Monday, July 04, 2011

Review: Samarkand by Amin Maalouf

Maalouf, Amin. Samarkand. New York: Interlink Books; 1996. ISBN: 1566561949. Paperback. 301 pp.

This is the first historical fiction novel I've reviewed for this blog. Typically, I'm not thrilled with historical fiction because I had at one time entertained the idea of becoming a professional historian and the historical fiction I had read seemed heavy on the fiction side of the equation.
Nevertheless, some university professors like to assign historical fiction and its close relative travelogues as comparatively light reading in entry-level history classes. It seems to be an even more popular method in lower educational levels, and professional teachers discuss how to use them more effectively.

I do believe historical fiction like Samarkand is an excellent way to generate interest in historical inquiry. Furthermore, I believe Professor Amin did an excellent job balancing entertainment, information and presenting his point of view of contemporary majority-Muslim societies.

For most of the novel, the primary characters are Omar Khayyam, Nizam al-Mulk and al-Hasan ibn al-Sabbah. Professor Amin make a few quick stops before introducing the final historical period of the novel, late 19th century C.E. and early 20th century C.E. Persia.

I personally was nearly completely ignorant about this period of Persia's history. Maybe Professor Amin did take license with the character of Howard Baskerville, but isn't it wonderful that I now know his name?  People like Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Morgan Shuster and Mirza Reza Kirmani should be familiar to educated North American Muslims, and Amin Maalouf does a great job making the reader want to learn more.

But more than all this, I felt that the author had something to say about events occurring today, particularly the political extremism in religious clothing and the process of revolution.  Amin Maalouf recently gave an interview in Arabic about the revolutions in North Africa and Southwest Asia in which he explicitly endorses the features of these revolutions which he had implicitly endorsed in the revolutions of Samarkand.

I had heard of Omar Khayyam, but Professor Amin's use of translated passages of the rubaa`yyaat encouraged me to study them in more detail and more sensitivity. In addition, Samarkand offers a method of approaching Omar Khayyam other than focusing on his iconoclastic statements and behavior. Ironically, both those who believe that all outstanding Muslim personalities were outstanding only to the extent of their irreligiosity and those who condemn him for violating generally-accepted mores of speech and behavior seem to promote this one dimension of Omar Khayyam's life to the detriment of the study of his asceticism, contributions to science and political philosphy.

Finally, his description of Russian and British control over Persia allows students unfamiliar with colonialism to understand its mechanisms.

Note that Amin Maalouf wrote this book in French, and Russell Harris translated it into English.

P.S. I'm currently listening to Mahmud al-Sa`dany's book Misr min tani. It has some similar features, although it is not explicitly "historical fiction." Its eight episodes can be downloaded from

P.P.S. The city of Samarkand features prominently in The Years of Rice and Salt, an alternate history novel by the science fiction giant Kim Stanley Robinson.