Books trace footprints of two complex peoples

Published November 1, 2005

Dearest Auntie Fori is a history of the Jews written in the form of letters. Fori, to whom the letters were addressed, was the mother of Ashok, an Indian student that Sir Martin Gilbert, one of Britain’s most prolific historians, befriended while studying at Oxford.

On a visit to India, Mr. Gilbert met Fori and found out that she was not Indian at all but Jewish and born in Budapest. Fori’s surname in Austro-Hungary had been Friedman but was changed by her father to Forbath (and the daughter soon nicknamed Fori). Knowing little about the Jews she asked Mr. Gilbert if he would help her learn their history. The result is Dearest Auntie Fori, a series of 141 letters written over a period of two-and-a half years. It also contains a number of maps, drawn by Mr. Gilbert, showing the main locations of Jewish residency over the centuries.

Mr. Gilbert has written 72 books, 17 of them with a Jewish theme. Best known for his multi-volume history of Sir Winston Churchill, Mr. Gilbert is a gifted writer who has the ability to make history meaningful and relevant. Dearest Auntie Fori is short as histories go, particularly one as long as that of the Jews, but it is very interesting and will be enjoyed by those who know little of Jewish history as well as those well versed in the subject.

Dearest Auntie Fori is divided into four parts, the first three being a history of the Jews and the fourth, faith and worship, on the traditions of Judaism. Part one, the Biblical era, is based exclusively on the Old Testament. All sections are quite detailed and, while it is easy to remember the general flow of Jewish history, it becomes difficult to remember the many names, apart from the Biblical ones that Mr. Gilbert chose to include.

The most noticeable aspect of this history is its unsettled nature. There was no country where Jews could settle permanently, until the creation of the State of Israel. They may have been welcome in one location for some years because of the support of one particular ruler, but when another ruler gained power, the protection might end and the persecution begin. Thus began the wandering and searching for a new home, a hallmark of much of Jewish history.

A History of the Arab Peoples is very different. Scholarly and well documented with an extensive bibliography, it is written more in the style of a textbook. It has many maps, which show, over time, the extent of the Arab world. It also has numerous other features including family trees of the Family of the Prophet and the Shi’i Imams (prayer leaders), lists of the Caliphs (community leaders) and Important Dynasties and an index of terms. All are useful and add significantly to the reader’s understanding of a complex and controversial history. The book is well illustrated.

Albert Hourani, who died in 1993, was a highly regarded Islamic scholar. An emeritus scholar of St. Antony’s College, Oxford, he authored many books on the Arabs and Islam. A History of the Arab Peoples tells the story of the Arabs from before the birth of Mohammed, circa 570, up to 1993, with clarity and understanding, something often lacking in the contemporary media. Malise Ruthven, who taught Islamic studies and edited the BBC’s Arab and World Studies Services, wrote the final chapter of Mr. Hourani’s book. He completes the history up to 2002 in a most readable fashion.

The history of the Arabs is not an easy one to tell. It is full of inconsistencies. Much of it, from shortly after Mohammed’s death in 632, deals with conflict and the expansion of the Arabs. After an area was conquered, however, tolerance of the defeated people, particularly Christians and Jews, was often a feature of Arab rule. While not forced to convert, this frequently happened and non-Arabs assimilated. Even those who did not often rose to positions of prominence and were considered valued members of government and society, a feature that seems to be missing from the contemporary Arab world. Thomas F. Chambers is a retired college teacher living in North Bay, Ont.


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