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Arabs: A 3,000-Year History of Peoples, Tribes and Empires

4.21  ·  Rating details ·  295 ratings  ·  59 reviews
A riveting, comprehensive history of the Arab peoples and tribes that explores the role of language as a cultural touchstone

This kaleidoscopic book covers almost 3,000 years of Arab history and shines a light on the footloose Arab peoples and tribes who conquered lands and disseminated their language and culture over vast distances. Tracing this process to the origins of
Hardcover, 630 pages
Published April 30th 2019 by Yale University Press (first published 2019)
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Tariq Mahmood
Aug 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing
With little written history, but a whole lot of oral tradition, its little wonder that Tim has taken writing about the Arabs focusing on their language and cultural traditions, which makes this book very unique. The Arabs have pretty much maintained their rich tribal culture of raiding and pillaging through the pre-Islamic era to the modern times of ISIS type raids. It's a culture which to this day glorifies the Beduin way of life over stable urban life which is completely opposite to most weste ...more
Alex O'Connor
May 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
One of the most fascinating books I have ever read. Mackintosh Smith masterfully weaves the history of the Arabs through the lens of the evolution of the Arabic language, articulating his mastery of the Arabic language and how it has shaped the people in turn. I learned a massive amount from this book. The history read like a thriller, and the author is an incredible story teller.

However, towards the end of the book, the author's hatred of Israel and Zionism came out very strongly, as could be
Mar 31, 2019 rated it it was amazing
An excellent, and enormous (536 pages plus end matter), history of the Arab people (whatever that means; as Mackintosh-Smith shows, the definition is far from clear), from pre-Islamic times right up to the present day. He makes an important distinction between “Arab” and “Muslim”; not all of the former are the latter, and vice versa, although the global spread of Arabs and Arab-ness is due in large part to Islam and the empire won and enjoyed by early caliphs. Mostly, Mackintosh-Smith says, Arab ...more
Leonard Singer
This book can’t be rated. The author is rabidly anti-Israel. As examples:

-the books says that the only place that post holocaustJews could be sent without causing a problem was Antartica. p 442

- the book cites pre-1948 Jewish terrorism but no Arab terrorism against the Jews. eg, p. 462

- the book does not mention the UN resolution about Israel, the Israelis acceptance of the UN boundaries, or the other nations’ recognition of Israel.

- the book states that the “disaster of 1948” will not be remed
Omar Ali
Oct 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Tim Mackintosh Smith is one of those romantic Englishmen who used to go and settle in far off lands and "go native". He lives in Yemen (apparently still there, even during the civil war) and has been writing about the region and the Arab people for several decades. This book is the culmination of a lifetime of study, a comprehensive history of a people and civilization to which he has become attached and about whom he knows more than most. It is well worth reading.

He begins by making it clear th
Nigel Kotani
Feb 09, 2020 rated it it was amazing
In 1992 on a flight from Cairo to Sana'a I found myself sitting next to an Englishman of almost exactly my age who was returning to his home in Yemen. Smalltalk developed into conversation, which developed into an offer of a lift from the airport into the city. Once he had blagged his way through immigration - he didn't have a visa - the lift developed into an offer to stay at his house for the night, which led to me using his house as my base for the next six weeks as I explored that magnificen ...more
Tim Pendry

This is a humane, scholarly but highly readable book by one of that diminishing breed, the sensitive British Arabist who is as much Arab as British and who manages to be both detached in observation and engaged as a liberal who loves his adopted culture.

He is based in Yemen. South Arabian and Yemeni examples and anecdotes pepper the book giving perhaps a slight bias against the Maghreb and Mashriq in favour of the complexities of the Arabian heartlands. But you can only do so much in 536 pages.
This was, overall, a pretty good book. One of its best aspects is the eloquent style and the depth of the author's knowledge of the subject matter.

Unfortunately however, his knowledge seems to be biased towards the Middle East proper (Arabia, Levant, Mesopotamia, Egypt) about which he writes profusely, whereas the Maghreb is depicted with only some sketchy less satisfying details. Thus many uninformed readers might assume that history unrolled in a more or less similar manner in the Maghreb, as
Sagheer Afzal
Apr 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This book deserves to be remembered as a modern day classic of scholarship. Tim Mackintosh Smith writes with great lucidity and insight, and he has a way with words. Throughout the book there are some nice alliterative flourishes. For instance describing the Abbasid Caliphate as ‘200 years of pathos, and 300 years of bathos’ as well some very insightful comments about Islam such as: ‘The Quran was embalmed in sanctity and shrouded in layers of exegesis. Public ritual tended to be more important ...more
Aug 10, 2020 rated it really liked it
This book had me captivated, until we arrived at the modern period. What started as a brilliantly emphatic history of the Arabs from before Islam till our times, ended in a poor and biased coverage of the most recent hundred or so years. Written from his home in war-torn Yemen his cynism over the meddling of modern empires like Britain and France, and later of the United States in carving out modern borders can be excused. What can't be excused is the lack of balance and historical depth in the ...more
Jan 04, 2020 rated it it was amazing
If you are a person for whom any negative opinions about Israel amount to anti-Semitism, don't bother with this book - it's about Arabs and Arab viewpoints and makes no pretense of including other viewpoints or the history of other peoples except when they (like Persia/Iran) impinge on or further the stories of Arabs.

Now that that's out of the way - this was fascinating. I know I haven't retained most of it, and couldn't keep all the individuals straight, but it was very enlightening about who a
Sep 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing
If every history book I read were like this one I would have no complaints. Long before I finished I was already having intimations that it would become one of my favorite books I've ever read, and it is. This is an astounding exploration of a history bound by language, if only rarely unified by any means (ethnic, religious, or political) whatsoever, and of the deep forces and dualities, the "wheels of fire" that drive it inward and outward and continue to turn. The author's style is dazzling, v ...more
Jan 17, 2020 rated it it was ok
The part about pre-Islam Arabs were amazing and well connected to the current situation of Islam and Arabs. I have not learned much from the other parts and it was disappointing. My expectations from a 2019 history book was more. Also I found over emphasis of culture and repetition of that as a barrier in the flow of the text narrative.
In my personal view what the author called Arabic culture in a lot of cases is Islamic culture. The distinction between these two could help the book.
A fascinating work on the history of the Arabs, going back far into the pre-Islamic past and tracing the continuity and changes to faultlines and communities within Arabdom. This is a pretty approachable read for an outsider, full of fun anecdotes like the one about the Himyari king who addressed an Arab man who'd come to him for an audience, standing on the terrace wall. The king ordered him to Thib (which meant jump in Arabic, the language of the desert tribesman), while meaning sit in the ton ...more
Jun 09, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
Not a book i would have picked up if I had not read several published reviews. I read Hourani’s years ago and thought that was enough. But this is a case where the magisterial writing elevates the story and transports the reader, making this one of the most engaging, even emotional, histories I have read in a long time.
Sep 05, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is a brilliant book for anybody trying to understand the Arab world in it entire magnitude
Mar 13, 2020 rated it really liked it
Mackintosh-Smith here covers the history of the Arabs back from their first appearance in the historical record through the present. As someone who has lived in Yemen for decades, he is particularly attentive to that corner of the Arabian Peninsula, but he does try to take in the whole sweep of the territory where Arabs live. He's similarly good about covering different time periods; while the emergence and expansion of Islam gets more than its share of pages as you might expect, the distributio ...more
Aug 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing
An excellently written book by a gifted writer. Rather than focusing attention on Arab culture as a reflection of Islam, the author takes a unique point of view and examines a rich history through the lens of language. His writing style is rich, wry and eminently enjoyable. For non Arabic speakers he carefully explains the evolution of the language, the cultural impact of language and the role it plays today in providing a commonality for a people diversified by various bloodlines.

The author’s
Neil McGee
May 11, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Very very long, and also extremely informative.

Didn't capture me, but I stuck with it through the finish.

The 5 star rating to reflect the extreme effort entailed to research & publish 3,000 year's of Arabian history. (Some may find this information useful, I have to say that I gave it a chance to increase my global knowledge, yet I still can not relate.
Chris Jaffe
Aug 02, 2019 rated it liked it
I had trouble getting into this book. The author often focuses on language - the spoken and written word (grammar, poetic stylings, rhetoric), and while those things are important, those sections left me flat and interrupted the flow of what he was talking about. The early parts of the book often read like academic ponderings more than anything else. I half-checked out of the book early on, and never fully got back in.

The very early Arabs were divided between a civilized/settled south and a noma
Apr 07, 2020 rated it really liked it
Arabs: A 3,000-Year History of Peoples, Tribes, and Empires by Tim Mackintosh-Smith is undoubtedly one of the best books written on Arab history. The amount of research which went into this book is astounding and it manages to cover the history of thousands of years in a succinct and concise manner. Writing on such a topic does prove challenging, especially considering the fact that the material for pre-Arab history is scarce but Tim Mackintosh-Smith writes about Arab history well without relyin ...more
Peter Goodman
Sep 29, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, non-fiction

“Arabs: a 3,000-year history of people, tribes and empires,” by Tim Mackintosh-Smith (Yale, 2019). Roll out the superlatives, gang: brilliant, extraordinary, superb, etc. Mackintosh-Smith wrote this from Yemen during the war that is still going on. Occasionally he drops a comment about the slogans, the dead boys, the bombing going on around him. It is hard to imagine such an immense project as this---tremendously detailed, covering as the (this time justified) subtitle says, 3,000 years. The wri
Apr 14, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
Arabs is as much a history of Arabic speaking peoples as it is a history of the language that somewhat tenuously unites them. The other author has a couple of main themes that run throughout this 500+ page book. The first is that Fusha (Modern Standard or Hight Arabic), the language supposedly unites these peoples, is a myth. It is not spoken on the streets, in homes, or in day-to-day life. When compared to the vastness of their number, few Arabs now, or ever have truly mastered the language of ...more
Cian Mac Lochlainn
Oct 26, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A truly engrossing and enlightening read about a part of the world that is deeply underappreciated by contemporary Westerners for its contributions to human civilisation. Tim Mackintosh-Smith is a talented and articulate writer who combines his deep love of the Arab World with rigorous historical research to show an incredibly human side to history.

Having grown up with the Arab world being associated with conflict and instability, I have endeavoured to understand more about that place that inter
Feb 26, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Wonderful! I started reading this book quickly and ended up enjoying every word slowly. For those of us who enjoy historical analysis dealing with larger structures of the global past, THIS book is the history of a language and its role in the shaping of several civilizations who spoke this language. The tandem counter-play between the nomadic and the stationary life patterns (both of which and many combinations of these over thousands of years) are what TMS means by the loose fitting term,"Arab ...more
A panoramic look at Arab history that achieves that venerable mix of information, entertainment, and tragedy which every great book of history contains. The author does not begin his history of Arabs at Islam ground-zero, as some books of the same kind, but before that, and takes you through the ages, the Arabic language itself being the guide. From Assyrian war logs in 900 BC mentioning a fight with a "Gindibu", a 1000-camel strong battalion leader, to the current year of 2020.

Nerd Sniper
Dec 07, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, dec-19
Around 3.7 to be precise.

Although, some parts of this book (especially first few chapters) were just an inspired version of Philip Hitti's, but still it was a very good book which came agonizingly short of becoming an excellent book due to couple of shortcomings:

i-) Author tried to put plenty of things either from Southern Arab/Yemen's point of view or just finding a correlation with Southern Arab (at times it feels this book should be titled Southern Arab and rest of Arab too - I lost the coun
Feb 17, 2020 rated it liked it
I’m really very glad I read this. I’m also glad it’s over. Other reviewers will explain the remarkable breadth and research in this book, it’s clearly the cumulation of decades of study and is excellent in many ways for giving a solid overview of a fascinating subject. So why only three stars? Because, more often than not, I found this such a chore to get through. It was just too academic. I compare it to The English And Their History by Robert Tombs. That was about 300 pages longer and covered ...more
Aug 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: middle-east
An astonishingly good book, beyond my ability to summarise in a few sound bites.

You sometimes come across a book that reflects a lifetime's study and reflection; this is one of them. The author is British but has made his home in Arabia, and writes with knowledge of the history of the Arabic speakers and how Islam changed the world (and their world) by internationalising the domain they (briefly) ruled and were then ruled.

For me the strength is how he identifies strands that have developed to th
Jonathan Mckay
Oct 16, 2020 rated it liked it
67th,61st books of 2020: Civilization is Just Another Tale...

Arabs: a 3000 year journey. “Ink is thicker than blood”

What does it mean to be an Arab? Western ideology is so enamored with the idea of a nation-state, that it has become difficult for us to imagine the world split on orthogonal axes. Nobody ever speaks of 'pan-romanism' as an influence in modern affairs, or the 'Romantic speaking world'. Without nations, peoples, or states to fall back upon, and unable to write histories without t
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