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Publisher's Summary

A riveting, comprehensive history of the Arab peoples and tribes that explores the role of language as a cultural touchstone 

This kaleidoscopic book covers almost 3,000 years of Arab history and shines a light on the footloose Arab peoples and tribes who conquered lands and disseminated their language and culture over vast distances. Tracing this process to the origins of the Arabic language, rather than the advent of Islam, Tim Mackintosh-Smith begins his narrative more than a thousand years before Muhammad and focuses on how Arabic, both spoken and written, has functioned as a vital source of shared cultural identity over the millennia. 

Mackintosh-Smith reveals how linguistic developments - from pre-Islamic poetry to the growth of script, Muhammad's use of writing, and the later problems of printing Arabic - have helped and hindered the progress of Arab history, and investigates how, even in today's politically fractured post-Arab Spring environment, Arabic itself is still a source of unity and disunity.

©2019 Tim Mackintosh-Smith (P)2019 Blackstone Audio, Inc.

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Good book bad narration

It’s a shame (almost a disgrace) that the narrator doesn’t speak a word of Arabic and completely butchers the pronunciations of countless names, places, and things. It takes away from the story and makes it very difficult to understand some of the messages.

8 people found this helpful

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Blah blah blah...

I keep waking up thinking, "get to the point!" The foreword had better not be an indication of the rest of the book. There's a metric ton of hyperbole here. It seems like there might be some facts in here someplace. But the author seems to be thinking out loud and trying out the different ways of saying each thought. Where the hell was the editor?!?! Will there be any coherent narrative at all? More as I slog through this.

7 people found this helpful

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interesting and eyeopening

loved it and couldnt put it down. my only comment goes towards taking a biased approach on islams influence not giving it its right on how it transformed the peninsula as well as a few other points when it comes to regional politics .. overall an interesting read

5 people found this helpful

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“The hourglass that swallows you”

Whereas other history books I’ve read focus on Islamic history, Arabs: A 3,000-Year History of Peoples, Tribes, and Empires (2019) by Tim Mackintosh-Smith details Arabs and their history and culture. The book of course has lots on Mohammed and his successors and their initial great wave of expansion and early division and dynasties and declining periods and reawakening periods and modern situation, but it interestingly starts the history of Arabs 1000 years or so before Mohammed. “When we do take that longer, wider view, we find that Islam was not something that shot up suddenly in Mecca. It is a vast slow growth whose roots lie deep in time and all over the Peninsula, particularly in its South, where they cultivated by a people who did not even call themselves Arabs.”

And Mackintosh-Smith’s book is illuminating and entertaining. I learned many things from it, like the following:

--Arabs had no identity as Arabs until outside imperial forces (e.g., Rome and Persia) started meddling and exploiting and being manipulated by them etc.

--The Arabs’ unique combination of the camel (to carry supplies) and the horse (to charge into battle) led their nomads to become formidable mercenaries and then power brokers and then power breakers.

--Arabs tend to value rhetorical truth more highly than empirical truth, the way one says things (especially in high Arabic) being more important than what one says, with great Arabic leaders usually being eloquent (“swordsmen and wordsmen”), for words were and still are seen as cultural products and defensive walls and tools of war.

--The great glue holding Arabs together in their fractious identity—along with the Koran and Islam—has been high Arabic language (fusa, or pure milk).

--Arabic did not originally show vowels and has no capital letters, and due to its cursive calligraphy was very difficult to print with moveable type, which limited and slowed Arabic development during the time of the western Renaissance.

--One vital Arabic quality (linguistic and cultural) is a dualistic yin-yang ethos, which manifests in the fluid interaction between nomad and settled (Bedouin and citified, tribes and peoples, raiders and traders, etc.) and in the many cases in Arabic of the same words being used for opposite (or very different) things like black and white, big and small, unity and division, tradition and modern, collection/union and disunion/division, voice and vote, master and dependent, martyrdom and school certificate, bad regime and order.

Mackintosh-Smith provides other interesting etymological features of Arabic, like the same word meaning herd and citizens, or the word for politics deriving from the word for the management and training of camels and horses. He also points out that Arabic is a language of many synonyms: eighty synonyms for honey, two hundred for beard, five hundred for lion, eight hundred for sword, and at least a thousand for camel. (Arabists say that every word in Arabic has at least three meanings: itself, its opposite, and a camel!)

Indeed, Mackintosh-Smith really likes language in general and Arabic in particular, and brings it all vividly to life as he tells the history of the Arab people, whether in his translations of Arabic texts (poems, sermons, speeches, letters, books, etc.) or in his own prose, for he often coins nifty words (e.g., demonarchs, anarcharchs, and tyrannosaurs/tyrants) and turns a fine phrase, like the following:

--“In my first book, I wrote that in Yemen I felt like both the guest at the feast and the fly on the wall. Nowadays, I feel more like the skeleton at the feast and the fly in the soup… Seeing the land I live in and love falling apart is like watching an old and dear friend losing his mind and committing slow, considered suicide.”

--“Like so many revolutions, Mohammed's included, it was begun by those who are hungry for justice but was hijacked by those who are hungry for power.”

--“Meaning was mummified.”

--“No checks and balances, only checkbooks and bank balances, held ultimately by one man, but if nothing else, the system has the imprimatur of long usage.”

--“A strange dark symbiosis, the continual presence of an aggressive Israel, behaving with grotesque injustice towards the people of the territories it occupies in the face of international law, merely prolongs the life of Tyrannosaurus Rex Arabicus, also aggressive, also unjust towards his own countrymen.”

One interesting, at times devastating feature of the book is the way that Mackintosh-Smith—who’s lived in Yemen for decades—links the past to the present, often saying things like, “Outside my window now, poets are persuading fourteen-year-old boys to blow themselves up while killing other Arabs.”

Ralph Lister reads the book with gusto. Because I don’t know Arabic, I can’t vouch for the accuracy of his pronunciation of the many Arabic words, phrases, and names, but it all sounds exotic and consistent. However, Lister sometimes swallows or quickens (English) words or syllables at the ends of sentences or phrases, such that I sometimes miss the last word in such a case. Otherwise, he's a good reader with an appealing quality to his voice.

Readers interested in Arabs, Arabic, and Islam in relation to other cultures and religions in the past and present should find much to learn and think about with this book.

2 people found this helpful

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Monumental, erudite, illuminating.

A work of remarkable erudition and breadth and depth; a historian’s philological Odyssey that weds the storyteller’s gift to the wordsmith’s magic, and not without the wit of a Bernard Lewis or the lyrical charm of an Elie Kedourie. 3000 years of history is intimidating. This book makes it approachable, memorable, and fun. A veritable philological and historical feat otherwise, the author’s superficial (and borderline jaundiced) treatment of Israel weakens the narrative. But I suppose he had to somehow palliate the Arabists in a history that remains otherwise sober, dispassionate, and unsentimental about “Arabs” (without the definite article.) I just bought the hard copy because this one is a keeper and a much needed to histories of “Arabs” that largely remain in the realmS of apologia and fairytales.

2 people found this helpful

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The best book about Arabs ever to be written.

Tim has a deep understanding of the Arab culture and language. He dives deep and connects the history of the Arabs with insight and meaning. Most histories about the Arabs only take a superficial look at the Arabs from only just before the advent of Islam. Tim takes it back to the Seventh Century BCE shedding light on a much deeper culture. Although he neglects to link the Arab history back to the Phoenicians, Canaanites, Assyrians, Hatties, Ancient Egyptians and Sumerians. But in the end it is a truly insightful book. It was a pleasure to read it.
Ahmad

1 person found this helpful

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Ambitious but disappointing history of the Arabs

We need a good popular English language history of the Arabs that goes back farther than Albert Hourani's classic History of the Arab Peoples and brings the history up to the present. This book, which is well written and well read, purports to be that book. Regrettably it isn't. The author's attempt at pushing the history back before rise of Islam is mostly tendentious speculation. He cannot decide if he writing a history of ethnic Arabs, speakers of the Arab language, or Muslims and slides among these possible subjects. His account of the response of Arabs to western modernism is very generalized and omits the detail that makes that history so complex and paradoxical. Worst of all, the author embraces a single-theory version of history: all of the history of Arabs can be explained as a recurring conflict between tribes and settled towns. There is a speck of insight to this theory, but the author's attempt to inflate this speck into the single explanation for the history of Arabs is an insult to the Arabs and the thoughtful listener.

1 person found this helpful

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Excellent Prose

The language of this book is absolutely incredible, and certainly represents its strong point. The author makes repeated points about the poetry of Arabic and it has trickled through to his English, as this is a history full of rhyme, simile, and alliteration,that makes for fun reading. As far as the actual story goes, this book is much more a cultural history than a narrative one, which was a little disappointing to me, as the history between the fall of the Abbasids and the rise of nations is glossed over as un-arab. I think there's a tad too much hand wringing over what is and isn't truly Arab. The narrator is excellent, however, and I find everything clear and conversational.

1 person found this helpful

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this is textbook reading

this is not a light read, and unless you know something about what he is talking about you will find this a bit of a challenge. I learned, but it's not good for an audible experience.

2 people found this helpful

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Long listen

This is an important topic for study however I think it would have been better served in the written format rather than as an audio book
. I found following the Arab names and locations difficult. However the narrator was excellent. I just wish I had a map and written outline of the players to refer to while listening.



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  • Rhys
  • 06-07-19

The best book I've bought on Audible.

This is, to date, the best book I've purchased on Audible. So much so that I will pick up a hard copy companion as well.

The book is written extremely well, it is a brilliant history of the Arab peoples, lands, language, and culture. It is respectful, whilst maintaining academic rigour. I would most certainly recommend it to anyone with even the faintest interest in the region. The book also contains ample humour, I laughed aloud several times while listening, and several times further when reading passages I've found in online samples.

That brings me to the narrator, who also may be one of the best narrators I've listened to. He manages to carry all the intonation, humour, and emphasis perfectly.

Overall, I can not recommend this highly enough.

18 people found this helpful

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  • Paul M Major
  • 08-05-19

A deep insight.

A good book for anyone wanting an understanding of the Middle East and the role of Islam in its evolution.

3 people found this helpful

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  • Mr. Justin Roxburgh
  • 07-21-21

An extraordinary book with wonderful prose

I’ve finished 25 books since joining Audible 16 months ago. I’m listening to another 7 at the moment & have never bothered writing a review.

This incredible book however merits one.

Mackintosh-Smith has an extraordinary gift. His writing verges on poetry with the clever or witty, (often both) one-liners that pepper the story of the Arabs.

I’m not too sure why I even downloaded this book originally. I’ve never been particularly interested in the people or culture, (although as he points out there is no such thing as a homogeneous Arab people or culture), or the language.

However I loved it so much, I will now go down to Waterstones & buy a copy.

2 people found this helpful

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  • Ed L
  • 01-08-20

Great historical overview of ‘Arab’ history

Excellent overview of ‘Arab’ peoples history over 3000 years. Audio could’ve been better by correct pronunciations of Arabic names and terms.

2 people found this helpful

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  • Anonymous User
  • 06-11-21

Interesting subject but poorly structured.

I struggled to finish this despite the very interesting subject and a very knowledgeable author.

The author aims to cover all angles and describe the complexity as fully as possible. This is amicable, but means I was often left more confused than enlightened since it makes it difficult to work out what is essential and what is less important. Especially since it is presented in a very unstructured way, flicking back and forth in time, adding anecdotes and small stories, all with a lot of superfluous words and phrases thrown in.

1 person found this helpful

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  • Khan
  • 09-29-19

absolutely amazing!!!

loved it thoroughly! perhaps the most powerful book on Arab (&Islamic) history. would definitely recommend!

1 person found this helpful

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  • Angus
  • 06-15-19

Fantastic account of an often overlooked period

I tried to find a book which would give me more detail of the prelude, rise and explosive expansion of early Islam, this book fitted perfectly with what I was looking for. The latter periods were also very interesting but I feel that the account of pre 1000 CE Arabs was the strongest part of the book.

1 person found this helpful

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 06-30-19

Weird

Difficult listening, as the narrator’s tone and delivery is like some 1970s DJ, selling soap powder.

8 people found this helpful

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  • Jamie Barron
  • 09-17-21

Interesting and enjoyable

I found this a really interesting and insightful overview of the long and complex history of the Arabs. Mackintosh-Smith writes with great perspicacity and warmth, and is clearly very well-informed about - as well as fond of - the Arab peoples. Ralph Lister reads really well, adding to the enjoyment. I learned a lot from this as well as enjoying it very much.

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  • mouhamad aboshokor
  • 07-14-21

just amazing

As an Arab it was fantastic to have an outer perspective over the region that is both respective yet open, and while I don't agree with all of the conclusions, the points raised are very interesting, the writing is extremely smart, the flow is seemless and feels like a storytelling. but most of all the translation of Arabic quotes is outstanding. the book is a bit dark but feels so fucking real.