Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for September 11th, 2011

Mark Allen’s Arabs

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 11th September, 2011

Mark Allen and I were contemporaries at Oxford University’s Oriental Institute, though he was studying Arabic (under the inimitable Freddie Beeston) while I was doing my first degree in Chinese and Japanese (under the aetherial David Hawkes). We were both refugees from our originally chosen subject; Classics in his case, Geography in mine. An interest in falconry and a career in the Foreign Office led Mark to spend a great deal of time in Arab lands, not least in the Arabian Peninsula (‘The Gulf’). Out of that was born his short book, Arabs (Continuum, 2006), which I suspect might be enjoying something of a comeback these days — at least from public libraries loans and sales via Amazon. In a bare 144 pages (including a useful short bibliography, though no index), he sets out various core concepts that are central to the Arab world and therefore essential for any outsider’s understanding of it: blood, religion, community, women, power, politics, modernity and language. I found the last main section particularly interesting and illuminating, as someone who gets by with Egyptian colloquial but blanches in the face of literary Arabic (especially when the soft vowels are omitted in written text). Freddie Beeston truthfully, but maybe unhelpfully, told Mark Allen that when learning Arabic, the first 25 years are the worst. Well, not many Westerners will even make the effort. But a short book like this, elegantly written, could be of use — though I suspect it will be enjoyed more by those who already have a certain degree of famliarity wih the Arab reality rather than those who are coming at it cold.


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