Book: Arabs: A 3,000-Year History of Peoples, Tribes and Empires 

Author: Tim Mackintosh-Smith 

Review by: John Mulholland, longtime manufacturing executive

John M. Mulholland

I lived over 20 years in the Arab world and have a degree in Arab history from Georgetown. I flatter myself that I know something about the people living in the region, as I’ve read much of the literature on Arab culture and have been passionate it for over half a century.  

Yet Tim Mackintosh-Smith‘s 656-page tome was something new to me. Make no mistake: This is not a revised history by such famous authors as Hitti and Hourani, but rather a radically new look at this fascinating yet sometimes problematic part of the world. 

Mr. Mackintosh-Smith is not an armchair author writing in his study in some comfortable part of the world. He lives in a rock tower house In Sana’a, Yemen, until, to the best that I can ascertain, today. He often refers, unflappably, to the bombs falling outside his home. Most writers on the Arab world are from the Levant, Europe or the U.S. Living in the famous and historic “Arabia Felix” brings a whole new slant to Arab history as I will illuminate in a moment.  

Furthermore, Mr. Mackintosh-Smith commands Arabic as do few others, Arab or non-Arab. He seemingly reads even documents written in proto-Arabic from 2000 years ago, including poetry, and can compare modern dialects from Morocco to Iraq, Syria to Yemen. These tools have accompanied him during his extensive travels throughout the region. In the end he asks, “Who are the Arabs?” Traditionally it has been “Anyone who speaks Arabic as a mother tongue.” That’s not good enough for Mr. Mackintosh-Smith as he takes us along in pursuit of a more robust answer.  

Most histories of the Arabs start with the Prophet Muhammad and the rise of Islam with little reference the preceding centuries, referred to by Arabs, rather glibly, as al-jahalia (the age of ignorance). “Arabs,” however, starts 2,000 years before the rise of Islam and paints a picture of two cultivated and settled areas in Mesopotamia and Southern Arabia and the wild raiding tribes between them.  

This dichotomy of those who bear allegiance to tribe and kin rather than a fixed government is the template Mr. Mackintosh-Smith uses to explain much about “the Arabs” that remains so inexplicable to non-Arab. In the process he takes us on a fascinating tour of South Arabia, its own rich history made famous as the source of frankincense and myrrh and the fabled kingdom of the “Queen of Sheba.”  

Lest we forget, it was the South Arabians who, through their migrations, created that great arc of Islam around the Indian Ocean from Indonesia to South Africa. More importantly, from a cultural and historical point of view, was South Arabia’s development of the Arabic language and poetry which helped create Arab identity.   

Personally, I had never reflected on what a profoundly different role Arabic plays in Arab society compared to a language in any other society. At its more refined levels the language becomes an art form in itself, more because of its dexterity and expression in contrast to its content. And, needless to say, we have all seen Arabic writing manifested as an incredibly intricate art form. Mr. Mackintosh-Smith returns often to this theme throughout to book to remind us of the language’s key role in Arab culture, history and society.   

One of the great themes throughout the book is yin and yang of badawah – hadarah, the unsettled tribesmen versus their settled brethren. The origins of this are the Bedouin (as we less refined folk refer to the badawah). Readers of works by the great western explorers of the Arabian peninsula such as Thomas, Philby and Thesiger will have earned a significant admiration for these people who know no master beyond their tribal elders, follow the occasional rains to feed camels and sheep, lives in tents and are constantly on the move, totally independent and, in their own eyes, second to no one.  

The downside of this “noble” way of living was to constantly prey on anyone within reach who was not in one’s approved social circle. The preying on Muslim pilgrims was an annual sport. It was a society that outsiders could not trust, much less build constructive institutions with. The hadarah were the opposite. They were attracted by the fertile soils of Mesopotamia and Yemen which encouraged agriculture and settled societies. Although there was certainly regular friendly contact between these two groups, the Bedouin, when given the opportunity, would not hesitate to take advantage of not only town dwellers but also to poach each other’s resources whenever possible. As mentioned, the theme of this dichotomy of societal forces in the Arab world resurges throughout the book. 

Certainly, Mr. Mackintosh-Smith recounts the histories of the Umayyad, Abbasid and other Arab empires, which are especially well known for their achievements in the sciences and the arts, but not so much for their glories. He focuses more on how these empires shattered in relatively short time a seemingly cultural aversion to stability. This approach has some drawbacks: The incredible contribution to world knowledge (admittedly built on from Greek and Indian sources) by the Abbasid empire is barely mentioned. Lest we forget, this injection of knowledge, mainly through Sicily, eventually gave rise to the Renaissance and the creation of Western Civilization as know it today. 

Mr. Mackintosh-Smith tramps through history in his own unique style, overpowering the reader with an avalanche of detail, each fascinating in its own right but, for this writer, “too much.” I felt inundated and, all too often, having to reread pages when I realized that I hadn’t been concentrating. Certainly, “Arabs” demands full concentration. 

Another disappointment was the lack of attention given to the foundation of the Ba’athist party by Michel Aflaq (a Syrian Christian) and Salah al-Din al-Bitar (a Syrian Muslim) who met in Paris while studying and returned to Syria to create a Pan-Arab party based on all the principles of western democracy and freedoms. Its charter fairly echoes the U.S. Constitution.  

Considering the last two leaders of the Ba’ath Party were Saddam Hussein and even until today, Bashar as-Assad, one can understand that the original enlightened creation has fallen on rough times. Personally, I always found the story of the Ba’ath a high-water mark in modern Arab history and was chagrined to find it short-changed here. Aflaq and Bitar did inspire a short-lived unification of Egypt and Syria (and almost Iraq, too) only to see its predictable disintegration a decade later. 

The book ends with the example of Gulf Cooperation Countries which we, in the West praise for their stability, institution building and wisdom. The recent fracturing of the GCC countries by the isolation of Qatar and the war in Yemen are Mackintosh-Smith’s final example of the Arabs seeming inability to form long-term stable societies, constantly being undone by the badawah – hadarah mentality which never allows an Arab society to prosper and succeed for too long. 

My conclusion from the book is that the Arab world will never fulfill its potential and will always find a way, sadly, to “snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.” One can certainly argue against this conclusion but, before doing so, I thoroughly recommend reading this very essential work on understanding Arab society. 

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Each year, Global Atlanta asks influential readers and community leaders to review the most impactful book they read during the course of the year. This endeavor has continued annually since 2010. 

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