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The view from Outremer

Books The Syrian noble and poet Usama ibn Munqidh chronicled the crusades in a lively memoir, an eye-opening look, Kanishk Tharoor writes, at what Western eyes could not see.
Get back: A British painting of a crusader and a Muslim warrior.
Get back: A British painting of a crusader and a Muslim warrior.

The Syrian noble and poet Usama ibn Munqidh chronicled the crusades in a lively memoir, an eye-opening look, Kanishk Tharoor writes, at what Western eyes could not see.

Islam and the Crusades: The Writings of Usama ibn Munqidh Translated by Paul M Cobb Penguin Classics Dh84

On a chilly November day in 1095, Pope Urban II delivered a sermon whose echoes are still felt today. At Clermont, in the south of his native France, the pope rallied the Catholic faithful to a fateful cause: "As most of you have heard, the Turks and Arabs have occupied more and more of the lands of the Christians. They have killed and captured, destroyed the churches... If you permit them to continue thus for awhile with impurity, the faithful of God will be much more widely attacked by them. On this account I, or rather the Lord, beseech you as Christ's heralds to publish this everywhere and to persuade all people of whatever rank, foot-soldiers and knights, poor and rich, to carry aid promptly to those Christians and to destroy that vile race from the lands of our friends. I say this to those who are present, it is meant also for those who are absent. Christ commands it."

With these words began the first of those pious, opportunistic and bloodthirsty movements of men and women that would come to be known collectively as "the crusades". The call to arms spread quickly across the rutted paths of Catholic Europe, nurtured by preachers in parishes big and small, capturing the imaginations of bootless yeomen and feudal warlords. Within 12 months, Latin armies were fighting alongside Byzantine Greeks in the hills and flatlands of Anatolia. By 1098, Christian forces had moved south-east and taken Antioch. A year later, the crusaders won their greatest victory: the conquest of Jerusalem. The script of Western involvement in Muslim lands had its first chapter.

So starts a familiar story. The crusades remain one of the rare episodes in history that easily maintain their relevance in the modern day. Novels and films, including Ridley Scott's recent saccharine epic Kingdom of Heaven, continue to rehash black and white images of the clash: the brutality of intolerance - smouldering cities, massacres - mixed with glimpses of harmony, transcendent personalities and moments of unexpected generosity. The history of the crusades seems to carry with it all the terror, and all the possibility, of today's encounters between the West and the Middle East.

But what is this history, and where do we get it from? To even think of the tumultuous two centuries of war and peace as "the crusades" is to take a side. It is to see the world as it would have looked from the ecclesiastical heart of a nascent Europe, from Rome, where successive popes had fortified the old imperial city into the bastion of the Catholic Church. Like most wars, the chain of aggressive military expeditions launched by Urban's speech at Clermont became exercises in shaping a polity. The crusades extended and defined the bounds of Catholic Christendom. Palestine, Syria and Egypt were certainly not the only arenas of action. Twelfth and 13th century crusaders captured Lisbon and Valencia in Iberia, conquered (and looted) Constantinople - the capital of the Greek Orthodox Byzantine Empire - and forcibly converted the pagan peoples along the Baltic coast, at the frostbitten ends of the world.

The omission of these crucial passages from the standard Western story of the crusades reminds us of the lingering power of loss to shape history. It is telling that the crusades are remembered in the West only as failed forays into the Middle East, where the crusaders met with their most bittersweet successes and their ultimate defeat. Spain, much the Balkans and northern Europe, all of which succumbed to Catholicism, have no place in an account of frustrated ambitions and thwarted dreams.

Historians have long relied on European sources to shape our understanding of the crusades, in large part because these accounts place events into a coherent narrative of Christianity colliding with Islam. Western observers - many of whom were members of the clergy or monks - were immersed in the seemingly epic creation of the Latin East in "Outremer": the land beyond the sea. Predictably, the view from Outremer's ramparts was unremittingly stark.

Arab chroniclers of the time offer a different, understandably more jumbled sense of proceedings. The European invaders - uniformly dubbed "Franks" in Arab and Persian texts (as opposed to "Romans", the term reserved for Byzantine Greeks) - were not the only foreigners sweeping through the region. Theirs wasn't even the most significant intervention in Arab affairs. From the 11th century on, waves of Turks poured down from the steppes, transforming the political landscape of the Middle East forever. Unlike the Turkish migrations, the "crusader states" that emerged in the wake of the capture of Jerusalem in 1099 were hardly indelible - they all disappeared by 1291. Moreover, while the crusaders butchered and pillaged as best they could, their atrocities paled in comparison to those of the Mongols, whose infamous sack of Baghdad in 1258 remains one of the black moments of Islamic history. With invaders of multiple stripes all around them, contemporary Arab writers can be forgiven for failing to root themselves in a titanic clash of civilisations with Europe.

Until recently, getting access to contemporary Arab source material in English remained a chore. Carole Hillenbrand's academic tome, The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives, distils Muslim sentiment and thought during the upheavals, as does Amin Maalouf's more popular work, The Crusades through Arab Eyes. But both leave much to be desired; while the former straight-jackets the original accounts in dry historiography, the latter risks clunky incoherence in attempting to be simultaneously a novel and a chronicle.

Better perhaps to let those voices speak for themselves. The Book of Contemplation, the 12th century memoir of the noble and poet Usama ibn Munqidh, conveys the texture of an age. Until recently, it was available in English only in a stiff and unwieldy translation from the 1920s. Thanks to a smooth new retranslation by Paul M Cobb, it will invariably soon start finding its way onto crusades studies syllabi. While it deserves this attention, The Book of Contemplation is more than a record of confrontation between Christians and Muslims: Munqidh's lively memory and stories transcend the limiting context of holy war.

At first glance, Munqidh looks like the Muslim answer to the crusader chronicle, preternaturally suited to represent an Arab view of the crusades. Born in 1095 - the year of Urban's address at Clermont - he lived until 1188 - one year after Saladin recaptured Jerusalem from the crusaders for good. His incredibly long life thus bookends a major period in the crusades that includes the first Frankish incursions, the heyday of the crusader principalities and the ultimate resurgence of Muslim power in Palestine and Syria.

Munqidh was born into an aristocratic family that controlled the fortress town of Shayzar (in modern day Syria), but a domestic spat led to his exile. Over the course of the peripatetic career that followed, he served variously as a general, an adviser and an emissary for the Zengids in Mosul, the Burid princes of Damascus and the Fatimid rulers in Cairo before ending his days in the train of the great Saladin. A deft political actor, he enjoyed proximity to many of the most prominent rulers of the era, from crusader princes to scheming viziers and ambitious atabegs.

But Munqidh's life is not a story of jihad against the infidel. To be sure, Munqidh holds Franks in general disdain, finding their manners brusque, their theology wayward, and their jurisprudence risible. They are, he notes, "mere beasts possessing no other virtues but courage and fighting, just as beasts have only the virtues of strength and the ability to carry loads". But Munqidh tempers his own invective. He distinguishes between the rougher breed of Franks fresh off the boat and those crusaders acclimatised to the Middle East. He praises elements of Frankish medicine. He keeps friends among the Knights Templar. And he evokes a world in which Muslims and Christians trade allegiance as a matter of political convenience, not religious conviction. After all, Munqidh spent as much - if not more - time fighting Muslims as he did fighting Frankish crusaders. Towards the end of the text, he decides to list all the significant conflicts in which he was involved; of 15 major clashes, only two involved Christian crusaders.

There is an openness and honesty to his memoir that belies any kind of blinkered zeal. People of all faiths appear in good and bad lights. Much of the book reads as if its author, at the end of his long days, was simply wringing dry the sponge of his memory. Full of meandering digressions, it evokes the image of a wizened Munqidh dictating aloud to a patient copyist who catalogues his lists of great spear thrusts, famous lion hunts and feats of individual heroism while somehow maintaining the original thread of conversation. What might sound like an afternoon with your loquacious grandparents is nothing of the sort. The Book of Contemplation immerses the reader into a world bursting with stories, a universe still articulated through oral history.

Many of Munqidh's memories, after all, are stories told to him by others. Like a collector showing off his hoarded curios, he repeats history, received wisdom and folklore. The translation permits the text a natural, colloquial style very much in keeping with this spirit. Munqidh drifts across the landscape of human activity, from skirmishes with Bedouin bandits to cross-cultural discussions of personal hygiene in public baths. Just as he hobnobs with the leading political lights of the day, he also dwells on more marginal characters like Burayka, the witch whose dark and titillating magic recalls the sorcery in Norse sagas, shadowy remnants of the pagan past. It is a testament to Munqidh's own insatiable curiosity - and subtle sense of humour - that passages like the following jostle for room with recountings of battles and court intrigues.

One of the special qualities of the leopard is that if it wounds a man, and a mouse urinates on the wound, the man will die. A mouse never gives up trying to reach a man wounded by a leopard: one person, out of fear of the mice, even had a bed made for himself sitting in water, with cats tied all around it. It is a shame that scholars, and Munqidh himself, feel obliged to underline the spiritual thread supposedly binding The Book of Contemplation. His memoir, we are told, is a deep meditation on the inexorable power of fate. The chaotic evidence of his stories is too often bent to one conclusion: "Exalted thus is God, who accomplishes His will how He wills it! Fate is not slowed by being faint of heart, any more than it speeds for those who do their part." Yet the idea of fate seems more like an excuse than a theme; by occasionally invoking the opacity of God's desire, Munqidh imposes a threadbare and unnecessary unity upon otherwise glowing fragments. At the end of an unusually long life in an unusually convulsed time, Munqidh was the warrior who survived, Odysseus with a pen. He needs no external frame - no divine purpose or dramatic history - to make the exposition of his world any more magical.

Kanishk Tharoor is an associate editor at Open Democracy, a London-based online magazine of global politics and culture.

Updated: October 10, 2008 04:00 AM