In Xanadu: A Quest, William Dalrymple’s first book, is a work that amassed critical acclaim from the likes of Sir Alex Guinness (“The delightful, and funny, surprise mystery tour of the year”), and the doyen of modern travel literature Patrick Leigh Fermor (“…a most gifted book touched by the spirits of Kinglake, Robert Byron and Evelyn Waugh”), which must have made the twenty-two-year-old author’s head spin. It is by turns a very funny book. He changed his female traveling companion halfway but still managed to produce a work loaded with history and knowledge acquired when the author set off in the footsteps of Marco Polo from Jerusalem to the fabled city court of Kubla Khan in China. But those were early days and William Dalrymple has now become the chronicler of all things pertaining to the subcontinent of India, with doorstopper books to match. His Nine Lives is a personal favorite and amounts to research beyond the call of duty in which the writer sets off in search of the sacred in modern India. Again, marvelous writing as the author attaches himself to some of the adventurers within the life of the soul who have devoted their lives to extremes.
After being made aware of World Music, we have been given a novel approach to Orientalism through what has been termed “fusion.” Jan Garbarek is a Norwegian jazz musician who has felt an attraction to the music of the Orient. He is a saxophonist of great ability, an ability that that has enabled him to transcend common musical performance for he is able to assimilate the themes and rhythms of the East without seemingly imposing the conventions of the West. Any reader wishing to experience Garbarek’s music is advised to purchase the CD Madar, which has been released on the excellent German ECM label. Given that all musical appreciation is subjective, your correspondent suggests that this is currently the most exciting music on the planet. Grabarek plays tenor- and soprano saxophones on this recording, with Anouar Brahem from Tunis on the lute-like oud, supported admirably by the scintillating tabla of Ustad Shaukat Hussein from India. It is perfectly apparent that despite pessimistic and obviously conflicting academic views, East will meet West as sure as there exists any attraction between the sexes, and above all between musicians. Which medium could bring it about better than music, for some the highest of the arts?
For the general record-purchasing public the music of Asia more or less began with George Harrison who learned to play the sitar (“I started 15 years too late,” he said), and sang My Sweet Lord, his emotionally charged yearn for transcendence, with a brief intro on the instrument that beguiled everyone. The book that documents, in a fascinating way, all of the Asian music that revolutionized and widened the West’s appreciation of it is The Dawn of Indian Music in the West by Peter Lavezzoli, with an introduction by the master, Ravi Shankar. The author, himself a musician, tells of the violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin’s impassioned support of Indian classical music as early as 1955. Lavezzoli’s relentless research is a magnificent tribute and includes some fascinating and extensive in-depth interviews with classical, jazz and rock musicians who had willingly succumbed to the art of the raga. The interviews reveal that the rock musicians of the 1950s and ’60s were endowed with sensibilities that went beyond the norm and showed that they were not always interested in musical excitement based on a series of riffs and little else. David Crosby, who went on be a part of the successful Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young band, and Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, were both intelligent men who were at home with John Coltrane’s jazz and were also intrigued with the intricacies of Indian classical music. The sarod drone, the sitar’s first notes – like tin-foil blossoms cascading down – tinkles seductively to your ears. Then comes the pervasive backwash of delicate, reverberating sound the way an artist gives the foundation to a picture, followed by the pulsating ever-present sheets of sound. John Coltrane would have felt perfectly at home. The tabla player waits, resisting any urge to intrude until, there it is, the sudden opening, the sudden right moment, and with a decisive whack he was a part of it all. His insistent accents, punctuations, and singing taps made everything perfect. The sarod, the sitar and the tabla become instrumental friends. They literally hit a groove.
Lavezzoli’s book is a kaleidoscopic, dense appraisal for anyone with any interest in music of what can only be termed spiritual inspiration. This has to be the definitive work.
Kristian Davies has produced a book of unsurpassed beauty. The Orientalists – Western Artists in Arabia, The Sahara, Persia & India is utterly irresistible. Published in 2005 and sold at an unbelievably reasonable $70, one will now need to consider spending around $200 for the cheapest on the market, then think in terms of $2,000 for a pristine copy. For anyone wishing to own great books, the outlay is worth it. There are 300 pages of text, and color plates in which to drench your eyes. We are not excused the debate around the theme that has raged for a while.
Orientalism has become the catchword for all that could be seen as negative. It is again, addressed here, that one finds the debate about blame apportioned to the West in respect of attitudes against all that is by definition “other.” On the one hand Mr. Davies rightly defends his position by presenting great works of art that are reason enough in themselves to make pointless all intellectual contention. One sides with Mr. Davies because – what the heck – who gives two figs for politics when one is confronted with such unsurpassed beauty? To be fair, however, one also reads something rather damning in The Brown Sahib (revisited) by Varindra Tarzie Vittachi in which he quotes from Lord Macaulay in 1835: “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” The West has looked down on the East, but then humans apparently need something or someone to look down on for reasons best known to their own inner worlds. The argument that an excess of Oriental color and physical voluptuousness is not without reason, however, and one can be startled by what appears to be an exaggeration of physical prowess or physical beauty. Then something otherwise commonplace is seen. The tiles portrayed, quite rightly, in many Oriental pictures are here at a level of gorgeousness beyond comparison. The carpets are sublime, and the camels magnificently haughty. Kristian Davies has given us a dream made apparent with additional essays on Arthur Rimbaud, Jean-Louis Burckhardt, Sir Richard F. Burton, Jean-Léon Gérôme, JamesTissot and Jane Digby el-Mezrab. The color plates, which dazzle and delight are by such painters as Gustav Bauernfeind, and the American James Fairman, together with the British painter David Roberts, Eugène Delacroix, and many, many more.
Tim Mackintosh-Smith gives us Travels with a Tangerine: A Journey in the Footnotes of Ibn Battutah. The title may suggest a less than adept juggler, but a Tangerine meant here is a person from Tangiers. Mr. M-S (he abbreviates his hero throughout to IB) has a way with words and once underway is hardly stoppable when his pen doth riotous flow. His knowledge of all things Oriental will astonish, he is mind-bogglingly informed about God and the world and, of course, Ibn Battuta. Book two within his IB trilogy is The Hall of a Thousand Pillars, and it is here that M-S, faithfully follows IB’s journeys in India, which started in 1332. Book three is Landfalls: On the Edge of Islam from Zanzibar to the Alhambra. There is a free-for-all exposition of IB’s Islamic acquaintances and, again, M-S shows the depth of his own reading and research on the ground (try foot-slogging around India and you will know what that means). This is premier-league travel writing, which also makes Tim Mackintosh-Smith an Orientalist of note.
There have been many books written about the city of Constantine, but probably the most famous in modern times is Strolling Through Istanbul by Hilary Sumner-Boyd and John Freely. These two American expatriate academics produced a book, first published in 1972, that the Times of London reviewed as “the best travel guide to Istanbul.” This book is exhaustive in detail and is meant for people who will be obliged to walk the walk and have little breath remaining to talk. Chapter for chapter, day by day, each city landmark is given an itinerary, with maps, that will appeal to visitors who will definitely wish to go beyond the Grand Bazaar (your correspondent remembers it before the Coca-Cola machines), although it is also described, of course. The Haghia Sophia is given elucidation, as is Topkapi, and an endless series of museums, monuments, palaces, bazaars, markets, mosques, streets and alleys, schools of religion and, quite obviously, the ubiquitous public baths. History is writ large and architecture larger still. One of the wonders is the Şehzade mosque, also known as the Prince’s Palace, which was created by Süleyman the Magnificent to commemorate his son who died at the age of only 22. Determination and well-worn-in shoes are called for because the book urges one to go forth and inspect a further Süleyman edifice, the Süleymaniye mosque complex, considered by the authors to be the most important Ottoman building in Istanbul. The book continues to be a fascinating read and there is little, if anything, of the history of the city that has been left out. This book is highly recommended as a proper guide for visitors with both physical and intellectual stamina that will probably not inform one of a good restaurant, but will get you deeply immersed in the history of one of the world’s most fascinating cities.
Published in 2016 by the American University in Cairo Press, and edited by the Turkish novelist and essayist Kaya Genç, An Istanbul Anthology – Travel Writing through the Centuries comprises a selection of vignettes by famous men and women of letters. Mark Twain remains true to character with his sardonic wit, while André Gide and Gustav Flaubert are dismissive to an extreme. Ernest Hemingway is positively lyrical (“…the Golden Horn with its minarets rising out of it slim and clean towards the sun…”), and also included are brief extracts from the writings of Hans Christian Anderson, Herman Melville, and many more. Lady Hester Stanhope tells of her experiences in the Cağaloğlu hamam, after which she awakens hungry and refreshed. Gérard de Nerval describes a Dervish lodge at Pera. Théophile Gautier offers a knowledgeable introduction to Ramadan in the city. Twenty-four writers are here, some with more than one piece included. This delightful little book contains a number of beautiful illustrations of seemingly antique vintage.
One of my favorite books is by the now demised but still celebrated author, Amos Oz. In his revealing In the Land of Israel the writer undertook a tour of the Holy Land in the 1980s to interview Jews and Arabs of all kinds. This amounts to worldly wisdom strictly according to the status quo. Amos Oz, however, was a peacenik and he included an interview with an elderly person who was quoted as saying, “This land belongs to nobody but God, when both the Arabs and the Israelis realize that there will be peace.” What is most evident is the view from the ground, of the ordinary people of all political or religious persuasions. We read of the internal worlds of those inhabiting a land in conflict. Israel exists in a state of cause and effect. In an interview that your correspondent had with the now demised Teddy Kollek, the mayor of Jerusalem for 28 years, he said, “I don’t think Jerusalem is worth the loss of a single life.” Amos Oz’s interviews end for the most part in expressions of bitter resolve or a sheer sense of helplessness. Above all else this book is as good as it gets when one wishes to become acquainted with the turmoil that is prevalent in the land of Israel. The writing is superb, pithy, factual, and embarrassingly honest.
And so to bed, and what better read than The Middle East Bedside Book to help one end the day with a contented smile or two. Edited by Tahir Shah, we find a selection of proverbs by Abdesalam Tunisi, who suggests that “too many captains sink the ship,” which obviously rings a culinary bell. There are extracts from The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan (sic) as well as A Thousand and One Nights. Among The Saying from the Prophet Mohammed is one example that will give pause for thought at the end of Ramadan: “How many who fast who know nothing of fasting except its thirst, and how many pray who know nothing of prayer but its sleeplessness.” Quite understandably Tahir has included some of the writings by his famous father, Idries Shah, who contributes a bantering essay about British expats in Bahrain. The writer on all things pertaining to Sufism actually offers less spiritual wisdom but all the more of his Travel Notes, which can be fully enjoyed in his book Destination Mecca. There are stories galore, each under their own title, such as Chivalry and Teachers, Customs and Social Habits, Rituals and Human Nature, Eating Customs among the Turks and Arabs (including several recipes), Wisdom and Honor, most of which are taken from early manuscripts. Under “behavior” we read from Ibn Amru: the Prophet said “The most beloved of mine among you is whoever has the best manners.” Suffice it to say, this book is a gem.
A force to be reckoned with is Alfred Guillaume’s The Life of Muhammad – a translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah. First published in Pakistan by the Oxford University Press in 1955, and now available in an edition of 1983, Guillaume’s work amounts to more than 800 pages of small print, which covers just about every aspect of the Prophet’s life. This work amounts to detail to the ultimate degree and should be on any serious Muslim’s bookshelf.