Monday, October 01, 2007

An Arab-Syrian Gentleman: Usama bin Munqidh

I am currently reading the memoirs of Usama ibn Munqidh, an Arab-Syrian gentleman in the time of the crusades. I managed to find it in one of the book shops in Damascus' Halbouni street near the Damascus University. The book itself is tough going sometimes due to my somewhat poor Arabic vocabulary, however I still get a marvelous insight into the mindset of a man who's Arabism, culture and Islam mingle together effortlessly and beautifully. Ibn Munqidh passed away in his nineties, yet a recurrent theme in his memoirs are the fact that he lived his life to the full and faced his full share of dangers and hardships. His firm belief is that his time and manner of death is already written and what he does will not delay or hasten it's arrival. One could argue against that, but not disprove this and he provides a number of colourful examples of things he had seen in his long and eventful life.

I could have purchased this book from Amazon in English but I wished to read what he had to say in the language he spoke. I don't regret that at all as it is not only helping with my vocabulary, but givng me an insight into how the Arabic language changed. I often wonder when Egyptians started sounding like Egyptians and Syrians sounded like Lebanese. Ibn Munqidh's words are a strange mix of classical Arabic mixed in with a dash of words many Syrians would recognise today. Borders did not exist back then, unless with the Franks (Feranj) and he talks about a journey to and from Egypt and the hardships he encountered. He has no racist stereotypes of Kurds or Turkmen and his chivalry and charity make women want him and men want to be him. His Islamic faith comes from a profound understanding of what the Quran means and his classical Arabic education make him learned and incredibly cultured and refined. His bravery in battle raised my eyebrows, coupled with his fatalistic view of destiny being predetermined he truly was remarkable in his attitude to life and death. In one part he describes how he and a friend encountered eight Frankish knights and almost at a whim decide to attack them and drive them off. His book in Arabic is actually labelled "Examples" or "Lessons" roughly and it is filled with anecdotes from his life which are interesting. I am almost done with it but it has fascinated me and inspired me greatly. A very good read.

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