The plane was preparing for takeoff. The passengers were all aboard. The cabin and crew were making their final checks. Suddenly, there was a commotion and a passenger was asked to leave the flight. His transgression? Reading a copy of Amin Maalouf’s The Crusades through Arab Eyes. The cabin crew, who had asked for the passenger’s removal, had been unsettled by the sight of this book in the hands of an Arab Christian man, who, as later revealed, was a member of the U.S Secret Service.
Published in 1984, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes is a colorful portrayal of the various Crusades launched from the 11th until the 13th century, and was strongly influenced by the discourse of Edward Said’s Orientalism, which was published a few years earlier.
While the narrative is framed as an objective telling of history, writings on the Crusades usually reveal more about the author’s perspective than about the political and religious history of the Levant in the Middle Ages. Although Maalouf makes little effort to hide his sympathies for the Arab armies, he is hardly an apologist, detailing massacres committed by Arabs as well as by Christian Crusaders.
Maalouf is an accomplished reporter and his natural journalistic style comes through in the text. Eschewing a focus on military logistics and social history, he plunges the reader into a world of battles, assassinations, and intrigues, and divides the book into sections, chronologically ordered as “Invasion”, “Occupation”, “Riposte”, “Victory”, “Reprieve”, and “Expulsion”.
Although Maalouf’s narrative relies heavily on “Arab” Chroniclers, many of his sources are also non-Arab, such as the 12th century Kurdish Chronicler Ibn Athir. Many of the central figures featured in the book are also non-Arab. The most notable of these is Saladin, the great Kurdish military commander. Other key figures include Atabeg Zangi the ruler of Syria, and the important Governor al-Borsoki, both of whom were of Turkic origin.
As with all epic tales, Maalouf’s story has its fair share of heroes and villains. In keeping with the high regard given to Saladin both in the Arab and Western worlds, the Kurdish commander is perhaps the most important of Maalouf’s heroic figures.
The nineteenth century Scottish writer, Sir Walter Scott, who built upon positive images of the Kurdish hero presented in Dante’s Inferno, should be credited for rehabilitating Saladin’s reputation. In 1779, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing wrote the play “Nathan the Wise,” which also portrayed Saladin in a favorable light as a religiously tolerant figure. Over a century later, in 1898, German Emperor Wilhelm II made a pilgrimage to the Middle East, paying a visit to Saladin’s tomb. This Western infatuation with Saladin influenced his revival in the Arab world where his mascot, the eagle, has been used as a government symbol from Egypt to Yemen.
Although Saladin was no great Muslim strategist, his persistence ultimately lead to his July 4th, 1187 victory over the Crusaders and paved the way for the Muslim armies’ capture of Jerusalem. It was, however, Saladin’s chivalry that was emulated by Muslims and Christians of the period and that carries his name throughout history.
While Saladin is Maalouf’s undisputed hero, Reynald de Châtillon is clearly his primary villain. For Maalouf, Châtillon symbolized “everything most hideous about the Frankish enemy.” Reynald brutally massacred pilgrims, plotted to desecrate Muslim holy sites, and mockingly told his Muslim prisoners, “Let your Muhammad deliver you.”
The contrast between Châtillon and Saladin serves to demonstrate the differences in world view between the Muslim realists and extremist Crusaders, who the Arabs referred to as Franks or “Franj” in Arabic. Initially, many Crusaders viewed the invasion in terms of “us vs. them” -a civilizational view and forerunner to the thinking of Samuel Huntington. The Muslims, by contrast, were realists in their approach to the Christian invaders.
Over time, the Crusaders’ views became more moderate and nuanced. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Frankish alliances with Muslim emirs against other Christian-Muslim coalitions in the early 12th century. A similar alliance occurred in 1115 when Syrian Muslims and Frankish soldiers jointly resisted a Muslim army bent on invading Syria.
Maalouf’s text also provides insight into the reasons behind the Crusaders’ initial successes, demonstrating the political divisions in the Muslim world that made the region ripe for international invasion. At the same time, Maalouf’s narrative is influenced by contemporary considerations, particularly in terms of anti-colonialism. The author occasionally uses terms like “Crusader settlements” and speaks of the Crusades as an “Occupation.” A more egregious choice in diction is his use of words like “Syrian”, “Lebanese”, or “Palestinian,” terms whose modern meaning do not correspond to the definitions used in medieval times.
Earlier this summer, Maalouf was appointed to the prestigious Academie Francaise, an organization designed to uphold the standards of French language and literature. Although Assia Djebar an Algerian writer of Berber descent was appointed to the Academie in 2005, Maalouf is the first Arab to join the organization. In honor of Maalouf’s award, we encourage all our readers to pick up a copy of The Crusades through Arab Eyes, one of the author’s most widely read and interesting books.
*Joseph Hammond is Muftah’s Book Review editor.