quicksand, offal

Jeremy survived his flight. I know, shock. Now he’s only facing the usual risks of a traveler in Cambridgeshire: quicksand, offal, disgruntled undergraduates.

Extreme tiredness has prompted a phase of reading first fantasy (some Kage Baker, some Emma Bull) then several old favourites. The latter inspired me to write my novel in the style of each. When I picked up Gertrude Stein the other day, I decided Anne’s voice would be all run-on sentences in lower case. Pnin rebuilt my plot in short-story blocks. Now I have my hot paws on Jessica Mitford’s Hons & Rebels, I’m working on a brittle aristocratic comedy of manners.

Yet another reason I love living in San Francisco: my copy of Hons & Rebels is inscribed to “Randy” from “Decca”, which was Mitford’s nickname. She lived and died in Oakland, so it’s almost certainly her handwriting. Took my breath away.

I gave up on both Crystal Fire (so badly written I couldn’t bear it) and The End of Faith (tweaked my anxiety over Jeremy’s flight). A History of Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, was a big success. The author Madawi al-Rasheed is descended from the Rashids, the only emirate that seriously challenged the Saud-Wahhabi hegemony in the Nejd, so the book is that rara avis, history told by someone other than the victors.

The chapters on the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries helped me sort out the dramatis personae and their shifting alliances – Rashids, Sauds and Hashemites all playing off the Ottomans and the British for an edge in local politics. Social fissures everywhere – between oasis and tribes, town and countryside, Sunni and Shia, religious and political authorities, emirates and empires – presented substantial opportunities to the ambitious young man.

As the Ottoman Empire crumbled, Britain sent guns and money but opted for a hands-off managerial style. Eventually Ibn Saud took a haphazardly-federated Arabia (Najd, Hijaz, Hasa, Asir) while the Hashemite sons Abdullah and Faisal got the freshly-minted, largely fictional nations of Transjordan and Iraq.

Al-Rasheed made a very good point about the Shia farming community in Hasa, despised by the bedouin for being Shiites and fellahin and for not knowing their tribal genealogies. She argues that loss of genealogy does not necessarily indicate a foreign or non-Arab origin: it may be just another consequence of sedentarism, settled people tending to lose their stories. This ties nicely into the pictures Anne and Thesiger tend to paint of nomads wrangling amicably for hours over the lineage of their cousin or camel.

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