To Wake the People: Egypt’s Interminable Haul to Democracy

“The People are asleep my darling”
So she’d tell him;
He, too,
Was careful not to wake the People,
To endure its dreams
Like a kid’s kicks,
To ape its slack tongue like a fool,
To crawl before it on all fours
That he might tell it the story of creation…

— Mohab Nasr (translated by Robin Moger)

Two and a half years after the January 25, 2011 uprising, I’m with my friend Aboulliel in the room I still have at my parents’ house. We’re slurping Turkish coffee and dragging on Marlboros, absorbed in conversation, when suddenly it feels as if we’ve been on the same topic since we sat here for the first time in 1998 or 1999: what should Egypt’s army-dominated government do about the Islamists’ sit-ins?

There are two of them, each thousands-strong, in Rabaa Al-Adawiya Mosque and Al-Nahda squares (east and west Cairo), the latter within walking distance of Dokky, where this apartment is located. They are crippling Cairo’s hobbling traffic and, as a security hazard, blocking the inflow of much needed tourist cash. They include all kinds of adherent of political Islam: Salafist, Jihadist, Jihadist-Salafist, Muslim Brother, renegade Muslim Brother and independently operating Islamist. And they’ve been going on for nearly 40 days, immobilizing the middle-class residential community of Rabaa and taunting the Cairo University students and faculty shuffling about campus near Al-Nahda. Their “defense committees” function like checkpoints, with club-wielding men searching baggage and reviewing IDs. Amnesty International has corroborated reports by independent local news channels like OnTV and CBC that “spies” caught inside them were secretly buried after having their fingers chopped off, among other atrocities. The media claims that each garrison harbors hardcore weaponry, and machine guns have been sighted in use against pro-army citizens who picked fights with protesters marching through their neighborhoods…

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The Hayyani Epistle: What the author of Book of the Sultan’s Seal said after the events of 2011

What the author of Book of the Sultan’s Seal said about his companion, the protagonist of the novel and hero of the tale, after the events in the World’s Gate, or Downtown Cairo, from February to November 2011.


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Remembering The Travels of Ibn Rakha: November, 2008

Our intrepid explorer Youssef Rakha heads to the mall in the footsteps of ibn Battuta.


The journalist Abu Said ibn Rakha recounted as follows:

My trip from Abu Dhabi to Dubai took place at a later hour than planned on Monday, the 22nd of the month of Dhul Qi’dah, in this, the 1429th year after the blessed Hijrah. My object was to roam inside the Emirates’ newfangled monument to my venerable sheikh of Tangier – honest judge of the Maliki school of Sunni jurisprudence, associate of Temur the Tatar and Orhan the Ottoman, and divinely gifted savant of his day – Shamsuddin Abu Abdalla ibn Battuta. He is the author of the unsurpassed Rihla (you may know it as The Travels of ibn Battuta), the glorious account of his three decades’ Journey around the world, dazzling pearl on the bed of our literary sea, which he dictated before he died in 770 or 779 and whose style I now humbly emulate.

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On Fiction and the Caliphate



Map of Cairo as tugra or Ottoman sultan’s seal

Towards the end of 2009, I completed my first novel, whose theme is contemporary Muslim identity in Egypt and, by fantastical extension, the vision of a possible khilafa or caliphate. I was searching for both an alternative to nationhood and a positive perspective on religious identity as a form of civilisation compatible with the post-Enlightenment world. The closest historical equivalent I could come up with, aside from Muhammad Ali Pasha’s abortive attempt at Ottoman-style Arab empire (which never claimed to be a caliphate as such), was the original model, starting from the reign of Sultan-Caliph Mahmoud II in 1808. I was searching for Islam as a post-, not pre-nationalist political identity, and the caliphate as an alternative to the postcolonial republic, with Mahmoud and his sons’ heterodox approach to the Sublime State and their pan-Ottoman modernising efforts forming the basis of that conception. Such modernism seemed utterly unlike the racist, missionary madness of European empire. It was, alas, too little too late.

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MURAT PALTA: Ottoman Star Wars

The following illustrations form a part of a portfolio I created for my graduation thesis. It all started 2 years ago with an experiment to blend traditional ‘oriental’ (Ottoman) motifs and contemporary ‘western’ cinema. After a positive response to “Ottoman Star Wars”, I decided to take the theme further, and developed more film posters using the same technique. Combining global with local, traditional with contemporary, and adding a bit of humor made it a fun and rewarding experience for me. According to my marks that I got from the project, the teachers’ opinion were the same.

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(c) Murat Palta, 2012



Megawra talk: Cairo as a lone individual: the geography of self-exploration

Man as map

I will start by thanking those who brought me here. It was Mai Ibrashi, I believe, who first paid attention to the geographic aspect of my first novel, The Book of the Sultan’s Seal—in many ways also my first full-length book—which, though it was completed in two spurts over a three-year span, gathered together a lifetime’s efforts and experiments in writing, in playing with different registers of Arabic, and in looking at the world—or Cairo.
In it the hero, Mustafa, who will soon start having historical visitations, notably from the last Ottoman sultan, is propelled into rediscovering those parts of the city in which his life comes to have meaning, by drawing the routes he takes as he actually experiences them, with his eyes closed. The shapes that he ends up with later combine to produce a tugra or sultan’s seal—which comes to be the symbol of the city as one person’s madness, the city as Mustafa: a calligraphic emblem with many non-empirical references to reality. A sort of psychological form of map-making thus became at the centre of the creative process.



I was not as aware when I wrote the novel as I am now that what I had Mustafa do was one form of what might be termed literary cartography. That is: the appropriation of space through an internalization of its subjective and human (as opposed to objective or “scientific”) experience with the purpose of integrating the result into a print context—in this case, by turning it into calligraphy. In my new novel project, I am using the Phoenician letter Waw to a similar end—it is similar to the Latin Y but not the same—comparing it with the shape of the Nile valley in Egypt among other cartographic representations of topics being dealt with, all reached through the very personal experience of the characters.



I will not get into the details of how this works in each book. All I want to say is that literary cartography—so understood—is an interesting mode of engagement that has rarely been explored or practiced in context. Some conceptual artists have no doubt employed cartography in their work in a similar way, perhaps architects and designers and theorists too, which goes to show that maps make up an essentially multidisciplinary approach to the real. But in terms of literature, though the inclusion of cartography forges instant and fascinating connections with illuminated manuscripts and many echelons of the Arabic canon, it remains more or less unknown. So all I will do tonight is talk a little about literary cartography.
I am not much of an artist, but I’ve found photo-based representation—first through the dark room, then digitally—to be invaluable in the process of complementing print with imagery to which a relatively complex idea might be uniquely anchored: post-millennial Cairo as an Ottoman seal, for example, or the Nile valley as a sacred letter. I’ve also always been fascinated by maps as an alternative mode of recording reality in print, and writing places—of which I’ve done more than any other kind—is a less precise but more inclusive form of map-making.
Literary cartography has to do with two quite separate things, I believe: two ideas, two motives, two different activities of the novelist as witness and, principally, as a writer of extended letters to unknown recipients but also as someone who crystallizes human experience into signs (whether letters or drawings) laid out on paper.


First, there is the fact that, for reasons of temperament and drive, writers tend to be self-obsessed no matter how much they endeavor to prove the opposite. This is aesthetically perhaps as it should be, in the sense that it is within a given creative intellect that this intellect is likely to find literary meaning or beauty. The beauty in literature seems to come less from the object being written about—confusingly, this is often referred to as the subject—than from the manner of its transformation into language: how a city like Cairo becomes a calligraphic symbol, to follow through the example. This process belongs with the writer, not the world. Reality is subordinated to a subjective standpoint that makes no attempt at eliminating bias.
I don’t actually necessarily believe that this all that happens, since the subject too—the writer—is part of a greater reality and presumably open to all sorts of currents: I could go on about the writer as convoy or medium, about things like objective coincidence and automatic writing. But still, subjectivity in this sense, however aesthetically perfect, raises moral questions. Nor is it simply that people get upset with you when you write honestly about them, for example. Unlike that of a map drawn to scale, your image of reality is going to be all but private, solipsistic even, the meaningless sounds made by a social outcast humming to himself in the dark.
When that picture is condensed into an objectively articulate image, something everyone can look at and appreciate at least as much as a map—even if it will never be nearly as useful—that sense of moral doubt is significantly reduced. It is almost as if, by constructing your statement logically and enunciating it clearly, you bring it into daylight. You do not turn the subject into an object the way empirical science does, but you produce a subjective object, an object that integrates bias as an essential part of its constitution, an object which—even though it remains an object—could never exist without the subject that brought it into reality: the signs, the letters, the language is utilized to a meaningful end.
Secondly, besides all else that he does, a writer is forced to make a choice between time and space, history and geography, narrative and description. I happen to believe that time or history is more violently peremptory and limiting. It is more prone to meaninglessness, to the exclusionary blindness and manipulative falsification of power (something that can be seen clearly in current, presidential-elections narratives of the revolution). That is partly because, compared to stories or human beings, it is much more difficult to judge places as such. Unless you include the narrative of what it depicts and how, looking at a map, it is impossible to say that its shape is immoral, for example, or that its stance is unfair.
Building on my first point—that a writer’s subject will inevitably be himself—I want to argue that conceiving of the self as inclusive, pluralistic space is far more rewarding and ultimately also more honest than presenting it as a narrative of the triumph of good over evil (or the defeat of good by evil), no matter what kind of good the subject stands for, or how complex, which is what literature is likely to reduce to once it surrenders itself wholly to the idiocies of history. The self as a geography of humanity that is trying, in a desperate but courageous bid, to transcend history: that seems far more meaningful than the self as a the convoy of an inevitably false and ultimately one-dimensional storyline.
However contrived in the context of a given novel, however subjective in fact, literary cartography, it seems to me, is the clearest embodiment of the self as space in language: the map that makes no reference to empirical reality is the salient image of literature as the epistemological exercise of making sense of the world through words or (as they are or should be) through signs inscribed on paper that, looked at, inspire faith in the meaning of life.

Talk at Megawara on Sunday, 27 May, 2012


View Malta

Knights Hospitaller, Boat People and literary translation: in a strangely Catholic stronghold of the Mediterranean, Youssef Rakha reencounters his own life and work

And then the storm comes. At first we mistake the thunder for celebratory canon fire, the lightning for pyrotechnic pomp. Together with Valetta’s church bells, both have been ongoing for as long as we can remember.


With all that poetry bubbling in my head – and in so many vernaculars of the Mare Nostrum – by then I am convinced of my metaphorical place on the island: it feels like I have been here much longer than is actually the case. The hilly pathways of this, my walled city are preternaturally familiar, the variously textured grey and sandstone surfaces all around, shimmering blue patches of sea at the foot of undulating asphalt-and-cobblestone arches that rear cobra-like off Triq ir-Repubblika (Sicilian Arabic – sorry, I mean Maltese – for Republic Street). So are my curt exchanges with the black-clad waitresses at the café trottoir by the stone gate (on the other side is the fountain encircled by Malta’s bright yellow public buses):

When I sit at my favourite table to order espresso, it is as if I have been seeking out this circle of shade my whole life.

In the day I work with the Others in an antique-filled room on the roof of the same unassuming building with distinctive bright-coloured balconies that turn out to have ancestral roots in the mashrabeyya. But naked now in the cramped hotel bedroom, cigarette case and lighter in hand, I leap from the bed to the window, as I have done so often; I lean out.

The chill night breeze is refreshing. Rain drops wet the cigarette before I can light it.


The Others are writers whose homes dot the same intimate shores and for a day or so – a sizable part of the virtual lifetime we will spend together – it is as if we are castaways stranded on unknown terra firma: in addition to the island-dwellers Pierre Mejlak and Guze Santago, the Fado-singing Valter Hugo Mãe from Porto, the staunchly Catalan-speaking Miquel Desclot from Barcelona, and the proactive and miniscule Nadja Mifsud (also a native islander) from Lyon; the modern-day Sicilian cantautor Biagio Guerrera will arrive later.

We communicate in English, which though Malta’s lingua franca is the only non-Mediterranean tongue heard here. While we go about discussing poems and places, we are vaguely aware of the two forces that conspired to bring us together among the antiques: the UK-based Literature Across Frontiers, run by Alexandra Buchler; and the Mediterranean Literature Festival, Inizjamed, organized by (among many others) Adrian Grima and Clare Azzopardi.

They want us to translate each other. Out of the English approximations of what we have written or sung, they want us to make literature in languages we know even better than English. It is risky business, twice removed from the original. But then the writers are there, you can hear the cadences in their own voices and ask them what the sentence literally meant when it first rolled off the tongue, whether the implications of the word are positive or negative, what the meaning would have been had they used a different phoneme.

It works: Valter’s poems in particular flow incredibly well in the standard Arabic for which I am responsible; he is a Nineties Generation Egyptian poet inexplicably but completely displaced. The English – “my/mother used to say, valter be careful, that’s no/way to play, you’ll break a leg,/you’ll break your head, you’ll break your heart. and/she was right, it was all true” – may well have been translated from Arabic, indeed.

They want us to translate each other and later, when we exit Valletta and walk downhill to the converted seaside cemetery managed by a non-profit organization called Din l’Art Helwa (Maltese for “This Land is Good”), they want us to hold microphones to our mouths before an audience of at least a hundred and, while the wind blows, to read.

It works so well several of us, once the poems are finished, also sing.


The storm takes place on Thursday night. Wednesday is one of five national holidays in Malta: On 8 September 1565, the Ottoman fleet that had laid siege to the island since June finally departed. In the time of Sulaiman the Magnificent, the Great Siege was a glorious moment for European Christendom, and the Maltese – devout Catholics to this day, even though the word for God in their language is Allah and the greeting, until recently, essalam alaik – celebrate it with parades and canon fire, rowboat races and fireworks.

Never mind that the Ottomans were fighting not the local population but the Crusader Order of Saint John, whom they had expelled from Rhodes in 1522: the knight in armour remains a symbol of patriotism on this tiny enclave wedged between Tunisia and Sicily; the Maltese Cross hankers back to Hospitaller iconography; and no one makes a distinction between the Knights and the locals as unlikely victors over the not so invincible Turk. Valletta itself, my fortified city, was built in response to the siege, named after the Grand Master of the Order Jean Parisot de Valette.

Now a few months before landing in Malta I finished my first novel, which evokes a formerly great civilisation and looks up to the Ottomans, the last champions of Islam as such; by the end the hero’s map of post-9/11 Cairo turns into a tugra or sultan’s seal, and the hero himself is convinced he is an agent of the late Mehmed Vahtettin, the last sultan-caliph.

It is as if the celebrations are a historical insult directed at my person; it takes self-control to abandon my plans of running around the cathedral screaming “Long live the Ottoman Empire, long live the Refuge of the World” on the day. Still, I do not feel besieged in Malta. The siege for me has more to do with EU restrictions on smoking which, though condoned by the Maltese, cannot be said to reflect their temperament in particular. It seems wrong to antagonise an entire population just because I cannot light up in bed.


There are closer kin than the sons of Osman (who have long given up their Islamic prerogative anyway). There are Africans like myself stranded on the same terra firma, although in a different and much more serious way. Often Muslim, they are black, and because they arrive on sardine can-like boats from the shores of Libya, they are known as the Boat People. It is hard to see how they represent in the minds of some Maltese the threat of a Muslim takeover of Europe, but they are illegal immigrants and the island is hard pressed to accommodate them. Only the Catholic clergy seem to care for them, ironically. In the early morning they gather outside the Detention Centre in a quarter known as Marsa (Arabic – God, sorry: Maltese) for “harbour”, offering themselves for manual labour. They will do anything rather than return home.

I do not have time for them.


A week is not enough time to explore the island and its little sibling, Gozo – let alone listen to the stories of ID-less young men from my unfortunate continent – especially not when so much of the day is taken up by literary interaction at so many different levels. It is not enough time to prod Maltese intellectuals regarding their complex sense of national identity and how comfortably their unflinching alignment with Europe as opposed to North Africa sits with the Arab (Semitic or Phoenician) side of their heritage.

It is not enough time to discover the history of this simultaneously polyglot and insular place, to engage with its politics and mores, to feel welcome or unwelcome as an English-speaking Arab-Muslim among its by and large affable people, or even to attend Sunday mass in their beautifully mongrel speech. A week is not enough time.

Yet a workshop and a festival do provide opportunities, thankfully. And besides Valter’s poems and Pierre’s warmth, to mention but two causes for gratitude, I will happily recall reading the Lebanese poetess Hyam Yared’s French work in English (my accent notwithstanding), having run into her outside the hotel and spent some time revising the translations with her.

Likewise Nial Griffiths, author of Grits and Sheepshagger: a disarmingly down-to-earth Brit from Liverpool, currently living in Wales. For his 45-minute interview with the Maltese translator Albert Gatt – a beret-wearing beau who speaks English like Prince Charles – Nial carried his wine bottle on stage. Irreverent, funny, passionate about writing and dialect – not to mention, now that I have read his work, brilliant – Nial would have made the perfect mate back in Hull, where I went to university. I would not have met him otherwise.


A week is not enough time to learn Maltese, which having encountered it I know, rightly or wrongly, that I could learn in a month. Perhaps the most remarkable encounter of all, this: theories abound as to the origins of the language, with native speakers traditionally denying any connection with Arabic. Yet aside from philology, as an avid explorer of Arabic dialects, I will readily attest to this being one of them (Italianate though it can sound to Arab ears).

True, a good half of the diction is Latin – no abstract concept seems to occur in Arabic at all, giving rise to astounding phrases like responsibilte kbira (big responsibility) – but the phonetics, the grammar, the rhythms are all Arabic. Elements of Middle Eastern and North African vernaculars are mixed in such a way as to suggest this really does have origins in the Arabic once spoken throughout Sicily. One theory holds that, when the Arabs arrived from Tunisia, they forcefully evacuated the people and relocated them in Sicily. Malta remained uninhabited for at least a century, and when it was repopulated the language of the Sicilian newcomers, ethnically Latin though they may have been, was Sicilian Arabic. This would explain why, while it died out completely where it originated, that once very current dialect lives on in some form in Malta.

The Maltese do not often accept this theory because it seems to break a line of continuity dating back to the time of Saint Paul – the Saint Paul, who wrote the Gospel? But of course! – who is said to have conversed with the people in their own language – presumably some variety of Phoenician – when he arrived on the island during his travels.

Identities are constructed anyway, but perhaps the Maltese are not aware of the extent of variety within spoken  Arabic irrespective of what you call or how you choose to transcribe any one variety of it. Suffice to say it is easier for me to understand Maltese than Moroccan Arabic.


Which is why as I lean out of my hotel room window holding the by now soaking cigarette and looking out over the dome of the cathedral where lightning will strike again, I continue to marvel at one expression for “I thank you” that I heard on first arriving: irringrazzjekom. Irrin is a corruption of or a variation on urid (standard Arabic for “I want”, which in the vernacular becomes arid, nrid and many others), grazzie is the Italian word for thanks, and kom is the objective second-person plural suffix normally attached to the end of a verb in Arabic. Out of these three elements, the Maltese have forged a single, beautifully expressive word.

While I try to light another cigarette, I feel no word in any language can express me better.

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The National: A civilisation under glass

At Doha’s new Museum of Islamic Art, Youssef Rakha wonders when ‘Islamic’ came to mean ‘antique’.


Last week when I went to preview the new Doha Museum of Islamic Art, it did not occur to me to ask why objects and buildings from different cultures, both secular and religious, are referred to collectively as Islamic (this is true even in Muslim countries). Since the galleries were not yet open even to journalists, I took in what I could of the magnificent exhibits from behind glass doors, took pride in the range and the power of my heritage, and eventually took the plane home.

When I returned, a Western colleague asked me: What is it that makes an art object Islamic – even when it is secular? Works of art and architecture in the West are rarely exhibited as “Christian” – even when they are overtly religious. “It’s generic,” I responded, reflexively: a thing is called Islamic to indicate that it was produced under the rubric of a civilisation, a culture, other than the one predominant today – in many ways the only civilisation now, one that happens to be Christian in origin. Modern and contemporary works by Muslim artists are not usually referred to as “Islamic”, even when they have religious connotations, so the use of the term “Islamic” to refer to objects like chandeliers, statuettes, scientific manuscripts, carpets and other artefacts that have no religious content would suggest that the word, in this context, indicates that these are relics of the past.

That night I recalled the chapter of Istanbul: Memories of the City in which Orhan Pamuk remarks that, while growing up in the republican (hence vehemently secular) upper class of 1950s Turkey, it was unclear to him why he was supposed to reject anything Islamic. The only justification he was offered was that religion, and the religion of the Ottomans specifically, impeded progress. As per the essentially authoritarian dictates of the Father of the Turk, Mustafa Kemal – himself, ironically, a native of Salonika in present-day Greece, with no more claim to Turkic ancestry than any Muslim anywhere in the myriad lands formerly comprising the Ottoman Empire – to be modern, intelligent, educated, evolved, even to be benevolent or respectable, you had to be of the West.

Pamuk never poses the question, but I wonder whether, had the European powers defined themselves explicitly as Christian, Ataturk would have ordered a mass conversion to Protestantism.

As it was, he prohibited the broadcast of Eastern music or Quranic recitation on the radio, closed down the dervish lodges, silenced the azan, disinherited men of religion, and effected the irrevocable divorce of the Ottomans’ direct heirs from the great literary traditions of Farsi and Arabic by switching to the Latin alphabet. He abolished all those incredibly sophisticated turbans, and forcibly replaced the fez, that unique trope of Muslim modernity, with the hat of the common white man.

It was all in the name of progress – and nationalism, another European import, perhaps the most destructive of all. But nationalism (irony of ironies) was not a theory anyone could apply without recourse to religious affiliation. When all was said and done, in the Ottoman scheme of things, nothing unified the Sultan’s Muslim subjects apart from the faith. There were those with their own languages, nationalisms and territories newly granted by the British and the French. But the subjects who remained in Constantinople and Anatolia, those who spoke Arabised and Persianised varieties of the ancient Turkic tongues, had no sense of collective identity or a common ethnic root. The only thing that could qualify them to be citizens of that modern republic to which the First World War reduced the devleti aliya, or the Sublime State, was the religion that they were urged not to practice. To be a good (that is, non-Muslim) Turk, by the logic of the Ata, you must first be a real (that is, Muslim) Turk.

So much for nationalism. Turkey had been on my mind in Qatar because the highlight of the museum, for me, was a firman, or royal decree, of Sulaiman the Magnificent, heir to the combined glories of his father Selim the Grim (who took Egypt) and his great grandfather Mehmed the Conqueror (who took Istanbul). As Caliph, Sulaiman was the closest thing to a worldly embodiment of the deeply moving Quranic verse with which Pamuk prefaced My Name is Red: “To God belongs the East and the West”.

That verse becomes doubly moving once you realise, as a Muslim living in the shadow of post-Christian civilisation, that there was once a time when the predominant culture was that of the faith into which you were born. Under Sulaiman, the word “Islamic” could viably lay claim to the world in the way “Western” does today, normatively categorise it, and in so doing produce such jaw-dropping objects as the scroll of that firman, its bottom quarter sealed with one of the most beautiful images I have seen in my life: the tughra, or abstracted calligraphic monogram, of the Sultan, which manages to compress the words “Sulaiman the son of Selim Shah Khan, victorious forever” into a single sign.

The real question raised by the term “Islamic art” is how Muslims in the contemporary world might strive to be part of the predominant, post-Christian civilisation without losing, à la Ataturk, all that is meaningful to them. Islamic is a difficult framework in which to define your make-up precisely because it is so hard to say how, in an increasingly uniform, identically global world, Muslims might nonetheless positively affirm their identity.

It would have to be in a very subtle way, perhaps through a shift in world view, maybe a willingness to be more catholic at a time when the contemporary world is so mechanically narrow, to make room for contradictions, to understand and accommodate the impulses to violence that have more recently stunted Muslim progress, rather than attempting to exterminate them. Islam, and especially its Ottoman incarnation, demonstrated remarkable scope for tolerance, realism and exchange. How might this repository of constructive memory enrich humanity today?

There are as many responses to this question as there are Muslims, from the most secular to the most devout; and the Doha museum, an initiative to preserve heritage and make it globally accessible in the framework of a Western-style institution, is certainly one of them. But the response this Muslim wants to suggest, in the Sufi tradition of speaking through a veil, is a riddle:

Between the East and the West there is an object in common. It exists in both but can be found whole in neither. It is something that people seek. Once you have it, you will have the power to see human beings, lucidly and insightfully, as human beings, to interact with them in a way that is beneficial to all, and to realise that the rifts between them are mere shadows. Once you have the object, you will find a way to transcend without looking down on the day job, the chores of house, finance and family. The pursuit of fun becomes not an escape from reality but a way of engaging with it. But those who are aware of only the East – or only the West – have no chance of finding the object.

A hint: the answer to the riddle is Islamic.

See also:

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Strangers in the House

A growing body of literature attempts to transcend the antagonistic narrative of Muslim encounters with the West. But these revisionist histories, Youssef Rakha writes, still pit ’us’ against ’them’.

The Enemy at the Gate: Habsburgs, Ottomans and the Battle for Europe
Andrew Wheatcroft
The Bodley Head

When Philip Mansel’s delightful portrait of Ottoman Istanbul, Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire, 1453-1924, was published in 1995, the Serbian genocide of Muslim Bosnians had reached a new pinnacle in Srebrenica, the Iraq disarmament crisis was escalating after Saddam’s son-in-law, who ran the country’s weapons development programme, defected to Jordan, and the EU signed a Customs Union with Turkey, which was already a candidate for membership.

Here were three apparently unrelated examples of the interface between East and West, each saying something different about the possibility of a clash or a dialogue or a marriage of civilisations: they were like grandiose Muslim rumblings in the stomach of the post-Christian order.

Mansel’s anecdotal narrative of the rise and fall of the House of Osman in Europe touches on the Balkans, the Arab world and European colonialism, but it does not concern itself with Muslim-western relations in the present day. Mansel is impressed with the cosmopolitanism and the multicultural norms of the Ottoman polity, but he does not seem to register the connection between the end of Ottoman rule on the one hand and the decline in the unity and authority of Muslims on the other.

Amazingly, it took 10 more years – spanning September 11 and its ongoing, bloody aftermath – for a Turkish-speaking westerner, Caroline Finkel, to produce the first authoritative contemporary history of the Ottoman Empire in English, Osman’s Dream: The Story of the Ottoman Empire, 1300-1923. By dispelling misconceptions about the savagery and lethargy of the Turk, by stressing the role of tolerance and pluralism, this long overdue annal of Ottomania made a critical contribution to the popular but ineffectual Arab attempt to “wipe the filth off the face of Islam” after September 11.

Yet for Arabs – at least until the 1990s – the thesis that the Ottomans were abusive colonisers was taken more or less for granted: Ottoman injustice has been a basic tenet of Arab nationalism since the First World War. In the popular Arab imagination, the Ottomans were vain and ruthless autocrats who plundered, tortured and suppressed Arab national aspirations. The post-2001 idea of a Muslim insurgency threatening the supposedly liberal western status quo was enough to invite a revision of the Ottoman era among Arabs – if not westerners. But lately western historians have turned their attention to the Ottomans to make sense of Islam’s encounter with Europe, a dangerous rite practised in a startling range of historical loci from Al Andalus to Israel.

Andrew Wheatcroft’s recently published take on that rite of encounter is neither partisan nor reductive, but it falls slightly short of transcending the very them-and-us approach it sets out to debunk. The author of Infidels: A History of the Conflict Between Christendom and Islam, Wheatcroft is at the cutting edge of an essentially retroactive genre of history writing that has gained momentum since the turn of the millennium. (Not all history is retroactive: it may reinvent the past, but it need not do so directly in response to the present.)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

In The Enemy at the Gate, Wheatcroft focuses on the Ottomans’ second unsuccessful siege of Vienna in 1683 to analyse not only Europe’s fear of the Turks but also, as Wheatcroft declares, fear itself. Wheatcroft says he wanted to tell this story to show up statements like that of the former European Commissioner, the Dutch politician Frits Bolkestein, who said that if Turkey joins the EU, the liberation of Vienna will have been in vain.

Bolkestein’s statement follows in the western (and Arab nationalist) convention that saw the Ottomans as foreign invaders. The belief is that, where Ottomans existed in Europe, they did not belong there. Yet it was in present-day Greece that Ottoman power was first consolidated towards the end of the 14th century. On taking Constantinople in 1453, Mehmet II proclaimed himself sultan i rum – heir to the Byzantine emperor. His eventual successor Suleiman I had among his titles “Caesar of all the lands of Rome”.

Suleiman was universally regarded as the most pre-eminent of European monarchs, having secured his hold on Rhodes, the Balkans and, by defeating King Louis II of the Order of the Golden Fleece, much of Hungary and Bohemia. He may have been despised as a Muslim, but he was no less western for being so. Though relative upstarts in Europe, Muslims had controlled significant parts of the continent, on and off, for many centuries; the notion of western versus Muslim that we so readily embrace today was neither current nor very tenable.

The House of Hapsburg, to whom members of the Order of the Golden Fleece owed allegiance, were elected Holy Roman Emperors in 1452, less than a year before Mehmet took Constantinople. So it is hardly surprising that the Ottomans should target their capital, Vienna – not only were the Hapsburgs the rival imperial force in central Europe, they were also the 15th-century heirs to a position (instituted by Otto the great in 962) that directly challenged the Ottomans’ claim to be Rome’s successors.

The Ottomans first attacked Vienna in 1529; scholars still debate whether the failed siege was an attempt to expand the empire into Western Europe or simply a gambit to secure the Ottoman hold on Hungary. Unlike the 1683 siege, Suleiman’s failure to take the city was not entirely disastrous – it involved no definitive defeat, and some historians believe he did not seek to take the city in the first place, but simply to demonstrate his supremacy all the way up to its walls. The next few decades demonstrated that Vienna was logistically if not militarily beyond the reach of the Ottomans, and for many years campaigns never went as far.

Mehmet IV, who was crowned at the age of seven and spent most of his reign hunting, was the first Ottoman to hand over power to the Grand Vizier – giving rise to the common error of confusing the Sublime Porte, a reference to the vizierate, with the Sultan. Mehmet’s ascension, though it brought an end to a period of instability within the House of Osman, coincided with military advances among the Ottomans’ rivals; no longer was the devlat i aliye, or Sublime State, at its magnificent peak.

The first of two Viziers under Mehmet IV, Köprülü Mehmed Pasha – founder of the great ethnically Greek Köprülü dynasty of effective rulers – waged successful European campaigns against Poland, Venice and Romania. But his successor, Kara Mustafa Pasha – an adopted son of Köprülüs, to be succeeded by Fazl Mustafa Pasha, a true Köprülü – failed to carry on the good work.

Supporting Imre Thököly’s Hungarian uprising against Habsburg rule, Kara Mustafa failed to take into account the alliance between the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I and the King of Poland, John III Sobieski (who commanded the imperial forces against Kara Mustafa) and other Catholic leaders; he misjudged the Ottomans’ client states of Moldovia and Wallachia, and crossed the Crimean Khan of the Tatars, whose forces would have been instrumental to an Ottoman victory.

A two-month siege culminated in the routing of Ottoman forces and a weaker position in southern Hungary, and on December 25, 1863, Kara Mustafa was executed in Belgrade on orders from the Janissary commanders. It is said that the croissant was invented in Vienna in the wake of this battle, its distinct shape intended to celebrate the Austrians’ victory over those fearsome bearers of the crescent flag.

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Factually, Wheatcroft could have summarised these events in a single chapter which, placed panoramically at the start, would have given him the chance to justify his seemingly arbitrary choice of close-ups and show how they might fit together to support the view that, notwithstanding wars, atrocities, and exclusive claims to the divine, Muslims and Europeans (including Jewish Europeans) remain part of the same, croissant-eating humanity.

But here as in Infidels, his earlier study of Enmity, which covers broader territory, Wheatcroft fails to recognise Muslims as part of the fabric of European history, opting instead for the traditional view that they remained, within European reality, an intrusive and scary other. At the deepest intellectual level, he seems to bolster, rather than undermine, Bolkestein’s statement.

This is not Wheatcroft’s intention, but where Enemy at the Gate is concerned, his task is complicated by the difficulty Finkel so impressively managed to overcome: that the Ottomans were too multifarious, their conflicts and alliances too changeable, their organisational structures too complex, and the causal chains informing any one point in their history too many and interlocking to yield a single well-supported argument.

Unlike Finkel, who walks a consistent tightrope to maintain her grand narrative without compromising ambiguity and detail, Wheatcroft frequently and somewhat fitfully switches his wide-angle lens for a macro. He spends more time on the subsequent Habsburg conquest of Buda, for example, than he does on the glitch in Ottoman-Tatar relations which very possibly perpetuated the Ottomans’ defeat at Vienna on September 12; he gives short shrift to Sultan Mehmet IV’s reign; and fails to present Kara Mustafa’s failure in the wider context of Ottoman decline – a slow process that had only just begun.

One wonders to what extent Wheatcroft’s failure to include Muslims as native agents of the unfolding of European history is typical. In recent years a whole army of historians have applied themselves to the task of advancing western-Muslim comity by retelling episodes of conflict and exchange. Their object seems to be to make events like the Balkan conflict, Turkey’s bid to join the EU and Arab discontent with the West less potentially disturbing.

But in grounding the present in a past previously distorted and neglected, in seeing the past through the often narrow tunnels of the present, few of them have managed to shed the notion of a division essentially separating them from the Muslim world.

In God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570 to 1215 (also published in 2008), David Levering Lewis, by contrast, makes the fascinating claim that what we think of as the West would never have emerged as a whole entity had it not been for the influence of, and conflict with, the Arabs and Berbers of Muslim Iberia. This goes beyond the notion – recently reiterated in books like The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilisation by Jonathan Lyons, Aladdin’s Lamp: How Greek Science Came to Europe Through the Islamic World by John Freely, and The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In by Hugh Kennedy – that Al Andalus (or, indeed, Ottoman Constantinople) was a haven of religious tolerance, ethnic intermingling, and scientific and humanitarian advance.

Few will question the argument that, if not for the Spanish Muslims’ transmission of learning all the way from Baghdad into Europe, the Renaissance could not have happened. But few ask what – beyond questionable economic benefits – makes the Turks so eager to be Europeans today, or why it is that so many Muslims are oppressed, disinherited, even mass-murdered under the present, western order.

Lewis stands out for proposing a credible integration, as opposed to a curt acknowledgement, of the rite of encounter. Muslims are not simply, as Wheatcroft suggests, Europe’s antagonistic but morally comparable peers. Instead, having been the superior other whom we (Europe) managed in time to outdo, Muslims are us.

The latter argument makes a far more convincing case for the hypothesis of a single civilisation readjusting its constituent elements through the centuries. But since the consequent insights are reflected in neither policy nor attitude – look at the various phenomena of Muslim immigration to the West and you will see just how disparate and unequal the alleged two sides remain – perhaps all that the retroactive history is doing is dealing with Western fear of Islam, not as a contestant in the making of civilisation but as an agent of insurgency, retrogress, chaos.

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