Tag Archives: Bahaa Taher

The Man Who Invented History

Justin Marozzi, The Man Who Invented History: Travels with Herodotus (John Murray 2009)

In the movie The English Patient, the Kristin Scott Thomas character tells a story from Herodotus over the campfire, which apparently resulted in a spike in sales of The Persian Wars. The product-placement dimension of that moment was lost on me. I’d read some Livy at school, and quietly assumed that all ancient historians were alike, concerned with wars and not much else, and generally to be avoided. It would have taken more than an erotically charged Herodotean moment in a movie to shake that assumption. Justin Marozzi has done what Kristin Scott-Thomas failed to do. He’s an English travel writer–historian (with his own web site), at pains to make us know he’s not an academic – more like a Herodotus fanboy. His message in short is something like: Herodotus invented the West, Thucydides sux, and Plutarch double sux. (Those last two aren’t direct quotes – he’s much more grown-up than that.)

Marozzi sets out in this book to follow in Herodotus’s footsteps, visiting places he visited, or at least claimed to visit, quoting good bits from his Histories and reflecting on the enduring relevance of some of his themes. He visits Turkey (Herodotus’ birthplace Halicarnassus, now Bodrum), Iraq (where Marozzi spent a year ‘setting up a nationwide civil affairs program’, whatever that is, but manages to take us with him on a private guided visit to the mostly inaccessible museum in Babylon), Egypt and of course Greece. He finds value in Herodotus’ genial appreciation of cultural diversity and mockery of cultural arrogance (it seems that ‘Everyone thinks his own society’s customs are best’ was a refrain in Herodotus; it certainly is in Marozzi, with many confirming examples). He finds in George Bush’s Iraq and elsewhere validating echoes of Herodotus’ belief that hubris leads to nemesis and his repeated observation that those in power ignore at their peril those who counsel caution. He enjoys and emulates Herodotus’ propensity for sexual titillation, though here he seems to be trying a little too hard to establish his non-academic bona fides, and comes off as a happily married man hoping to pass as a bit of a lad. Above all, he conveys a sense of Herodotus as an excellent travelling companion, a great listener, an accomplished entertainer (apparently he wrote his books to be read aloud, and Marozzi imagines a number of reading–performances for us), a tireless gatherer of information, a cheerful embellisher, and one who got it right more often than he has been given credit for. Maozzi has put Herodotus on my To Be Read list.

My timing in reading this could hardly have been better because of its resonances with other recent reading. Marozzi spends a whole chapter in Siwa, the setting of Sunset Oasis, and includes some photographs. It’s unlikely he had read the novel, but Bahaa Taher, its author, is named in his acknowledgements. He doesn’t mention the theory, a major plot point in the novel, that Alexander the Great may be buried in Siwa, but he does spend quite some time on matters mentioned by neither Herodotus nor Taher: the oasis’s tradition of homosexuality and the prevalence of magic there, in spite of the current Muslim establishment’s disapproval of both. But it’s clearly the same place, and the counterpoint of fiction and travel-writing is fun.

Though Marozzi makes no direct reference to Palestine, one chapter in particular plays well with Footnotes on Gaza. The latter is history painfully gathered from eyewitnesses and survivors of brutal events, a necessary and important counter to the bland evasions of the official story, as recorded by the powerful. But Justin Marozzi’s account of  Southeast European Joint History Project (JHP) reminds us of the dangers of history that perpetuates a people’s view of themselves as victims, a danger that Joe Sacco’s book certainly risks. In a visit to Thessaloniki, not part of Herodotus’ world, but justifying its place in this book because of the light it casts on the nature of history, Marozzi interviews Nenad Sabek, chain-smoking director of the NGO that produces the history. The state of history-teaching in the Balkans as surveyed ten years ago makes Australia’s History Wars look like a game in a kindergarten sandpit. Sebek tells Marozzi, and us, that the school history syllabus

is where you instil into the young a sense of victim mentality, a feeling that everyone around them is their adversary and that’s how it’s always been. … I believe history is one of the fields  where if you teach it badly you produce serious damage way ahead in the future. If you tell a ten-year-old his country has always been beaten up by its neighbour throughout its history, and then years later it’s war, he’s wearing uniform and he’s got a gun in his hands and his leaders are saying, ‘They’re still slaughtering us,’ this is what he believes and he goes on a rampage.

The JHP has produced a set of history textbooks that offer a multi-faceted account of the seven centuries from the emergence of the Ottoman Empire to the Second World War that aims to supplement (rather than replace, which would be politically impossible) the lethal nationalistic-victim texts currently in use. It sounds like a project that could, even should, be emulated in any number of hotspots – Tel Aviv, Ramallah, Belfast, Canberra …

Sunset Oasis

Bahaa Taher, Sunset Oasis (2007. Translation by Humphrey Davies, McClelland and Stewart  2009)

This won the inaugural International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2008. If successive winners are as good as this, then it’s a prize to watch. Set in the late nineteenth century, mostly in the Egyptian oasis of Siwa, the narrative centres on Mahmoud Abd el Zahir, who is sent to the oasis as government representative, and his Irish wife, Catherine, who accompanies him on this dangerous assignment (previous government representatives have been murdered by the oasis-dwellers) because of Siwa’s historical connection with Alexander the Great – she dreams of discovering his tomb there. There’s a vivid sense of the time and place, of the complex politics of an Egypt recently occupied by the British, now in effect passing on the mistreatment to the ethnic minority in the oasis, of the challenges of intercultural relationships, of Egypt’s multi-layered past. Catherine and others are fascinated by antiquity, Mahmoud struggles to come to terms with his own experience in recent upheavals, the people of the oasis have their own internecine history. In the oasis, Easterners and Westerners have a long history of self-perpetuating warfare, and various ones of their leaders are convinced that peace can come only when one side of the struggle or the other is completely wiped out. It’s hard not to read this as a sly reference to our current global clash between Easterners and Westerners.

The book is beautifully written, and constantly fresh and surprising. It’s narrative switches effortlessly between Mahmoud, Catherine and a number of other characters including, brilliantly, Alexander the Great. I was initially disappointed by the ending (it’s all right, no spoilers), but on reflection I realised that it opened the narrative out to great depths of meaning.

After all my recent whingeing about reading works in translation, I’m glad to report that Sunset Oasis reads beautifully in English. So much so, I needed to remind myself regularly that it was originally written in Arabic. I found a wonderful interview with Humphrey Davies, the translator, at The Quarterly Conversation, which ends:

The first draft of a book is very heavy lifting. It hurts my eyes in particular; it’s a real strain on my eyes. At the end of the day, I’m pretty gobsmacked. The most pleasurable part is when the first draft comes back from the editor with questions, and then you can see the shape of it. You can start fine tuning and tweaking and coming up with nice little things.

So there you go. This translator gets to have an editor go over his first draft in detail, and is then paid good money to refine the work. This reader considers that extra money well spent – and, take note publishers, that opinion may well translate into sales. Both Bahaa Taher and Humphrey Davies are on my list of people to trust.

I’m posting in a bit of a rush, because this book was a Book Club borrow, and the meeting where I’m to return it is due to happen in about  15 minutes. So here you are, just ahead of the deadline. [I’m returning three books. The other two I couldn’t get past 100 pages. So it’s not only a joy but a relief to have enjoyed this so much.]