Thursday, January 15, 2009

Justin Marozzi's "The Way of Herodotus"

Justin Marozzi is a writer, journalist, and historian who has traveled extensively throughout the Herodotean world. He is the author of the highly acclaimed Tamerlane.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Way of Herodotus: Travels with the Man Who Invented History, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Way of Herodotus takes us to Baghdad, to a conversation I had with an Iraqi academic called Fadel over lunch in Saddam Hussein's old republican palace. The discussion began after I spotted a Christian evangelical pamphlet on the table, belittling Islam and calling for the conversion of Muslims. I was surprised to say the least, Fadel rather less so.

“You asked me a moment ago if I thought this was a religious war,” Fadel said. “Well, I don’t think it is. There are all sorts of other reasons for this war. But many Iraqis do feel President Bush is attacking Islam. They listen to the language he uses, they listen to his call for a crusade, and they remember the history of Islam and the West. History matters very much here.”

It was a classic clash of civilisations embodied in one word.

In one sense, it was a minor gaffe. In the largely non-Muslim West, the word crusade is not considered so offensive. Over the past thousand years it has managed to shed much of its historical baggage in general usage so that outside discussions of the eleventh-, twelfth- and thirteenth-century attempts to retake Jerusalem from the Muslims, we understand it more in the sense of the Oxford English Dictionary’s “vigorous movement or enterprise against poverty or a similar social evil” or as a “personal campaign undertaken for a particular cause”. Many would excuse Bush for what might have been – claims of presidential Christian fundamentalism notwithstanding - a simple slip of the tongue. Yet Muslims, with a more narrowly historical definition and understanding of the word, are unlikely to be so forgiving. Victims tend to have longer historical memories. If the leader of the Western world used the word crusade in the context of launching a war on terrorism, was it any wonder that many Muslims considered this a war on Islam?

Travelling through Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and Greece with Herodotus over the course of four years, cultural collisions were regular occurrences. Iraq was the extreme manifestation of this, a conflict which sounded the echoes of the catacylsmic Persian Wars reported by Herodotus two-and-a-half millennia ago. That conflict helped give birth to the West, to what we know today as freedom and democracy.

Herodotus warns us again and again of the dangers of failing to respect other nations' cultures and religion. He cautions that hubris, imperial and otherwise, is likely to lead to hubris.

Apart from his obvious wisdom, Herodotus is huge fun to read. He tells rollicking good yarns, full of sex, humour, fantasy, speculation, architectural surveys, revelling in the weird and the wonderful and never missing an opportunity to digress wherever and whenever the fancy takes him. Not only was he the Father of History. He was the world's first travel writer, foreign correspondent and anthropologist, a pioneering geographer and explorer, author of the world's first prose narrative and a raconteur bar none.
Learn more about the book and author at Justin Marozzi's website.

--Marshal Zeringue