7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
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This is a very valuable book for those, like myself, in the position of having a lively interest in the historical Middle East while knowing neither Arabic nor Turkish (nor German, where I would expect some very good scholarship, between the Hapsburgs and the Hohenzollerns). The meat of the book is the translation of letters of travel by four Ottoman subjects (two Moroccan officials, one Morisco who slipped out of Spain, and an Iraqi Christian cleric) in Europe -- especially Spain and France -- and the New World, and this is certainly interesting reading. The relations of East and West are more equal here than in _Al-Jabarti's Chronicle of Napoleon in Egypt_; this is how Islam (or rather, two Muslims, one New Christian who wasn't, and one Eastern Christian who was) saw the West, when Islam and the West were equals.
As such, this is valuable data for anyone who is looking to improve his understanding of Early Modern culture, European or Near Eastern; one of the most interesting points is how much cultural context the two sides share. Both the Near Eastern writers and their European interlocutors know and focus on classical literature -- and on Arabic literature, as well; Galen rings a bell for both parties, but so does Avicenna. Note that the cultural crossover was even more pronounced than this scholarly commonality -- Ottoman popular culture even included St. George and Roland as spahis, as mentioned in _Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe_. Personally, I would have expected more Persian influence in the Ottoman world; apparently, just as the Pyrenees are the highest mountains in Europe, the Zagros are the highest in western Asia.
Sadly, the author's commentary is not the equal of his selections. He puts up the increasingly frayed smoke-screen of the modern Muslim writer, of which the exemplar is _Orientalism_ and the explanation is in _Culture and Conflict in the Middle East_. Briefly, Muslims (especially Arab Muslims, including Maghrebis) are triumphalist; they convince themselves that every major religious figure from Adam to Moses to Jesus was actually a Muslim, and that the world was theirs before everyone else took it away; and as such, they are unwilling to admit any fault in their home society (cf. the gulf between the Ottoman millet system and its modern apologists' claims of religious tolerance), and are especially unwilling to admit that the Muslim world was a very bad neighbor from the beginning of its history down to its forcible subdual in the 19th and 20th centuries, and again after the "withdrawal from empire" of the French and especially the English. (After all, all Muslim conquests are by definition reconquests, and when was a reconquest ever anything to complain about?)
In this book, this takes the form of carefully glossing over the Barbary corsairs while emphasizing the presence of Christian ones (which is surprising and informative -- although there's a reason the Tunisian, Algerian, and Moroccan Corsairs are better known than the Knights of Malta or the corsairs of Venice), and generally depicting Christians as the aggressors against innocent and peaceful Muslims. Not every book about Islam has to point out that the Muslims conquered Spain rather than having been born there, nor does it have to mention the two sieges of Vienna, the conquest of Byzantium, and so on, any more than every book about Russia has to talk about Lenin and Stalin; but an author writing about Russian travelogues in the 1930s really ought to point out the Stalinist purges, and likewise, an author writing about Muslim -- predominantly Moroccan -- travelogues in the 1500s should own up to the scale of Muslim privateering and slave-trading. If Muslim travelers were met with massive suspicion in the West, it wasn't purely because the Christians of this era were unreasonable bigots; it was also somewhat related to Moroccan corsairs raiding Ireland, or the depopulation of whole regions of Georgia (beautiful women, land borders with both Persia and the Ottomans, and limited military capacity are a disastrous combination), or the perfidy so common in the Ottoman elite (Selim II at Cyprus, for example) -- which lost nothing in the telling in a distinctly paranoid age.
But, I gave this book four stars, and I'd stand by it. The author's commentary would probably produce seriously mistaken beliefs in a generalist audience, but this is not written for a generalist audience. I hope. On the other hand, the author does seem to have written this as a refutation to Bernard Lewis; I don't think it's as successful as he intended it to be, but that's a subject for another time.