In a Sea of Knowledge: British Arabists in the Twentieth Century
by Leslie McLoughlin
Reading, U.K.: Ithaca Press, 2002. 288 pp. $49.50
Reviewed by Ibn Warraq
author of Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said's Orientalism
Middle East Quarterly
McLoughlin, historian and professor of Arabic at the University of Exeter, defines "Arabist" as "anyone with a knowledge of Arabic, which is relevant to his or her principal activities and which, to a greater or lesser extent, defines that individual's identity." His study ranges over a motley crew of colorful characters from archaeologists, spies, and explorers, to military officers, diplomats, and ministers of the crown. Unfortunately, the book is poorly structured (the flow of the prose frequently interrupted by "as we shall see"), inelegantly written with little narrative skill, largely anecdotal, and repetitive (which he himself acknowledges with phrases such as "we have seen how"). The reader learns twice that Gertrude Bell died in Baghdad in 1926, three times that E.H. Palmer was murdered in Egypt, and four times that Denison Ross was the first director of the London School of Oriental Studies.
Some famous names weave in and out of his story, but we get only the most superficial impressions of their character, beliefs, and achievements; their often rather harsh assessments of Arab culture, society, and religion are never mentioned let alone discussed. Palgrave, for instance, to whom our author devotes a page and a half, wrote a very uncompromising and unflattering account of the Muslim concept of God, but this goes unmentioned. Travelers such as Doughty and William Kinglake wrote unflinchingly of what they saw in their voyages in Arab lands, but perhaps their opinions are too politically incorrect to quote these days.
That said, I learned with pleasure of new Arabists, such as Thomas Chenery (1826-84), the professor of Arabic at Oxford who later became editor of The Times of London. It was good to find out about the background of William Wright's classic Grammar of the Arabic Language and of the human face behind the scholarship of such learned men as Alfred Beeston and R.A. Nicholson.
Finally, no work that takes issue with Edward Said, however timidly, can be dismissed lightly. McLoughlin takes Said to task in a footnote for not referring to Wilfrid Scawen Blunt: "This striking and influential figure among Orientalists, known for his antiestablishment views is nowhere mentioned by Said in Orientalism."
 London: 1859-62; Cambridge: International Book Centre, 1983.
Related Topics: History | Winter 2008 MEQ
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