirs of a Dervish (2011). He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, of the London Institute of ’Pataphysics, of the Royal Asiatic Society and of the Society of Antiquaries, as well as a consulting editor at the Times Literary Supplement and a Senior Research Associate of the Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures Department of the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University. He received a D.Litt Honoris Causa from SOAS in 2016. A seventh novel, Wonders Will Never Cease, appeared in 2016, and Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography, in 2018.

Robert Irwin

Robert Irwin

Robert Irwin was born in 1946. He read history at the University of Oxford and, while still an undergraduate, made regular trips to Sufi centres in Algeria and Paris. His novels include The Arabian Nightmare (1983), The Limits of Vision (1986), The Mysteries of Algiers (1988), Exquisite Corpse (1995) Prayer-Cushions of the Flesh (1997) and Satan Wants Me (1999). His many works of non-fiction include The Arabian Nights: A Companion (1994), For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies (2006), the editing and introducing of The New Cambridge History of Islam volume 4, Islamic Cultures and Societies to the End of the Eighteenth Century, both published in 2010, and Memoirs of a Dervish (2011). He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, of the London Institute of ’Pataphysics, of the Royal Asiatic Society and of the Society of Antiquaries, as well as a consulting editor at the Times Literary Supplement and a Senior Research Associate of the Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures Department of the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University. He received a D.Litt Honoris Causa from SOAS in 2016. A seventh novel, Wonders Will Never Cease, appeared in 2016, and Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography, in 2018.