Western views of the Arab peoples have long been rife with misconceptions. In late nineteenth-century America, the term “street Arabs” was applied to the homeless children on city streets, whose plight was captured by the photographer and social reformer Jacob Riis. Such children were often pickpockets and petty thieves, and “street Arabs” hinted at the American view of Arabs themselves. During World War I, Colonel T. E. Lawrence—with help from the writer and broadcaster Lowell Thomas—popularized the struggle of the peninsular Arabs against the Ottomans, making both himself and the Arabs seem heroic. In the 1920s, the misspelled “Sheik of Araby” conjured images of sultry-eyed Rudolph Valentino or Jazz Age tap dancers entertaining corpulent sultans downing grapes amid a harem of beauties.
Few of these popular views of the Arabs had much relationship with reality. The discovery of petroleum in the Middle East did gradually lead outsiders to distinguish some Arabs from other Arabs—especially rich Arabs from poor ones. They have also come to recognize that Iranians, Turks, Kurds, and Armenians are not Arabs, any more than Irish, Scots, Welsh, Canadians, and Americans are English. In this regard the title of Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s book holds the key to its significance. It is not only about “the Arabs,” or the rise of Islam in the seventh century among some Arabs, or the current prominence of oil-rich Arab nations. Rather, the book attempts to encapsulate significant characteristics of a wide-ranging population united by a language—one of the few Semitic languages still currently in wide use.
Not all Arabs are Muslim, and not all of them understand each other when they speak; the many regional dialects of Arabic make an illiterate Arab farmer in Egypt unable to communicate easily with one in Syria. But both probably know that there is a language that unites them—and, at the same time, divides them. No one ordinarily speaks what is called al-fuṣḥȧ, the most elegant version of the language, but all educated Arabs recognize it as the best example of Arabic eloquence. The nationhood of the Arabs precedes the era of Muhammad in the development of Arabic oral literature, especially pre-Islamic Arabic poetry. As Mackintosh-Smith aptly remarks, however, “written Arabic is no one’s mother-tongue: speakers of Arabic have to learn to read and write in a ‘foreign’ language.”
After finishing a degree in Arabic at Oxford in his early twenties, Mackintosh-Smith decided to learn to speak the language like an Arab, rather than like an Oxford don. Since then he has authored three books about Ibn Battutah, the greatest Muslim traveler of the fourteenth century. Ibn Battutah is the “Tangerine” in the title of the first of these books, Travels with a Tangerine (like the hybridized orange fruit, he took his origins from Tangiers in Morocco). Mackintosh-Smith has lived for decades in Yemen, a place known in classical Roman times as Arabia Felix (“Happy Arabia”), distinguishing it from Arabia Deserta to the north. Far from felix today, Yemen has fallen apart for internal reasons made worse by a major military assault by its wealthy northern neighbors, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Both of these oil-rich plutocracies, despite their supposed Islamic piety, are starving Yemen into submission, and doing so with the active connivance of the Trump regime, the major arms supplier in the region. Mackintosh-Smith poignantly dedicates his book to the memory both of the unified Yemen that existed for the quarter century prior to 2014, and of a Yemeni youth of eighteen who died in the effort to save it.