The Reporter’s Arab Library

Robert Worth in The New York Times:

Arab I FIRST saw the book more than two years ago while wandering down Mutanabi Street in Baghdad, where the booksellers gather on Friday mornings. It was a frayed paperback set among stacks of aging 1980’s magazines and periodicals, the refuse of Iraq’s long intellectual isolation. On the cover was a dim gold sun over sand dunes, and the title: “Arabian Sands” (1959), by Wilfred Thesiger.

“Their hands had been cut off simply because they had been circumcised in a manner which the king had forbidden. I could not forget the twitching face and pain-filled eyes of one gentle, delicate-looking youth. I had been told that when the Amir’s slave hesitated to execute this savage punishment he held out his hand, saying, ‘Cut. I am not afraid.’ “

But it was not the exoticism of Thesiger’s books that lured me. It was almost the opposite: he helped me understand the human roots of the Arab world’s political violence. He had seen that world before it was changed forever by the discovery of oil, and he conveyed the pitilessness of the Arab tribesmen he traveled with, their fierce familial pride, their wild generosity. Above all, Thesiger made me see more in Iraq than a blasted slaughterhouse. If not for him, I might never have returned.

One of the strangest and most wonderful things about Iraq, to Western eyes, is that the ancient past is so interwoven with the present. It’s not just the Babylonian ruins poking up among the housing projects. I have spoken to weeping pilgrims who seemed to make no distinction between the killing of the Shiite martyr Hussein in A.D. 680 and of friends and relatives who died last week. Politicians routinely impugn their rivals as Iranian stooges by calling them Safawees, as if the Safavid empire of Persia (1502-1736) still existed. Insurgents toting AK-47’s openly say they want to bring the country back to the early seventh century.

More here.