Tuesday, December 27, 2005

meetings with remarkable Muslims

In compiling the collection of personal reminiscences “Meetings with Remarkable Muslims”, editors Barnaby Rogerson and Rose Baring were driven by a wish to get away from the stereotyped images of the Islamic world all too prevalent in the Western media and to arrive at a broader, truer picture.

The resulting book, published by Eland Publishing of London, is a rich harvest of human encounters in different parts of the Islamic world. The standard of writing is high, and the approach of the authors intimate and engaging.

The 39 contributors are a varied group. Some are scholars turned travel writers, such as William Dalrymple and Tim Mackintosh Smith. The contributors also include Persian writer, singer and songwriter Shusha Guppy, historian Philip Mansel, researcher and translator Bruce Wannell, Palestinian activist and writer Ghada Karmi, author and expert on textiles and Islamic art Philippa Scott, and writer and founder of the Travel Bookshop in London, Sarah Anderson.

A few of the “remarkable Muslims” are well-known personalities. Mark Hudson writes on the Senegalese singing star Youssou N’Dour, and Justin Marozzi recalls meeting the charismatic Ahmed Shah Massoud, “The Lion of the Panshir”, who was assassinated in 2001. Ghada Karmi gives a touching personal profile of her BBC broadcaster and dictionary compiler father Hasan Karmi who is now 100 years old.

Some of the encounters involve historical figures. Philippa Scott begins her piece “Ziryab on my Mind”, with the words: “Looking back, it seems inevitable, kismet, that Ziryab, father of cante jondo and the Andalusian guitar, should enter my life.” This eighth century musician, whose nickname Ziryab means “black songbird”, has been “an invisible but sometimes almost palpable presence, a wise companion and guide, a happy haunting.”

Other encounters came from chance meetings. Tahir Shah tells of how his friendship with Moroccan Hicham Harras, an inhabitant of a shantytown in Casablanca, grew out of Hicham’s passion for postage stamps. Horatio Clare recalls a Moroccan family to which he was introduced by two high-spirited girls. Tunisian writer and Islamic art expert Sabiha al Khmeir writes of the old man with whom she worked in the Ben Youssef library in Marrakesh.

The writers’ accounts provide windows into the diverse, complex Islamic world. It would be good if “Meetings with Remarkable Muslims” found a readership among those who are so ready to generalise and pontificate about Muslims and Islam without ever bothering to meet Muslims like those they might find in the pages of this book.

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette
27 December 2005

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