A richly detailed chronicle of Arab language and culture offers thought-provoking parallels between past and present
Outside the window of Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s home in Sana’a, the Yemeni capital, are reminders of the long sweep of Arab history – child soldiers mourning martyrs of the country’s ongoing war, rocket salvoes, sectarian rivalries, hypnotic slogans and a mosque dating back to the seventh century and the rise of Islam in the Arabian peninsula.
The view is simultaneously rich, bleak and thought-provoking: for three millennia, dynasties have come and gone, from the Sabaeans and Himyaris to the Umayyads of Damascus and the Abbasids of Baghdad. Later came the al Saud – the family that gave its name to a still powerful kingdom. Interactions between desert (badu) and town (hadar), semi-nomadic tribes and settled peoples, strong men and weak institutions, are a constant theme. Language, faith, and loyalty come together in complex and far-flung combinations.