Saturday, August 6, 2016

Yoav Alon's "The Shaykh of Shaykhs"

Yoav Alon is Senior Lecturer in Middle Eastern History at Tel Aviv University. He is the author of The Making of Jordan: Tribes, Colonialism, and the Modern States (2009).

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Shaykh of Shaykhs: Mithqal al-Fayiz and Tribal Leadership in Modern Jordan, and reported the following:
Ha! The Page 99 Test! What would I find, I wondered? When I opened the book to page 99—with some trepidation—I was relieved that not only does the page represent the book, it also gives the gist of its content. Shaykh of Shaykhs portrays the leadership of one of the greatest Arabian shaykhs of the twentieth century. It follows Mithqal al-Fayiz from his birth around 1880 until his death in 1967, giving important background about his father and grandfather, both great leaders in their own right. It also gives an account of Mithqal’s descendants and the prominent role his family still plays in Jordan today. Through the life of one particular man, the book explores the role of a tribal leader and how it changed over the course of two centuries; what personal characteristics made for a successful leader; how he was elected to office and how he kept his position.

Page 99 begins with a summary of raids deep in the deserts that Shaykh Mithqal led in the 1920s. Mithqal rose to fame among the Bani Sakhr tribal confederacy, thanks to his rare military skills and the opportunity that World War I provided to enhance his influence. His wise military command during the instability along the borders of Jordan in the 1920s and the continuation of tribal raids helped legitimize him and his power. The analysis of Mithqal's raids allowed me to say something about his leadership in general and to stress the way tribal leaders typically exercised their authority:
Mithqal was a skillful leader of raids who took risks, trying to press his advantage whenever the opportunity presented itself. Mithqal’s success in raids was owing not only to his courage as a fighter, but also to his careful planning and ability to outwit his enemies. … Ultimately, Mithqal led raids as he led the Bani Sakhr in other respects: by projecting charisma, setting an example, and reaching a consensus rather than giving orders.
Throughout Shaykh of Shaykhs, I use rich and varied historical sources to portray his life as vividly as possible, always with his perspective in the center. Page 99 details actual conversations between Mithqal and different guests, who reported the way Mithqal talked about his military past in 1930-31, when raids had nearly stopped and had a nostalgic value for the shaykh, who regarded "these bygone days as the best of his life". He was proud of his martial past and even showed one guest his many scars. Similarly, the remainder of the page highlights Mithqal's important duty as a judge. Another visitor reported the proceedings of a trial between a husband and his dissatisfied wife such that the readers can imagine themselves sitting in the tent witnessing the trial. "[T]he trial presented another opportunity for Mithqal to play the role of the wise leader."
Learn more about The Shaykh of Shaykhs at the Stanford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue