Robert Irwin

Robert Irwin’s For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies, which appeared last year, was his sixth non-fiction book on Middle Eastern history and culture.

At a seance in Hampstead in June 1914, W.B. Yeats was contacted by a spirit guide, who announced that he was Leo Africanus and professed to be affronted that the poet hadn’t heard of him. Over the next seven years, a curious relationship developed between Yeats and the daimon, who presented himself as Yeats’s opposite. Yeats, who saw himself as cautious and sedentary, discovered...

Only the Camels: Wilfred Thesiger

Robert Irwin, 6 April 2006

Wilfred Thesiger was born in Addis Ababa in 1910 and spent the first nine years of his life in Abyssinia. Visions of Abyssinian barbarism and splendour were to stay with him for the rest of his life, in particular his presence at Ras Tafari’s victory parade in 1916 after a battle on the plain at Sagale. The defeated but proud Negus Mikael walked in chains, while victorious tribesmen...

Gamal Abdul Nasser was inspired in his youth by ‘Awdat al-ruh (literally ‘Return of the Spirit’), a novel by one of the grand figures in Egyptian literature, Tawfiq al-Hakim (1898-1987). Published in 1933, it chronicles the tribulations of the urban poor and ends on a triumphant note, with the nationalist demonstrations of 1919. In its simple way it was an inspiring document...

Some years ago I wrote an account of the sanguinary career of Tamerlane for the Time-Life History of the World. After my editor, Charles Boyle, had read the first draft, he went home and dreamed a strange dream in which ‘Old Hoppity’ turned up at Time-Life’s London offices. The dream, in time, metamorphosed into a poem, which he included in his collection The Very Man...

Ramadan Nights: How the Koran Works

Robert Irwin, 7 August 2003

Back in the 1960s, when I was studying to become a Sufi saint in North Africa, my Sheikh told me to read the Koran again and again, stopping only for prayers, meals and sleep. At that stage in my life I had only the most elementary knowledge of the background to the Koran. Equally crucially, I had no knowledge of, or access to, the vast body of exegetical literature developed over the...

At the end of the 18th century the main threat to British possession of India seemed to come from France. In Egypt in 1798, Bonaparte studied the campaigns of Alexander the Great. He had corresponded with Tippoo Sahib, the Sultan of Mysore, and talked of leading the French expeditionary force on to conquer the British possessions in India. In 1800, the Russian Empire’s frontier was...

A remarkably high proportion of those who now teach and write about the modern Middle East in this country were taught by Albert Hourani. He encouraged the historians he supervised to take an interest in developments in anthropology and sociology. More than anyone else, he was responsible for challenging the notion that the Ottoman period was a dark age of political and cultural stagnation...

Church of Garbage

Robert Irwin, 3 February 2000

In his preface to The Crusades, Yasir Suleiman, professor of Arabic at Edinburgh University, observes that ‘the author has as her primary aim the scholarly objective of balancing the skewed picture of the Crusades in Western scholarship.’ I’m not sure what he means by this. David Hume, in his History of Great Britain (1754-62), denounced the Crusades as ‘the most signal and durable monument of human folly that has yet appeared in any age or nation’. Gibbon considered them to be an expression of ‘savage fanaticism’. In a History of the Crusades (1820), one of the earliest studies devoted specifically to the topic, Charles Mills deplored the medieval fanaticism and popery. In The Mameluke or Slave Dynasty of Egypt (1896), William Muir, while suggesting that the Crusades had a positive role in rousing Europe from the slumber of the Dark Ages, went on to denounce them:‘

Boy, has Todd Porterfield got it in for the French! According to The Allure of Empire, French artists and writers in the early 19th century threw themselves eagerly into the service of imperialism. Painters worked hard to prepare the way for the conquest of Algeria (which took place from 1830 onwards) and high art glorified the exploitation of the Third World. Paintings by Gros, Delacroix and others served to teach the public about the superiority of the French over lesser breeds. Artists laboured to create a visual culture which could be made to serve imperialism, exploitation and violence. The removal of an obelisk from Luxor and its relocation in the Place de la Concorde functioned (in mixed metaphorical terms) not only as a stake driven through memories of the French Revolution, but also as a pointer towards the occupation of Algeria. Operating in mysterious ways, the obelisk transmuted revolutionary passions into colonialist ambitions.

The heroes of my schoolboy reading back in the Fifties were mostly men of action, like Tarzan, Berry and Biggles (though I did read Worrals books too). These were nonchalantly modest, clean-limbed fellows ready for a scrap, if there was a chance of delivering a knockout punch to the half-shaven chin of Evil. I was reassured to discover that such fictitious protagonists had their real-lite counterparts and to read of the true exploits of the pilot Douglas Bader, the spy-master Colonel Oreste Pinto and, of course, Lawrence of Arabia. Although I was reluctant to lose my heroes, I was not very much older before I gathered that there was something not quite right about T.E. Lawrence. Richard Aldington’s Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Enquiry, which came out in 1955, denounced its subject as a bastard (literally), a liar, a charlatan and a pervert. It also disparaged the importance and the achievements of the Arab revolt, mocked Lawrence’s literary style and queried his knowledge of medieval French poetry. Reading Aldington’s book is a bit like standing under a waterfall of venom.

I am a false alarm: Khalil Gibran

Robert Irwin, 3 September 1998

Kahlil Gibran was born in India, but grew up in Lebanon. His father was a wealthy and aristocratic Arab, and his grandfather owned a palatial mansion guarded by lions. The child rode out hunting with his attendants and met the Kaiser on the latter’s Middle Eastern tour. Only after his imperious and incorruptible father had been brought low by the intrigues of his enemies did the family emigrate to Boston. There, Gibran grew up to become a major artistic and political figure. In Paris he knew Debussy, while Rodin went so far as to acclaim him as ‘the Blake of the 20th century’. As it happened, Gibran could remember not only his previous reincarnation as William Blake, but also a subsequent incarnation as Dante Gabriel Rossetti. During the First World War he was offered a high-ranking political post and agents of the Ottoman Empire tried to assassinate him. He was impervious to pain and he communicated with a higher reality in trance states. His thought and his life were all of a piece. ‘Thousands of times I’ve been drawn up from the earth by die sun as dew, and risen into cloud, then fallen as rain, and gone down into the earth, and sought the sea.’‘


Robert Irwin, 3 July 1997

‘I’ll just explain the central situation. Six people are trapped in a lift between two floors of a skyscraper – a musician, a surgeon, a charwoman, a conjuror and his female assistant, and a hunchback carrying a small suitcase.’’

Back to the futuh

Robert Irwin, 1 August 1996

The dust-jacket of this handsome book reproduces a medieval manuscript miniature of mounted Arabs beating drums and blowing what are probably mizmars (woodwind instruments). According to the caption, this is a ‘Celebration of Ramadan, from “The Meetings” illustrated by al-Hariri, 13th century’. Oh no it isn’t. Al-Hariri, author of the Maqamat (literally ‘Standings’, but more usually translated as ‘Sessions’) died in 1122. The painting is actually by the 13th-century artist Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti. Turning to the back of the book, one finds an elegant painting of a seated Arab. According to the caption, this is a portrait of Saladin c.l180. Wrong again. There is no evidence that Saladin ever sat for his portrait. If he had done so, he would have been unique among medieval Muslim rulers. What we are actually looking at is the picture of a little mechanical man designed to sit on top of an elephant-shaped water-clock. It was copied in Egypt in 1354 from an early 13th-century treatise on automata written and illustrated in Diyarbakr, in what is today Turkey, by al-Jazari. The little mechanical man was supposed to pick up a ball every hour and drop it into a dragon’s mouth. Saladin (who died in 1193) would hardly have been the right model for this rather menial job. (Incidentally, this ‘portrait of Saladin’ has done the rounds and features in quite a number of popular illustrated books. In Anthony Bridge’s The Crusades the accompanying caption says: ‘This is thought to be a portrait of Saladin by an Egyptian artist of the Fatimid school, perhaps because the man portrayed appears to be blind in one eye, as was Saladin.’ Nice try, but there is no evidence at all that Saladin was blind in one eye.) To return to the Maqamat miniature, al-Hariri and al-Wasiti were major figures in their respective fields. If the dust-jacket of a book about Western culture featured one of Botticelli’s illustrations to the Divine Comedy, but claimed that Dante drew it, there would be an outcry. Do publishers think that dead Arab painters don’t really matter?

Ozymandias Syndrome

Robert Irwin, 24 August 1995

‘Je vous salue, ruines solitaires, tombeaux saints, murs silencieux!’ In 1782, Constantin-François Chassebeuf, alias Volney, travelled through Egypt and Syria. Everywhere he was struck by the contrast between the region’s present misery and the architectural evidence of its former wealth and grandeur. It was while meditating in the ghost city of Palmyra that he was inspired by the spirit of the place to write Les Ruines, ou Méditations sur les révolutions des empires (1791), a treatise in which reflections on the moral causes of the downfall of ancient Oriental despotisms led on to a declaration of faith in progress and the principles of the French Revolution. Eastern palaces had been transformed into graveyards and, in Volney’s little book, ruins became teaching aids in a series of lectures on the sinfulness and transience of tyranny.

Mecca Bound

Robert Irwin, 21 July 1994

In the section of The Anatomy of Melancholy devoted to the perils of religious enthusiasm, Robert Burton pauses briefly to comment on the complex and meritorious rituals of the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca:

Diary: Pinball and Despair

Robert Irwin, 7 July 1994

On my way to the British Museum to do some research for my novel, I think of pinball, and despair. Once thought of, the temptation cannot be resisted. I turn off and head for a pub a block to the south of New Oxford Street. It has a pinball machine which I have been playing a lot in the last few weeks. This particular model is called ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’. Its slogan is ‘Love never dies.’ All these machines have storylines, most often based on the imagery of science fiction or of games of chance. A pinball machine’s story is graphically spread across both the playfield and the backglass, while the game’s bumpers, rollovers, gates and so on are customised to fit in with the theme. In ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’, the silver ball hurtles along dark, stone-flagged corridors and up cobwebbed ramps, bounces off battlements and disappears from time to time into catacombs. An odd feature is an additional ball which is occasionally released, seemingly at random, and which wobbles somnambulistically across the playfield from left to right before disappearing again. The effect is eerie and puts me off my game, so that the ball I am playing with often slips away between the two lower flippers and is lost. The backglass features Transylvanian beauties. An electronic voice issues what are probably challenges laced with menace, but, being slightly deaf, I cannot hear them.

Diary: The Best Thing since Sex

Robert Irwin, 2 December 1993

I have been working on a review of a facsimile edition of Vivant Denon’s Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte (first published in 1802). After only a couple of hours of typing and revising, I am tense. I visualise the tension as a spider perched on the nape of my neck, where it inserts its poison-tipped legs into my flesh. From the neck, the tension spreads to the back and the head. The lettering on the word-processor’s screen dances before my eyes, just out of focus. It is time to skate. Freud remarks somewhere that the only true pleasure in life comes from fulfilling in adulthood the desires one wasn’t able to satisfy as a child. In Freud’s case, I vaguely recall that it was eating an ice-cream on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. In my case it is roller-skating – easily the most delightful discovery since sex. Like sex, roller-skating is an activity that seems to have an affinity with flying, and my dreams of roller-skating and flying are perfectly interchangeable.’

When​ Marie-Antoinette couldn’t sleep, she would ring for a lady-in-waiting to come and read to her; a rota of lectrices was on call at Versailles at any time of day or night; before...

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Winding south-east from Ouarzazate through the Drâa Valley in Morocco, the road peters out after Zagora. Beyond, lie the swelling dunes of the Great Eastern Erg, the Algerian frontier, open...

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Elegant Extracts: anthologies

Leah Price, 3 February 2000

Anthologies attract good haters. In the 1790s, the reformer Hannah More blamed their editors for the decay of morals: to let people assume that you had read the entire work from which an...

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A Book at Bedtime

William Gass, 10 November 1994

We all know about Aladdin, Sinbad, Ali Baba, the rook’s egg, the thieves’ cave. There’s a rule which requires us to begin our lives as children. We will have seen or heard and...

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