AUC Press is a valuable gateway through which readers can explore modern Arabic literature in high-quality translations.
This historical novel is an excellent example. It covers the last two decades of the life of Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406 C.E.), the great Tunisian-born historian and philosopher of history. He is dubbed a polymath, an expert in many disciplines. Ibn Khaldun was trained as an Islamic scholar but his lifelong fascination was with history and with the social sciences that surround it. He was a pioneer in sociology, cultural anthropology and economics.
Himmich's novel begins in Cairo, after Ibn Khaldun has written his great history, and tragically lost his wife and children when their ship went down off the coast of Alexandria. The story covers three phases that steadily build in intensity:
(1) Seven nights spent dictating to his amanuensis, recording his thoughts - and second thoughts - on tyrants, governments, "group solidarity" (one of the greatest evils, he says) and political intrigue;
(2) An unexpected second chance to build a family, when the 60-year-old falls in love, marries again and fathers a child, seeking to balance his new personal life with precarious public service as a religious judge under the dangerous Mamluk sultan Barquq; and
(3) His role with the next sultan, Barquq's 13-year-old son Faraj, in defending Damascus against the Mongol conqueror Tamerlane - and helping to negotiate that city's surrender.
Throughout the novel, we see another side of the great historian: his human frailty in a dizzying maelstrom of political duplicity and violence. Ibn Khaldun, a scholar who disdains tyranny and abuse of power, nevertheless quails before the mighty and heaps sickening flattery upon the mercurial sultans - and later upon all-powerful Tamerlane. Ibn Khaldun finds his own behavior disgusting, but he justifies it as the only way to stay alive, and thereby protect his wife and baby daughter. Sadly, even the stratagems of a polymath sometimes come to naught.