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Reviewed by:
  • Europe through Arab Eyes, 1578–1727
  • Ellen R. Welch
Europe through Arab Eyes, 1578–1727. By Nabil Matar. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. 344 pp. $45.00 (cloth).

In Europe through Arab Eyes, Nabil Matar continues the project he began with his previous book, In the Lands of the Christians: Arabic [End Page 326] Travel Writing in the Seventeenth Century (New York: Routledge, 2003), making early modern Arab perspectives on Europe available to scholars whose work pertains chiefly to countries north of the Mediterranean. Spanning the Moroccan defeat of Portuguese invaders in 1578 through the death of Moroccan Muley Isma'il in 1727, Matar's latest study carves out a 150-year period of history characterized by frequent contact and significant cultural exchange between the Arab-Islamic West (defined as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and, to a lesser extent, the Levant) and Christian Europe. This "familiarity" between the two cultures, Matar argues, resulted in "less of a monolithic construction of otherness and more of a diversity of perspectives," at least among Arab writers describing Europe (p. 5). It is possible to dispute the argument that this period represents an exception in the variety and nuance of views of the "other" it records. (Medieval Andalusia immediately leaps to mind.) Matar's book, however, brilliantly illustrates the diversity of Arab perspectives on Europe and Europeans in the early modern period.

In the first half of the book, Matar offers a presentation and analysis of the primary sources that appear in translated excerpts in the second part. Matar adopts a microhistorical approach to his sources, emphasizing the anecdote and the individual perspective over grand narratives to portray the diversity of experiences. The most important distinction among the sources is that between "popular" and "elite" accounts of the European other. The popular sources consist chiefly of the accounts of male and female Muslim captives in Europe or on European galley ships, including both letters written by the captives themselves and oral testimony that belatedly entered the archive via secondhand transcription. Elite sources include the official accounts of ambassadors and royal scribes as well as vivid taqayid (reports on recent historical events) and even a medical treatise (on quinine). In his analysis of these varied sources, Matar emphasizes the ambivalence of Arab perspectives on Europe, highlighting expressions of cooperation, solidarity, friendship, love, and admiration across religious and cultural borders even in the context of captivity, war, and political humiliation.

This diversity and complexity of viewpoints becomes vividly evident in the second half of the book, in which Matar presents original translations of excerpts of twenty different Arabic-language texts that describe Europe or Europeans. Many of these documents clearly illustrate the slippery, changeable nature of religious and national affiliation in the early modern Mediterranean world. The selection includes testimonies by two Europeans who converted to Islam (the Genoan Radwan al-Janawy al-Fasi and the Frenchman Thomas "Osman" d'Arcos), [End Page 327] as well as Muhammad al-Andalusi's touching remembrance of his boyhood in late sixteenth-century Spain, where he secretly learned Arabic writing and Muslim prayers at his father's knee while publicly attending Catholic services and schools. In Abu Faris 'Abd al-'Aziz al-Fishtali's dramatic account of the defeat of the Armada, Queen Elizabeth appears as a proxy for Moroccan ruler al-Mansur, and England's victory is interpreted as a harbinger of future Islamic conquest. Simple distinctions between Christian and Muslim, European and African or Arab, fail to hold up against the intricate dance of cultural attachments and national alliances described in these accounts.

In this sense, Matar's work is an exemplary contribution to early modern Mediterranean studies, delimiting a field of study that inherently problematizes traditional divisions between East and West. The book includes helpful appendices, including a chronology of major events in the history of early modern Mediterranean relations and charts of the rulers of each country mentioned in the book, which facilitate comparative and transnational study.

Clearly intended primarily for scholars of early modern Europe, Matar makes his material readily accessible to those with limited knowledge of North African and Middle Eastern history and the Arabic language. Matar's translations are...


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pp. 326-329
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