As a lapsed historian, Talking Points' own reading habits tend often toward the out-of-the-way and even obscure. For the last eighteen months or so that's included a lot of reading on the history of Islam.
A solid general introduction is Bernard Lewis' The Middle East. Also interesting is Lewis' The Muslim Discovery of Europe, which examines Islamic knowledge of, and understanding of, Europe over the last thousand or so years. Lewis' thesis, briefly, is that they didn't know much. And he makes a pretty strong case. At first this was understandable and even benign, since the Islamic world was so far superior to the Christian West - technologically, civilizationally, etc. - particularly to what we now call Western Europe.
But over time this ignorance and indifference became a profound liability, leaving the heartlands of Islam woefully unprepared for West's commercial, imperial and finally cultural onslaught. It's an interesting book. And the central thesis is deeply illuminating. (In some ways more illuminating about Europe than about Islam.) But I thought it ran a bit low on steam toward the end and fell, perhaps, too much in love with its own central thesis for its own good.
This week's selection for the TPM Book List, however, is Moorish Spain by the British historian Richard Fletcher. This is a small book, both in size and ambition. But I think it's quite a good read. Books like this - histories of distant lands or periods - tend to be either overly academic, focusing on very specific times or questions or they are bland and unserious. This one is neither.
(By the way, if you're interested in a couple picks in the former category consider The Succession to Muhammad by Madelung and The End of the Jihad State by Blankenship. Each is fascinating in its own way and lush with fact -- but they're detailed and terribly specific and they can be slow-going. One other book that really manages to avoid either of these pitfalls is Norman Itzkowitz's beautiful and brief - 117 pages - thematic history of the Ottoman Empire Ottoman Empire and Islamic Tradition. This book is a masterpiece of synthesis, clarity and erudition.)
In any case, Moorish Spain provides an accessible overview of a fascinating episode in the history of Europe and Islam - when the two were united on their respective promontories for almost a thousand years.
At the high water mark of the first Muslim expansion, in the early 8th century, an army of North African Berbers under Arab generalship overran the Iberian peninsula and established a Muslim kingdom. Muslims dominated most of what's today Spain and Portugal for more than five hundred years. By the thirteenth century the Christian kingdoms of the north had won back most of the peninsula. But the last Muslim kingdom in southern Spain, Granada, was only destroyed in 1492, not coincidentally the same year Columbus sailed to America.
Fletcher covers the whole period, with a nice focus on the arts, architecture and like - not just amirs, kings and politics and such.
This isn't the sort of thought one is supposed to allow oneself in a book review - even a casual one. But what I find so captivating about this topic is how striking it is that this part of Europe - deeply Christian, speaking a Romance language, part of the western fringe of the Roman Empire - was Muslim for more than half a millenium. Mosques ruled over churches. The Christian population slowly converted to Islam. Arabic became the lingua franca - at least for the more refined and cultured portion of the population, and at least in the great cities. It's all very alien and weird - an alternative possibility for how Europe might have developed - and thus fascinating.
A few points.
Muslim Spain is often held up as an idyll of tolerance where Muslims, Christians and Jews lived peaceably and productively amongst each other. But Fletcher makes clear that these interludes were seen by many orthodox Muslims as periods of decadence and decay. And they were punctuated by periods of fundamentalist rule resembling something between that of the Saudis and the Taliban.
Given our present concern with the military dimension of the relationship between Islam and the West, what's also interesting about the book is its description of the furious punch and counter-punch of Crusade and Jihad that roiled the peninsula during the High Middle Ages. My one complaint is that the author gives us too little of a sense of the exclusivist, Crusader ideology the Spanish Christians developed in their long effort to drive Islam off the peninsula and win it back for Christ. That ideology cast a long shadow over the Spanish colonization of the Americas and over the future of Spain itself.
Again, not a smashing book. But a pleasant, engaging, edifying read about a fascinating subject. No mean feat
As noted before, it's out of print. But it turns out there are several places you can find a copy. So let me point a few out. Amazon.com has a few used copies available. You can also get used copies at alibris.com. And the book is apparently still in print in hardcover in the United Kingdom so you can grab a copy at Amazon UK. And a paperback edition is apparently coming out in the UK in a few months.
It seems there's no end of dirty laundry in the hamper of George Argyros, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to Spain and Andorra.
Right about the time President Bush was nominating him as Ambassador to Spain, the local district attorney's office was getting ready to sue him and his company Arnel Management Co. for defrauding numerous middle and low-income renters out security deposits, over-charging for repairs, and various other bad acts. Here's the original complaint.
This could have been a major obstacle in the way to getting approved as Ambassador, an appointment Argyros had earned by raising what the Orange County Register tallied up as "tens of millions for Bush's campaign and the GOP." (The LA Times said he "headed a $30-million fund-raising effort in California last year for President Bush.")
Luckily, Argyros' friend Tony Rackauckas is the District Attorney. And he helped put the kibosh on the whole unfortunate matter by getting Argyros' name pulled from the suit. Then, when he was accused of a conflict of interest because Argyros had donated money to his campaign, Rackauckas decided he was really more of a good government man after all and referred the case to the state citing his conflict. These clever shenanigans kept the whole thing on ice long enough to help GA get his ambassadorship. And eventually the state and Arnel settled.
If you're from Orange County you no doubt have heard plenty about this sorry tale. If not, you can check out this site put up by disgruntled members of the DA's Office. Or check out some of the many articles the OCWeekly has written on the subject.
Here's a complicated but interesting article in Roll Call about Enron and a group of long-time Tom DeLay operatives.
The article, frankly, is a bit hard to make heads or tails of. But I think this is less a matter of the quality of the reporting (which is first-rate) than the inherent complexity or even intentional opacity of what the reporters were looking at.
Briefly, three long-time Tom DeLay advisor/ operatives -- Ed Buckham, Karl Gallant, and John Hoy -- got themselves hired by Enron to put together an astroturf activism campaign in favor of electricity deregulation. This was all done with the assistance, of some sort, of DeLay.
In any case, who's really interesting here is Karl Gallant.
Gallant has been buzzing around the Majority Whip's political operation for the last several years -- most conspicuously as head of the Republican Majority Issues Committee. But his activities are much more complex and varied. He is one of the pioneers of astroturf organizing -- i.e., phony, ginned-up, grass-roots activism -- which he's employed principally on behalf of the tobacco industry, but also gun-rights advocates, the National Right to Work Committee, various other anti-regulatory and anti-tax efforts, and myriad Republican candidates.
And now Enron.
More on Gallant soon.
More on Doug Paal's appointment as envoy to Taiwan. According to Tuesday's Taipei Times, AIT spokesperson Judith Mudd-Krijgelmans says Paal's appointment remains on track.
More follow-up on Douglas Paal's appointment to serve as United States envoy to Taipei.
The Washington Post's In The Loop column took note of the New Republic article on Friday. (See bottom item, "Undone Deal?")
Today the Taipei Times said "Speculation is mounting that the nomination of Douglas Paal to head the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) could be withdrawn, as an article on Paal in a conservative US newsweekly (sic) has once again called his appointment into question."
Early this afternoon State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher was asked about the status of Paal's appointment.
Question: "Question about Taiwan. Can you comment about the possible withdrawal of Douglas Paal's nomination as Washington's envoy to Taipei"More soon.
State Dept. Spokesman: "I haven't heard any discussion of that"
Question: "And is it true that his appointment is being held up because of a delayed FBI background check?"
State Dept. Spokesman: "I wouldn't discuss anything like that anyway â¦ don't know."
We were about to post the second addition to the TPM Book List, Between the Woods and the Water by Patrick Leigh Fermor.
Unfortunately, it turns out that the book is out of print. So it's not appropriate for the book list (we'll be adding a replacement soon). But I still couldn't help sharing with you how marvelous a book it is.
The book is classic travel-writing. Fermor, an Englishman and classically so, was born in 1915. And in 1934 he more or less walked from Holland to Constantinople. It took him about eighteen months. The first leg of the trip is chronicled in a book called A Time of Gifts, regrettably also apparently out of print.
Between the Woods and the Water covers travels through Hungary and Rumania. I'm actually not sure whether the third installment was ever written, or for that matter whether Fermor is still alive to write it.
Purely as a piece of writing the book is beautiful and a wonderful read. But the ever-present subtext is the Second World War. Not only will many of the characters in the book -- the people Fermor meets and attaches himself to along the way -- be dead in a decade. More than that, you realize that this whole world will disappear. Shattered first by the on-rush of fascism, both domestic and German, then ripped apart by the war, then smothered under decades of rule as Soviet client-states.
This could easily play like an easy cliche. (I would expect it to if I were reading this short review.) But in Fermor's hands it's something far richer and grand. He manages to tell a captivating story, which captures the un-rushed nature of the moment, while weaving it together with an effortless mix of erudition and history.
It's out of print so I don't want to spend too much time on it. But this is a book you can fall in love with. Amazon appears to have a few used copies available.
By all means, grab one if you can.
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