7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
From the other side of the proverbial river...,
This review is from: The Crusades through Arab Eyes (Paperback)
...To use Blasé Pascal's phrase, a short-hand way of referring to the individuals one's leaders designate to be your enemy. In addition to the voluminous books from the American side in the Vietnam War, there are now several solid accounts from the Vietnamese side, for example: The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam and Novel Without a Name. Concerning the current so-called War on Terror, there are no real accounts from the "terrorist's side," but there are some thoughtful works that put forth a Muslim perspective, for example, Ahmed Rashid's Descent Into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia Amin Maalouf's book is all the more valuable since it was written in 1984, long before 9/11, or the "clash of civilizations" rhetoric. The premise is straightforward: let's present the viewpoint of those who experienced the invasion, which is what the Crusades actually were: A Western, mainly French invasion of the Middle East. And for many Westerners, especially those of a "certain age," what we were taught in school about the Crusades might be a bit fuzzy, but the "reality check" as to their relevance is: Isn't Osama bin Laden's favorite epithet for Westerners "the Crusaders"? It may be hazy in our own memory, but such rhetoric in the Islamic world still resonates. This book explains why.
The Crusades spanned essentially two centuries, from 1096 to 1291. Maalouf's account commences with the fall of Jerusalem to the Crusader forces in 1099. The victors killed every remaining inhabitant: men, women, and children. What man, and it is usually men, will do in the name of God! Over the next quarter century, the Crusaders consolidated their hold over the "Holy Land," as the castles and forts throughout the area fell, with similar losses in lives. The initial Muslim response was a numb fatalism to events that seems to be beyond their control. It took almost 50 years until Zengi, leading a Muslim army, was able to successfully seize Edessa, in what is now Turkey. This was the beginning of the turning of the tide, which achieved final success, from the Muslim point of view, when the last Crusader stronghold, at Acre, fell to a Muslim army in 1291.
Maalouf's account is true to the title. In general, the leadership of the Crusaders is nameless. It truly is an Arab account, and almost all the names are unfamiliar to most Western readers. The one name that most Westerners would recognize is Salah al-Din, or, as it is more commonly spelled in the West, Saladin. Turns out, he was really a Kurd, and not an Arab. Many of the other leaders who fought the Crusaders were not ethnically Arab, and these included other Kurds, Armenians, and Turks. Salah al-Din got his start due to his father, who had saved the life of the aforementioned Zengi. Al-Din was a brilliant general and leader, who routed the Crusaders in several battles. Maalouf defends his title however, since all these leaders lived in a culture that had been "Arabized."
The author conducted two years of research for this book; the Bibliography only highlights some of his key references, in English and French. His narrative is cogent, balanced, and temperate; a perspective much appreciated for such a volatile subject that reverberates today, particularly in the Muslim world. In terms of an "epilogue," within another two centuries, the Muslim armies of the Ottoman Empire would be at the gates of Vienna. Maaloof's overall assessment of the impact though seems to have favored the "losers," and not the "winners." He says: "Although the epoch of the Crusades ignited a genuine economic and cultural revolution in Western Europe, in the Orient these holy wars led to long centuries of decadence and obscurantism. Assaulted from all quarters"... (Note: Baghdad fell to the Mongols in the 1200's)... "the Muslim world turned in on itself. It became over-sensitive, defensive, intolerant, sterile..."
A quarter century after the original publication, this book is even much more important today for those seeking the perspective on the ones "living on the other side of the river." Definitely 5-stars.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on January 28, 2011)