A book, acquired only a few months ago by the Gladstone’s Library, recently attracted my attention. Though originally published in French in 1983 The Crusades through Arab Eyes could not be more relevant at this very moment when the conflicts in the Middle East threaten to engulf us all. The book looks at the historical roots of the relationship between the Arab world and the West from the perspective of the Arabs. The author, French writer Amin Maalouf, is well known for his novels, many of which (with the examples of Samarkand, Leo the African, Balthasar’s Oddysey) have been translated into English.
But Maalouf is not only a novelist. In one of his essays, The Murderous Identities, he explores what it means to belong to several cultures at the same time. “Far from being an impediment,” he says, “it is an asset.” The Crusades through Arab Eyes proves this assertion. And he knows what he is talking about; originally from Lebanon, Maalouf, who has acquired the French nationality, lives in Paris and speaks both French and Arabic. Maalouf’s own unique history and access to Arabic sources combine to present us with an original and radical reading of the Crusades.
It is striking that accounts from The Crusades through Arab Eyes often mirror contemporary political events occurrent in the Middle East: for example, the internal divisions in the mid 1200’s in Egypt that end up with two successive coups d’etat and bring the army to power. Or, sadly, the numerous massacres in Syria at the hands of both the Westerners and the Arabs whose details are no less horrific as the one we witness right now on our television screens. One line continues to resonate: “The boundary between religious and national affiliation was practically inexistent.” One cannot help recognizing this is in the case of the present conflicts of the Middle East, where borders are singularly porous throughout.