The Makings of History / Frankly Speaking


Usama Ibn Munqidh was a Muslim warrior who lived a few too many years: When he died in Damascus, in November 1188, he was 97 years old, according to the Muslim calendar, and 93 according to the Christian one. In the year of his birth, 1095, Pope Urban II delivered the speech that launched the First Crusade; a year before his death, Saladin entered Jerusalem. Ibn Munqidh and Saladin knew each other; sometimes they would play chess together. But the final years of his life were hard; his legs weakened and his hands trembled. Alone and depressed, Ibn Munqidh said of his dastardly exhaustion: "What a surprise it is that my hand be too feeble to carry a pen, after it had been strong enough to break a lance in a lion's breast."

Segev - book - December 23, 2011

Fortunately he remained lucid, and even though he no longer had the strength to write himself, Ibn Munqidh managed to dictate his memoirs. He had a story worth telling and knew how to tell it with grace, humor and even self-reflective irony. His language was folksy and fluent.

Ibn Munqidh was a warrior and a hunter of lions and cheetahs, a poet and an adventurer, a charming diplomat and a devious politician. He loved schemes and intrigue, and became entangled in murders and acts of revenge, and various scandals that he himself caused. More than anything else he coveted books; he was an obsessive collector.

The sole manuscript of his memoirs wound up in a Spanish monastery, where it was discovered in 1880; it has since been published numerous times, in several languages, including in English in 1929. Now a Hebrew version, "The Lessons of my Life: Memoirs of an Arab Nobleman and Warrior in the Times of the Crusades," has come out in Hebrew translation by Ella Almagor (Xargol Publishing ).

The Munqidhs were Bedouin who ruled the Shaizar region in what is present-day northern Syria; their territory spread around a fortress-city built on a cliff, which was completely destroyed in an 1158 earthquake. Ibn Munqidh's entire family was killed in the quake; he himself was out of town at the time.

Syria was the focal point at that time of a series of battles and conflicts. The life of Ibn Munqidh, as son of Shaizar's ruler, was intertwined with that of various leaders, whom he served as an adviser and fighter. He was forced to flee and go into exile - once in Egypt, another time in Damascus, and also visited Jerusalem and other parts of the Land of Israel.

The central public event in his life was the invasion of the Crusaders, whom he and his contemporaries called "Al Ifranj" or "Franks." Ibn Munqidh apparently looked at them with a mixture of curiosity and animosity. Here and there he could appreciate those who managed to assimilate into local society, but for the most part he described the Europeans sharply as both rude and ignorant, and mocked their stupidity.

"An amusing thing that happened in connection with a horse was the following," he recounted in his memoirs: "My brother gave it as part of the rent of a village which was owned by a Frankish knight from Kafartab. The horse remained in the possession of the knight for a year, after which it died. So the knight sent word to us, claiming its price. We told him, 'Thou has bought it and used it, and it died in thy possession. What right hast thou to demand its price?' He replied, "Ye must have given it something to drink and of which it would die after a year.' His ignorance and low intelligence amazed us" (English translation by Philip K. Hitti, "An Arab-Syrian Gentleman and Warrior in the Period of the Crusades," Columbia University Press ).

Here is another anecdote from Ibn Munqidh, involving a wine merchant: "One day this Frank went home and found a man with his wife in the same bed. He asked him, 'What could have made thee enter into my wife's room?' The man replied, 'I was tired, so I went in to rest.' 'But how,' asked he, 'didst thou get into my bed?' The other replied, 'I found a bed that was spread, so I slept in it.' 'But,' said he, 'my wife was sleeping together with thee!' The other replied, 'Well, the bed is hers. How could I therefore have prevented her from using her own bed?' 'By the truth of my religion,' said the husband, 'if thou shouldst do it again, thou and I would have a quarrel.'"

Ibn Munqidh could hardly believe his ears: "Such was for the Frank the entire expression of his disapproval and the limit of his jealousy," he commented in amazement.

In his book, he related hundreds of similar episodes from the daily lives of Muslims and Christians. It seems he did not know any Jews, or else was not interested in them. The lesson he learned over the course of his many years is that life is limited to begin with: Avoiding danger will not put off the end, and risking one's life will not bring it any closer. Fortunately he did not seek to bequeath philosophical lessons to his readers, but rather his memories.

The scholar of Islam Philip K. Hitti, who translated the book into English in 1929, said that in our day Ibn Munqidh would be awarded a prize for journalism.