Thursday, December 17, 2009

Favorite book of 2009:
A glimpse into the Middle World

The enduring lesson I'll take from Afghan-San Franciscan Tamim Ansary's Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes is his geographical terminology. What should we call the region where Islam was born and still rules, the region that stretches from modern Afghanistan to the Mediterranean sea?

People of European origin usually refer vaguely to "the Middle East," a locution that assumes we are looking east from Europe -- and does not usually apply to the further eastern parts of an area that nonetheless forms a distinct historical-cultural unit. Ansary names the Euro-Asian Islamic world "the Middle World," referring to the lands located between European, Chinese, and much of Indian civilization.

From anywhere near the Mediterranean coast, it was easier to get to some other place near the Mediterranean coast than to Persepolis or the Indus River. Similarly, caravans on the overland routes crisscrossing the Middle World in ancient times could strike off in any direction at any intersection -- there were many such intersections ...Gossip, stories, jokes, rumors, historical impressions, religious mythologies, products, and other detritus of culture flow along with traders, travelers and conquerors. Trade and travel routes thus function like capillaries, carrying civilizatonal blood. Societies permeated by a network of such capillaries are apt to become characters in one another's narratives, even if they disagree about who the good guys and the bad guys are.

Thus it was that the Mediterranean and Middle worlds developed somewhat different narratives of world history. People living around the Mediterranean had good reason to think of themselves at the center of human history, but people living in the Middle World had equally good reason to think they were situated at the heart of it all.

It is the history of civilization from a Middle World stance that Ansary shares in this book.

One more passage from Ansary's account of pre-Islamic times gives you the flavor of his delicate tweaking of conventional sensibilities:

In the late days of the empire [around 490 BCE], the Persians broke into the Mediterranean world and made a brief, big splash in Western world history.

Persian emperor Darius sailed west to punish the Greeks. I say "punish," not "invade" or "conquer," because from the Persian point of view the so-called Persian Wars were not some seminal clash between two civilizations. The Persians saw the Greeks as the the primitive inhabitants of some small cities on the far western edges of the civilized world, cities that implicitly belonged to the Persians, even though they were too far away to rule directly. Emperor Darius wanted the Greeks merely to confirm that they were his subjects by sending him a jar of water and a box of soil in symbolic tribute. The Greeks refused.

Darius collected an army to go teach the Greeks a lesson they would never forget, but the very size of his army was as much a liability as an asset: How did you direct so many men at such a distance? How do you keep them supplied? Darius had ignored the first principle of military strategy: never fight a land war in Europe. ...

Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes is simply my favorite of all the books I've read this year. I'll continue discussing it in two further, consecutive, posts.

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