Thanks to Covid-19 turning our homes into blissful detention centres, I’ve had time to re-read four fascinating and, to me, evergreen works. Friends sometimes run away, afraid I may talk about these tomes again. Two are by a remarkable American scholar, Barbara Tuchman, and two by Britons — Lord Kinross and Sir John Bagot Glubb “Pasha”.

Tuchman’s pen has a magic quality; it makes men who left an imprint on world history come alive as characters as fascinating as they are disgusting. Author of nearly a dozen books, Tuchman accepted a British publisher’s challenge to write a book on the first 60 days of World War I.

Giving readers a historical and diplomatic background to help them understand why Europe plunged into a slaughter unprecedented till then in world history, Tuchman highlighted one pitiable truth: those who had flaunted their warmongering streaks and hoped to bask in victorious glory were on the verge of nervous breakdowns, as the war juggernaut they had themselves fostered appeared a frightening certainty.

The Guns of August is more than a narration of moves on Europe’s diplomatic chessboard, or of obsolete war plans by incompetent generals who still believed in a cavalry charge or an infantry assault to dislodge an enemy pouring hell from machine guns. It is a pen portrait of a bewildering variety of characters, such as Queen Victoria’s megalomaniac grandson, the Kaiser, who told his soldiers to behave like “the Huns of Attila”, or his chief of general staff Helmuth von Moltke — “Tall, heavy, bald and 66 years old”, he “habitually wore an expression of profound distress.”

Some are forlorn, such as Belgium’s King Albert. Many are obnoxious from their very look and gait, such as Herbert Kitchener, whose face appeared on recruitment posters and who, as Britain’s war minister, barred news reporters from the front.

World War I, Palestine, Ottomans, Mongols and Arabs — a history buff cannot get enough

There is Sir John French, heading an army, yet determined to dodge battles. There is French army chief Joseph Joffre, “massive and paunchy”, his outstanding quality being “a habitual silence that in other men would have seemed self-deprecatory.” Then there is Tsar Nicholas, whose father deliberately kept him uneducated in statecraft till the age of 30 and whose regime was a “tangle of blindness, cowardice, craftiness and stupidity.”

The Kaiser-Moltke duo pinned their hopes on Alexander von Kluck, who was to be the hammerhead spearheading the German right wing to implement Alfred von Schlieffen’s strategic doctrine for reaching France: a blitz through Belgium. With his Prussian training and ruthlessness, von Kluck adhered to the invasion schedule, defeated the British at the Battle of Mons and headed toward the French capital.

Von Kluck was “tall and majestic, with a scarred, clean-shaven face, hard features and a frightening glance. In his right hand he carried a soldier’s rifle and his left rested on the butt of a revolver.” Showing scant regard for civilian life, von Kluck found “piles of coats, boots and ammunition” dumped by the British as confirming his opinion of “a beaten opponent.”

With von Kluck’s troops within 50 kilometres of Paris, the high command at Berlin decided to distribute the medals made just for the occasion, “Paris 1871-1914”, reminding Europe of Prussian victory over Napoleon III’s army in the 19th century.

But then something went wrong. Von Kluck suddenly changed course to cross the Marne instead of moving toward Paris. Two French officers watching his movement cried out simultaneously in the war room: “They offer us their flank! They offer us their flank!” A desperate Joffre declared: “Gentlemen, we will fight on the Marne.” Paris, emptied of people and government, was saved.

Another page-turner by Tuchman is Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour. Tuchman, of course, has Zionist sympathies, idolises Theodor Herzl, but has the scholarly honesty to point out the injustices to the Arabs and the contradiction between the Balfour declaration and Britain’s commitments to the Arabs.

The League of Nations’ mandate to Britain, she says, was a “legal fiction”, and nowhere were the Arabs referred to in the memorandum issued by the San Remo conference, except as “other sections of the population”, or “various other communities and people.” The chapters on the Crusades, Saladin and Richard the Lionheart make for fascinating reading (Saladin used to call Richard Malik Ric).

If he read out a statement the man had brought, Pasha would get twice the amount offered for his lectures. The statement said that Pasha had great respect for the state of Israel, because the Jews had returned to their homeland where they were building a democratic society and waging a heroic struggle for survival against hostile neighbours. Pasha didn’t oblige.

The third of the evergreens is Lord Kinross’s The Ottoman Centuries. It traces Ottoman history from its beginning as a khanate to the glory under Selim the Grim and Suleiman the Magnificent, followed by the inevitable decline. This retreat wasn’t a shame, like that of the Mughal empire, which collapsed like a house of cards. The Ottoman retreat was a seesaw struggle against the Habsburgs and the Romanovs, till its extinction and rejuvenation under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Kinross also wrote Ataturk’s biography.

Kinross gives lots of non-political and non-military information about the Ottomans, such as some sultans having commercial skills — Mehmet II, conqueror of Constantinople, was an expert gardener, specialising in flowers and vegetables; Selim I, whose sword

Napoleon cherished, and Suleiman the Magnificent were “skilled goldsmiths.” Adds Kinross: “Abdul Hamid II was to specialise in cabinetmaking with intricate inlay; while others of the imperial line worked at such crafts as embroidery, the making of bows and the sharpening of knives and swords.”

The fourth evergreen is a quartet of works by Glubb Pasha: The Great Arab Conquests, The Empire of the Arabs, Course of Empire and The Lost Centuries. His other books are Haroon al Rasheed and the Great Abbasids, A Short History of the Arab Peoples and Glubb’s autobiography, The Changing Scenes of Life, which doesn’t have much stuff because whatever he had to say he had already written in his earlier books. What I miss having not read is Soldier with the Arabs.

Two distinct features characterise Pasha’s books and his personality. First, he says the dialects of Cairo and Damascus didn’t constitute his Arabic. He spoke the Bedouin language, passed decades with them, ate and drank with them, slept in tents and soldiered with Bedouin tribes. This taught him the “real Arabic” as it existed during Islam’s early days and helped him understand why certain decisions of historic importance were made the way they were made.

The other feature is the maps in his books. Unlike the disasters masquerading as maps in Tuchman’s The Guns of August, maps in Pasha’s books simplify points where the repetition of names and places sometimes confuses the reader. Having a style of their own, Pasha’s maps carry dates of battles, army routes, details of treaties made, lands exchanged and regime change, besides genealogical trees. Every map is a lesson in history.

Pasha’s The Lost Centuries begins with the Crusades, covers an era dominated by Turco-Mongols and ends with ‘A Roman Death’ — the chapter on the 1453 fall of Constantinople. The book portrays Tamerlane for what he was: an embodiment of Mongol savagery and Persian sophistication. His humiliation of Ottoman princesses after winning the battle of Ankara (1402) was most shocking. He destroyed all cities, farms and fields as he pursued Toktamish, the Golden Horde chieftain, right up to Moscow, which he didn’t sack.

In the Islamic heartland, after destroying the Ottomans and devastating the Middle East, this savage had an intellectual dialogue with Ibne Khaldun, asking him what would be the fate of his empire. The scholar replied that, like all empires, it would break up. Tamerlane also invited Sheikh Saadi over for a bit of banter and teased him — while the lame conqueror was himself getting tired of war — about Saadi giving away the land between Samarkand and Bokhara for the mole on his beloved’s cheek.

He asked Saadi to come with him to Samarkand, but the poet refused, because he knew that, once in Samarkand, he wouldn’t be allowed to return to his beloved Iran. With the help of the artisans and architects he had taken prisoner during his campaigns, Tamerlane built, what Olaf Caroe terms in his book Soviet Empire: The Turks of Central Asia and Stalinism, one of the world’s finest plazas.

All of Tamerlane’s victims were Muslim and Turk — the Golden Horde in Eurasia, the Tughluqs in India and the Ottomans. But for him, says Pasha, Ukraine would today be Muslim. But as he led his highly disciplined army toward China to conquer the world’s last remaining empire, Tamerlane was a sad man; the grandson he wanted as successor was killed in battle at Ankara, and his beloved wife, Malika Khanum, had died. No wonder the poetry he wrote on the way to China was his best. He himself died near Kashgar.

After being sacked by Jordan’s King Hussein, Glubb Pasha found himself penniless in Britain. The British army told him he hadn’t completed the required number of years to get a pension, and he got the same answer from Jordan. The general then decided to begin a new career — writing.

In one book, Glubb Pasha relates a revealing incident. Invited on a lecture tour in America, as he waited for his flight, a man approached him and said news reporters would be waiting for him at New York’s airport; if he read out a statement the man had brought, Pasha would get twice the amount offered for his lectures. The statement said that Pasha had great respect for the state of Israel, because the Jews had returned to their homeland where they were building a democratic society and waging a heroic struggle for survival against hostile neighbours. Pasha didn’t oblige.

There is another evergreen, Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories of a City. But on that, perhaps later.

The writer is Dawn’s External Ombudsman and an author

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 20th, 2021

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