Books: December 25, 1996
THE COMPLEX AND DIVERSE MIDDLE EAST
Bernard Lewis charts its successive transformations, including the spread of Islam
The Middle East: A Brief History
of the Last 2,000 Years
Scribner/Simon & Schuster, $30
In this elegantly written, richly detailed, and magisterial synopsis of Middle Eastern history, Bernard Lewis, an emeritus professor of Near Eastern Studies, points out two major obstacles in the path of anyone trying to undertake his task: diversity and discontinuity. Middle Eastern civilization "began in a number of places and evolved along different lines," writes Lewis. Along the way, the various peoples who inhabited the region lost a sense of their past. "The ancient Middle East," he writes, "was lost, forgotten, and buried, its languages dead." In contrast, notes Lewis, the civilizations of China and India maintained a "continuity of self-awareness." Even its name, the Middle East, is "shapeless, formless, and colorless," he argues. And its Islamic history encompasses not one but many peoples, including Arabs, Persians, and Turks.
Despite these caveats, Lewis successfully provides readers, particularly those with little background in the history of the Middle East, with the comprehensive view promised in the title.
One of the major themes Lewis explores is the Middle East's conflict with the West, a topic he also addressed in Islam and the West (Oxford University Press, 1993). He lays the foundation for this conflict by describing the pre-Islamic era, before the seventh century, when the Byzantine Empire and Persia (Iran), under the Sasanid dynasty, were warring superstates. In the 620s, Islam's founder, Muhammad, a visionary politician in Western Arabia but unknown elsewhere, wrote to the Byzantine and Persian emperors, informing them of his apostleship and calling upon them to embrace Islam.
Not long after this first challenge by Muhammad, his successors, or caliphs, overthrew the Sasanid empire. Persia, the rich Byzantine Roman provinces of Syria and Egypt, and later the former western Roman provinces of North Africa and Spain came under Arab rule. Islam's victory marked one of history's most remarkable military achievements, and forged an Islamic empire.
Lewis illustrates this shift of power with gripping descriptions. In 694 the caliph Abd al-Malik issued gold coinage, up until then a Byzantine prerogative. The coins carried quotations from the Koran repudiating the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The Byzantine emperor waged war with the Arabs in protest. The same quotations adorned the Dome of the Rock, Abd al-Malik's major construction. Built on Jerusalem's Temple Mount (sacred to the Jews and intended to outshine the Christian Church of the Holy Sepulcher), the Dome of the Rock reminds Arabs of their time of triumph over the West.
Lewis is at his best when analyzing the Middle East's conflict with the West from the perspective of the Ottoman Empire (1290-1920). "For the first thousand years or so of the long struggle between the two world systems [Islam and Christianity]," he writes, "the Muslims on the whole had the upper hand." He places the turning point somewhere between the first (1529) and the second (1683) sieges of Vienna. "In 1529, when the armies of Suleyman the Magnificent first reached the walls of Vienna, they marked the crest of a wave of conquest which . . . had engulfed the whole of Southeast Europe and now threatened the very heart of Christendom." By the second siege, however, "the failure of the Turks was clear and unequivocal." The 16th century marked the high point of the Turkish tide, but also the beginning of its ebb, argues Lewis. He brings to life the growing despair of the Ottoman leadership as it became aware of its inability to keep up with the West.
Lewis also looks at the influence of East-West trade on the region during the first millennium, when Arab culture waxed and waned depending on whether Byzantium and Persia were at war or peace. Arab culture flourished after war forced Byzantine merchants, seeking to bypass Persia, to develop new trade routes through Arabia. It declined during a prolonged peace that began in 384, when merchants reverted to older, shorter routes through present-day Iran. But when hostilities resumed in 502, goods and ideas again flowed across Arabia, stimulating both culture and religion; the caravan trader Muhammad was strongly influenced by the Jews and Christians he met on his business journeys.
Although The Middle East skillfully covers a wide range of issues, including the successive transformations of the Middle East, the development of monotheism and the growth of Christianity, and the waves of invaders from the East, the author could have delved more deeply into Islam's intellectual underpinnings. Although he tells us much about Islam, we get little feel for its spiritual life. In addition, the text is at times repetitive. These, however, are minor misgivings about a rich and impressive work.
-Moorhead Kennedy '52
Moorhead Kennedy, a retired Foreign Service officer, is chairman of Moorhead Kennedy Group, which designs training programs to address problems in the workplace. He has published and lectured on Islamic law, the significance of the modern-day Islamic resurgence, and terrorism.
The Stevensons: A Biography of
an American Family
Jean H. Baker
W. W. Norton, $30
What Adlai Ewing Stevenson II '22 once jokingly referred to as "a bad case of hereditary politics" was, his sister Buffie Ives forever maintained, the key to any interpretation of his life in public service. "What my brother became," she insisted, "was the result of the influences in this house." Biographer Jean H. Baker puts this statement to a thorough test in her fascinating book spanning four generations of Stevensons and the lives of three prominent Adlai Ewings.
Baker characterizes Adlai II-who was governor of Illinois, a Democratic presidential candidate, and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations-as simply the "dominant representative of [the family's] collective culture," and she also argues persuasively for the need to see each Adlai's political career as illustrative of his distinct time. Indeed, considered together, they uncannily embody definitive stages in the evolution of the country's political climate, from the na´ve captivation with politics epitomized by Adlai I, who eventually rose to become Grover Cleveland's vice-president from 1893 to 1897, to the disenchantment expressed a century later by Adlai III (elected U.S. senator from Illinois in 1970). Arcing between these two public lives is a third; Baker suggests that what may have distinguished Adlai II's liberal idealism was the post-World War II era.
-K. Thomas MacFarlane '88
Thomas MacFarlane is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia.
Scared: Growing Up in America
George H. Gallup, Jr. '53
with Wendy Plump
Morehouse Publishing, $9.95 paper
Know any kids? If you do, check out Scared: Growing Up in America, by pollster George H. Gallup, Jr. '53 and Wendy Plump. A slim 81 pages, Scared is Gallup's take on three surveys of 13 to 17-year-olds. In it he looks at disturbing problems facing young people today, such as violence in schools, drug and alcohol abuse, teen suicide, and teen sex. Each chapter offers parents advice on how they can address these issues and lists useful resources, including health, education, and youth-advocacy organizations and toll-free numbers for crisis hot lines.
Gallup also provides a 20-question "parents' checklist," which is helpful to anyone involved with young people. Two samples: "Have you asked your child this week whether his or her life at school was better than okay?" and "Have you made sure your teen has access to confidential health care counseling?"
Scared focuses on the one tool teens need to combat these issues and become healthy, functioning adults: values. The book's emphasis-"Encourage your children to put God first in their lives"-however, will not resonate with everyone. The message in Scared is clear: Let young people know when their deeds are appreciated and when they're overstepping the line. Ask yourself the questions from the "parents' checklist."
-Carole Grayson '74
Carole Grayson is a freelance writer living in Seattle.
WHAT THEY'RE READING ON THE CAMPUS
1. The Odyssey, Robert Fagles (comparative literature professor), tr. Penguin, $35
2. It's a Magical World, Bill Watterson. Andrews & McMeel, $14.95 paper
3. The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje. Random House, $12 paper
4. Best American Short Stories of 1996, John Wideman, ed. Houghton Mifflin, $12.95 paper
5. Beloved, Toni Morrison (humanities professor). Penguin, $10.95 paper
6. Princeton University: The First 250 Years, Don Oberdorfer '52 and J. T. Miller '70, illustrations ed. Princeton University, $62.55
7. Quotable Einstein, Alice Calaprice. Princeton University Press, $16.95
8. A Random Walk Down Wall Street, Burton G. Malkiel *64 (economics professor). W. W. Norton, $15.95 paper
9. The Island of the Day Before, Umberto Eco. Penguin, $13.95 paper
10. Wisdom of the Word: Love: Great African-American Sermons, Rhinold Ponder and Michele Tuck-Ponder, eds. Random House, $17
SOURCE: PRINCETON UNIVERSITY STORE
Richmond's Fan District
Drew St. J. Carneal '60
Orders to Historic Richmond Foundation, 707-A East Franklin St., Richmond, VA 23219-2313. $35
Leadership for an Age of Higher Consciousness: Administration From a Metaphysical Perspective
Swami Krishnapada '72
Hari-Nama Press, P.O. Box 4133, Largo, MD 20775. $23 cloth
The Passive Man's Guide to Seduction: Discover How to Tap Into the Psyche of Today's Woman and Attract Her Without Doing a Damn Thing!
Franklin Parlamis '93
Symphony Press, P.O. Box 608, Tenafly, NJ 07670. $23.95 paper