Reviews and Comments about Renaissance Emir

  • a nice spread on The Book on the Knot website (which is full of other good stuff)
  • just signed a contract with Interlink with a view to an Arabic edition!  Inshallah…
  • The Publishers Weekly has just published a review of the new paperback edition (Olive Branch Press, an imprint of Interlink Books, June 2014).
  • The Literary Review (London), in its combined December 2013-January 2014 issue has published a detailed and erudite review (pp 29-30) of the book by David Abulafia, Professor of  Mediterranean Studies at Cambridge U (and author of one of my favourite books–The Great Sea, a biography of the Med itself through history).  Again I cannot post too much but here are a couple of snippets:

The physical layout of Lebanon and Galilee, varying from coast and plains to mountains and valleys, has never made that part of the Middle East easy to rule. The mountain fastnesses have provided a refuge for a great melange of people of different religions and origins. They include the Maronite Christians, who arrived there from further north during the first millennium, having been persecuted not by Muslims but by the Orthodox Greeks of Byzantium; and the mysterious Druze, one of whose most remarkable leaders, Fakhr ad-Din, is the subject of T J Gorton’s lively and readable book.  (…)  This is, then, a book with some relevance to what is happening at the moment in Syria, for it reminds us that the Muslim world is dotted with ancient sects and minorities.

(…) Gorton pointedly reminds his readers that the relationship between Middle Eastern culture and the West did not consist of the one-sided, condescending European attitude that Edward Said proclaimed in his pernicious account of ‘Orientalism’. Fascination and sometimes admiration were mutual, even though Westerners made rather little effort to understand Islam, while those living in the Ottoman Empire were simply accustomed to the coexistence of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. But T J Gorton’s main aim is to tell an extraordinary story, and he does so with great enthusiasm and sympathy…

  • Well I couldn’t have said it better myself. In today’s TLS (Times Literary Supplement), dated 15 November, Eamonn Gearon (eminent Arabist, author and Middle East Specialist) wrote a very kind review.  I cannot post the article itself but equally cannot resist quoting the conclusion of his thoughtful piece:

Lebanese food is delightful, but the life and times of Fakhr ad-Din deserves wider recognition than the heading on 1,001 menus.  Renaissance Emir is an original and informative book which will go a long way towards redressing its subject’s undeserved obscurity.

  • Well, you can’t have it all your way!  here is a slightly strange and rather negative review of the book in the Beirut Daily Star.  I stand accused of writing “between scholarship and fiction”.  I have not resisted writing a rebuttal (see after Mr Q’s review).

Of Fakhr al-Din, great men and other fictions September 07, 2013 12:26 AM

By Jim Quilty

The Daily Star (Beirut), September 7 2013

BEIRUT: Fiction writers and historians have more in common than you might imagine. During their 20th-century romance with Modernism, both species were tempted to be skeptical of “narrative,” but in practice fiction and history are deeply attached to storytelling.

Readers like heroes. So historians (particularly popular historians, who imagine there is a public to read, or at least to purchase, their books) are sometimes drawn to prominent public figures – politicians, business leaders, crime bosses and the like.

There is a strong precedent for this. The lives of “great men” have provided fodder for historians and biographers since antiquity. This age-old tradition is nowadays dwarfed by the vast literature that has grown up against it.

As many a baffled college freshman discovers, academic historians tend to be less interested in the characters running things than the institutional, economic, social and cultural factors that historical actors, great and small, must navigate. A lively literature has grown out of writing history “against the grain” – scratching at conventional sources in search of disenfranchised voices.

Writing against the grain has limits. If he doesn’t have documents to eyeball, a historian is little better than a newspaper columnist. Yet, as many historians of Lebanon will tell you, documents can be scarce. Burnt libraries and neglected archives offer testimony to how ephemeral historical footprints are, particularly those of subaltern figures.

That said, stubborn researchers do uncover previously unnoticed sources. Some recent state-of-the-art work has examined groups ordinarily misrepresented by the mainstream historical record.

Take Stefan Winter’s 2010 study “The Shiites of Lebanon under Ottoman Rule, 1516-1788.” Marshalling an impressive arsenal of data – from Ottoman archival materials to provincial court records to European travelers’ tales – the scholar goes far to debunk two long-cherished myths of Ottoman Lebanon: that of the Druze-Maronite creation of a “Lebanese” polity and that of the Ottoman state’s systemic persecution of Arab Shiites.

Winter’s work underlines how the art of history lies less in packaging and retailing compelling narratives than in the practice of uncovering voices that contest comforting tales of the past.

When it comes to retailing compelling narratives, fiction writers enjoy a definite edge. Take U.K. novelist Hilary Mantel, whose last two fictions (“Wolf Hall” and “Bring up the Bodies”) have won consecutive Man Booker Prizes.

One of Mantel’s great accomplishments is the dexterity with which she depicts her protagonist. Thomas Cromwell – the Machiavellian Tudor middleman credited with abetting the English Reformation – is crafted into a humane and complex figure, capable of provoking sympathy, amusement, even affection.

Precious few historians of Henry VIII’s reign can make such a claim. Then again, it’s likely few would set out to do so.

It is onto the wind-swept promontory between scholarship and fiction that T.J. Gorton’s “Renaissance Emir: A Druze Warlord at the Court of the Medici” strode earlier this year.

Gorton’s tome is an historical biography of Fakhr al-Din Maan (1572-1635). The scion of a Druze notable family rooted in Mount Lebanon’s Chouf region, Fakhr al-Din used force of arms, diplomacy and bribery to vastly extend his clan’s influence. From the port town of Sidon, he eventually came to administer Beirut and Tripoli and acquired control over what are today wide swaths of Palestine and rural Syria.

The handsome castle looming over the Roman-era ruins of Palmyra bears his name. Further architectural residues have been preserved for tourists in Deir al-Qamar, the Chouf village with which he’s most closely associated.

In historical convention, Fakhr al-Din is depicted as an emir (prince), whose family held hereditary rights over their lands. This was a rarity in Ottoman administrative practice, where insecurity of tenure, confiscation of properties and redistribution of taxation rights were the norm.

A montagnard who successfully exerted influence over the coast and beyond, Fakhr al-Din has a heroic aspect that’s made him an appealing figure for nationalist historians. Some would depict him as a key figure in founding a Druze-Maronite “Lebanon,” defiant of the despotic Orient and embracing of the liberal West in a way that, they argue, presaged the Lebanese republic.

As Istanbul then saw things, the authority to sanction such prerogatives as Fakhr al-Din exercised resided in the Ottoman household (albeit contingent upon its inclination to enforce its will). In this regard, the late Kamal Salibi – author of one of the two Lebanese national histories published in English – dismissed Fakhr al-Din as an ambitious tax farmer with limited legacy.

Gorton would like to argue that his subject’s legacy – his inclination, say, to put practical matters of business before parochial sectarian prejudice – was more significant than that. To make his case, he consults the handful of extant contemporary accounts of Fakhr al-Din – all of which, he acknowledges, betray such bias as to discount them as reliable sources.

From these, and a few more-recent studies, the author stitches together a story of the notable’s public life – both in Syria and during his 1613-18 European exile. Both facets of Fakhr al-Din’s career make him an intriguing figure for students of the region’s history.

“Renaissance Emir” is an earnest and interested study, but it’s woefully misguided.

The sources at Gorton’s disposal simply divulge too little detail for a political biography. To caulk the gaps, the author added context (a mixture of secondary source information, personal interpretation, narrative reiteration and summation) so that the work resembles history.

Here too the book falls short. Too few, too biased and limited for biography, his sources are even less useful for balanced history, saying much more about the cultural positioning of their authors than their putative subject.

Gorton is an Arabist who has lectured at such prestigious universities as St. Andrews, Scotland, and Georgetown. He’s written widely on the poetry of Al-Andalus, and published volumes of Arabic poetry in translation. “Renaissance Emir” is his second publication to make use of Lebanese history. “Lebanon Through Writers’ Eyes” (2009), the first, is a reader sampling writings from Sinuhe (circa 1875 B.C.) to Amin Maalouf.

An habitué of the commercial life of the Arab Middle East, having spent a quarter of a century negotiating oil concessions, Gorton’s autobiography (were he to write one) would likely be more pertinent to students of the region’s history than anything he’s published so far.

The fact that he’s not a professional historian may explain the vaguely antiquarian approach to his subject.

Since “Renaissance Emir” makes no pretense to be a scholarly history, there is no point itemizing the several shortcomings that will compel serious students of the discipline to grind their teeth, or pour another glass of whiskey.

Perhaps the most egregious of these resides in the author’s relationship to sources. The book’s bibliography has no shortage of references, but there are few fresh studies (like Winter’s, say) that might bring conceptual or scholarly girth to the discussion.

Gorton betrays more affection for the historic accounts from which he draws than criticism. He remarks knowingly upon the untrustworthiness of this material but uses it anyway – presumably deciding that, though skewed, it’s the most authentic available. That could be interesting if his subject were Fakhr al-Din’s “biographers,” but it’s not.

His subject enjoyed a successful career framed by the contingencies of the 16th- and 17th-century Ottoman Empire. To depict the former requires a fair assessment of the latter. Yet, when Gorton briefly turns his attention to that polity, the discussion is riddled with references to its “decline.”

Use of this term betrays the influence of mid-20th-century Orientalist studies (championed by scholars like Bernard Lewis), premised on the authors’ naive reading of Ottoman sources and their knowledge that (three centuries later) the empire was defeated in World War I and dismembered.

Historical hindsight of this sort is the cardinal sin of the discipline. This is one of the reasons Lewis’ brand of Orientalism was discredited – and a once-distinguished scholar reduced to the status of political hack.

With historical fiction, at least, there is less chance innocent readers will mistake the writing for fact.

Here is my answer, posted on October 14th:

For several weeks after first reading Jim Quilty’s review of my biography of Fakhr ad-Din Ma’n, , I fumed to myself and vowed not to dignify it with a response.  However the fuming has got the better of me despite a long-held and usually obeyed principle that silence is the best rebuttal.

 Basically, my book (Renaissance Emir: a Druze Warlord at the Court of the Medici) is accused of being “woefully misguided” (a pretty strong condemnation) because, as he says:

 To make his case, he consults the handful of extant contemporary accounts of Fakhr al-Din – all of which, he acknowledges, betray such bias as to discount them as reliable sources.

 I am further charged with being “affectionate” towards those sources and this is explained by my not being a “professional historian”, by which he seems to mean an academic.  I am accused of Orientalist bias for daring to mention that the Ottoman Empire had begun to decline by the first half of the 17th century, and tarred with the same brush he uses on Bernard Lewis, who is described as a “hack”.  I strongly disagree with several of Lewis’s more contentious ideas, but I suspect the 97-year-old former Chair of Near and Middle Eastern History at SOAS and Professor Emeritus at Princeton has forgotten more about the Islamic world and Turkey in particular than Mr Quilty will ever dream of.

 

I confess to being quite guilty of affection for sources such as the Medici Archives, which are replete with first-hand descriptions of the Emir’s doings during his stay in Florence, as well as preserving the correspondence between him and his noble Medici friends which lasted until the end of his life.  I love the first-hand account of the Oxford scholar George Sandys, whose visit to the Emir in 1610 makes for very informative as well as amusing reading.  I was gripped by the first-hand Arabic biographical memoir by al-Khalidi as-Safadi, which I newly translated for the book.  I was fascinated and, I must admit, moved by the detailed (and first-hand) account of Fakhr ad-Din’s last years by Eugene Roger, his personal physician who was with him almost until the end. 

 What’s not to like about such gems?  These are people who knew the man personally; being human, each had his bias, and I tried to identify what that might be.  To reject them as sources on that account would be absurd.  To use them judiciously is what I would hope a “professional” historian might do, let alone the amateurs such as John Julius Norwich, Lord Kinross, Edward Gibbon and a host of others I am pleased to be lumped with.  I imagine those historians (“professional” or otherwise) who have written biographies of people who lived more than 4 centuries ago have done the same, and some of them might envy me the diverse and rich mine of first-hand sources I had at my disposal.  I do wish Mr Quilty had engaged with the subject-matter of the book, rather than producing a rather strange critique, as long-winded as it is wrong-headed, of my use of sources.  In his zeal to prove his critical acumen on that front, he never says whether the story itself is interesting or well-told, or even significant for those interested in Lebanese history.  That might have been useful for potential readers, which is what reviews are for.  

T.J. Gorton’s “Renaissance Emir: A Druze Warlord at the Court of the Medici” (2013) is published by Quartet Books and is available at discerning booksellers.

  • Pleasant review on Amazon:

    By          Ralph   on September 1, 2013

    Format: Hardcover    Amazon Verified Purchase

    An interesting book about a very troubled region in the past and present. A insight look at a minority in the Levant called Druze and their homeland in today’s Lebanon. Highly recommended for those interested in the Ottoman Empire European and Middle eastern intrigues.

  • Nice new readers’ reviews of Renaissance Emir on the Goodreads website: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17321157-renaissance-emir
  • From Banipal Magazine of Modern Arab Literature (Summer 2013)Banipal 47 Summer 2013
  • from The Scotsman, 4th May 2013

Book reviews: Renaissance Emir

By Michael Kerigan Published on 04/05/2013 00:00

Renaissance Emir

By TJ Gorton

Quartet, £25 ****

In 1613, Fakhr ad-Din, a Prince of the Druze who’d risen up against the Ottomans in Lebanon, took ship at Sidon to escape the Turks’ advancing army. He found refuge in Florence at the court of the Medici. East and West regarded one another in mutual bewilderment, the Italians agog to know what went on in tightly guarded privacy of the harem while their guests were astonished by the Florentines’ love of practical jokes, agreeably surprised by their hospitals, and bowled over by the new institutions called “banks”. A fascinating story in itself, Renaissance Emir also dramatises the situation of the Druze, poised precariously between West and East, between Christianity and Islam.

  • From Barnaby Rogerson, author of The Last Crusaders and many other books:

“Renaissance Emir is a fascinating story, bolder than any historical fiction, rescued from the hidden pages of Levantine history.

Gorton takes us to the secret world of the mysterious Druze and the epic, ultimately tragic tale of their extraordinary prince who dared to defy the mighty Ottoman Empire. ”

  • From Hanan al-Sheikh, author of Beirut Blues and many other books:

“Renaissance Emir reads like a gripping, enjoyable and vivid novel, far from any rigid, sterile researched academic book.

A must read for any one who looks at the history of Lebanon in order to understand the present of this troubled country.”

  • From Robert Irwin, author of For the Lust of Knowing: the Orientalists and their Enemies, The Arabian Nights, a Companion and other books:

“Fakhr al-Din Ma’n, one of the most flamboyant figures of the seventeenth century, bestrode two worlds.

Ted Gorton’s vivid and well-researched account of Fakhr al-Din’s ultimately tragic career guides us into the labyrinths of poltics in both the Ottoman Empire and Medici Tuscany.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s