If you spend any time studying history in a serious way--whether in school and/or as a dedicated history nerd--you end up with a list in your head of Great Historians of the Past: Herodotus*, Thucydides, Tacitus, the Venerable Bede, Gibbon, Macaulay, Prescott. Even after their historical works were revised or even rejected by later scholars**, they remain as monuments of thought, analysis, and masterful story telling.
I had finished my graduate school coursework and was well into my dissertation before I added fourteenth century Arab historian and social observer ibn Khaldun to my personal list of history all-stars.
Ibn who? I thought you'd never ask.
Ibn-Khaldun is sometimes seen as the last great scholar of the Islamic golden age, now considered by those in the know as one of the founders of modern historiography, sociology, and economics. He was born in Tunis in 1332 to an Andalusian family of scholars and officials who had fled Spain after Seville fell to Ferdinand of Castile in 1248.*** When he was seventeen, his parents and teachers died in the Black Death, as did almost half the population of Europe and Asia.
Like many others caught in the chaos that followed the Black Death, ibn Khaldun left his home in search of something: stability, a career, adventure, a life. He was very well educated and had no trouble finding work in the courts of North Africa and Islamic Spain. Although he claimed that he wanted to devote his life to scholarship, he repeatedly became entangled in court intrigues thanks to either bad luck or bad judgment.
In 1375, after he failed to save a friend who was tried and executed for heresy, ibn Khaldun withdrew to the Castle of ibn Salamah, near Oran in Algeria, to immerse himself in his books and try to make sense of his experiences. During his years of retreat, he completed what would be his best-known and most original work: the Muqaddima, or Prolegomenon.**** Intended as the first volume of history of the Arab peoples, the Muqaddima is an introduction to the writing of history and a discussion of the nature of the state and society. In it, he explores the idea that writing history an act of interpretation and suggests a rigorous process of fact checking as a necessary part of the work.
The most important part of the book is the Islamic equivalent of Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Drawing on his personal and family experience and the history of the Arab world, ibn Khaldun analyses how civilizations breed their own decline, moving from strength to luxury to moral laxity and decay. Historian Arnold Toynbee, himself the author of a twelve-volume study of the rise and fall of civilization, described the Muqaddima as "undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place…the most comprehensive and illuminating analysis of how human affairs work that has been made anywhere."
After four calm years at the Castle of ibn Salamah, ibn Khaldun needed conversation and a research library so he could work on the main body of his history. He returned to Tunis, where he was immediately sucked into the usual morass of academic, religious and political intrigues. He escaped Tunis under the pretext of going on the hajj, only to fall into similar turbulence in Cairo. Over the course of twenty-five years, the sultan appointed him as a judge and subsequently dismissed him six times.
In 1400, ibn Khaldun was given another chance to help write history, this time as a source. The sultan of Cairo insisted that he join a delegation to Damascus to negotiate with the renowned Mongol conqueror, known in the west as Tamurlane. When the delegation received word of the rebellion back in Cairo, they returned to the west, leaving ibn Khaldun behind in the besieged city of Damascus. The historian was determined to meet with the renowned conqueror. Since the gates of the city were locked, he had himself lowered over the walls in a basket. Ibn Khaldun met with Timur several times over the course of the month, enjoying wide-ranging conversations about history*****, North African culture and Timur's conquests. Ibn Khaldun recorded those conversations, as well as a first hand account of the siege of Damascus in his autobiography, now a major resource for anyone writing about Timur.
Ibn Khaldun returned in Cairo in 1401 and resumed the cycle of appointment and dismissal. He died there five years late.
* AKA the "father of history" and a man who never met an unconfirmed story he didn't like
** If you're lucky, what you write is important enough for someone to argue with you after you're dead.
***NOT the Ferdinand of Ferdinand of Isabella. The Christian reconquest of Spain took several centuries.
**** I'll save you the trouble of looking it up. A prolegomenon is a critical introduction to a book, as opposed to just a regular introduction.
***** When he wasn't too busy conquering someplace, Timur was a history buff.
Yesterday I decided not to finish a novel by one of my all time favorite authors, John Buchan. It was a hard choice to make.
Most of you have probably never heard of Buchan, unless you're given to reading popular fiction from the first half of the twentieth century. He wrote biographies, adventure novels, historical novels, and historical adventure novels.* His most famous work, The Thirty-Nine Steps, was named one of the top hundred mystery novels of all time by the Mystery Novels of America in 1995. In 1935, Alfred Hitchcock made a movie of it that was so far removed from the book and so awful without reference to the book that I urge you not to watch it. Or at least don't blame it on Buchan.
I stumbled across Buchan's Prester John my freshman year in college, as part of a term paper on images of imperialism in British novels.** I was hooked.
Midwinter is not one of Buchan's best-known novels. It's not even one of his best novels. It includes the elements of his most popular novels: a elaborate puzzle, a cross-country chase, a boyish heroine, heroes who are confused by their reaction to said heroine, and multiple last minute saves. But as far as I'm concerned they just don't gel. Set during Bonnie Prince Charlie's invasion of England, Midwinter is an adventure novel without tension. We know that even if the hero escapes yet another trap set by his enemies, even if he uncovers the traitor in the Jacobite forces, even if he gets the critical information to his prince in time--it's not going to make any difference. The Jacobites will still be brutally defeated at Culloden. The cause will still fail. Charles Edward Stuart will still flee England and become a drunken, cantankerous, maudlin nuisance to the French.
Frustrated by Midwinter, I am returning to my old favorites: The Thirty-Nine Steps, Greenmantle, Mr. Standfast, The Three Hostages, and Huntingtower. I want to cheer along as stalwart Richard Hannay, the chameleon-like Sandy Aburthnot and, most unlikely hero of all, retired Scottish grocer Dickson McCoy actually succeed in their efforts to defeat the Black Stone, German nationalists, Bolsheviks, international financial conspiracies, and other villains from the first decades of the 20th century. I want my heroes to have a fighting chance.***
* He also was an attorney and political hack who spent the last five years of his life as the Governor General of Canada.
** Not a topic reasonably covered in a 30-page term paper and one that I've returned to in various forms over the years.
*** A word of warning if I've inspired you to try Buchan: he shares some of the most unattractive prejudices of his period. His characters are free with racist comments against both Africans and Jews. They're also pretty snotty about Germans and the Irish.
The Ramayana is one of the classic Indian epics. Ascribed to the great Sanskrit poet-sage, Valmiki, it's a love story, a moral lesson, and/or a foundation myth, depending on what kind of reader you are. Boy gets girl. Boy loses girl to demon king. Boy rescues girl with the help of monkey-god. Boy worries that girl's virtue has been smirched and puts her to ordeal by fire. Girl comes through ordeal triumphantly. Boy bows to public pressure and banishes girl to the forest, where she gives birth to twin sons. Boy finds girl again and they live happily ever after.
The story has had an enormous impact on art and culture in India. It has inspired poets in almost every Indic language, most notably the version by 16th century poet Tulsidas. The folk play Ramlilla is performed all over India and the Hindu diaspora as part of the Dusshera festival. Rama and Sita are the romantic leads in countless Hindi movies. And in almost every case, the story focuses on Prince Rama--it is after all the Rama-yana.
In Sita Sings the Blues, American cartoonist and animator Nina Paley turns the spotlight on Sita. Her animated version of the story is colorful, complex and edgy. Using multiple animation styles, Paley interweaves a straightforward, if Sita-centric, version of the Ramayana with commentary on the story by a trio of modern Indians (represented by Indonesian shadow puppets), a modern-day story of a relationship gone wrong, and musical numbers that are part Bollywood and part 1920s jazz singer. The result is an engaging, often hysterical, feast for eyes, ears, and mind. *
Sita Sings the Blues is available on Netflix and Amazon and at Sitasingstheblues.com. **
*A word of warning: My Own True Love was not familiar with the story of the Ramayana and found the action a little hard to follow. If you're in his shoes, you might want to read this quick plot summary before you view.
** This review is entirely unsolicited. Ms. Paley doesn't know me from a water bug.
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