By the time of his death, Manchester-born Albert Hourani (1915-93) had been recognized by his guild as the doyen of Middle Eastern historical studies. From his redoubt at St. Antony's College, Oxford, he sent out dozens of students to all four corners, bearing the Hourani gospel: "Now we are in the age of ‘social history'… within a framework of ideas derived from Marxism, or from the historians of the Annales school." In short, Hourani became the great apostle of faddism in Middle Eastern studies, which have yet to recover.
As Al-Sudairi shows, Hourani first labored in the vineyards of intellectual history. What student does not remember struggling through his Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, wondering whether this could possibly be the sum of Arab liberalism? The book left no clue as to what would follow: Nasser, Asad, Saddam, and variations thereof. After Hourani despaired of contemporary Arab politics, he shifted his focus to society. And since contemporary society also presented a dismal picture, he began to send students on nostalgic quests into the Ottoman period. Many of his grads landed in America, but he himself resisted all offers: from Oxford he could preside, pasha-like, over a very Ottoman network of patron-client relationships.
Al-Sudairi's book performs two services. First, it reminds us that Hourani began his career as a publicist for Palestine. Despite his scholarly posture, this passion was never far from the surface. "Baudelaire said, the heart has one vintage only," Hourani wrote in 1957. "If so, mine will be marked forever by what happened in Palestine." (His Israeli students and admirers used to invite him, naively, to conferences in Jerusalem. Of course, Hourani never accepted.) Al-Sudairi's second service is to underline how Hourani's own liberal bias distorted his "vision," making him an unreliable guide to the intolerant Arab world of his own time.
Just before Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, Harvard University Press published Hourani's synthesis, A History of the Arab Peoples. "Albert watched with astonishment when it crept up the bestseller list of The New York Times," wrote a friend, the American diplomatic historian Wm. Roger Louis, "and so did I because I thought it was almost unreadable."1 While Hourani lived, the sheer force of his personality kept readers turning his pages. Now that he is gone, the shelf seems fated to grow cold.
1 Wm. Roger Louis, "Historians I Have Known," Perspectives, Mar. 2001, at http://www.theaha.org/perspectives/issues/2001/0105/0105pre1.cfm.