Monday, December 10, 2007

Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East, by Juan Cole

Juan Cole is a Middle East specialist at the University of Michigan, best known for his daily blog Informed Comment, which discusses developments in Iraq, the United States and elsewhere from a critical perspective. He's been criticized for saying (before it was self-evident and even popular) that Bush's policies were disastrous. I look at his blog every day because he takes his information not from the US press, which has shown itself to be pretty useless to those who want to understand the situation, but from a variety of Middle Eastern sources. Cole's perspective is useful because he understands Arabic, has lived in the Middle East, and is an expert on Shiite movements.

Somehow in the last while he has found time to write a good book on Napoleon's 1798 invasion of Egypt. That invasion, which I always thought put Napoleon in a particularly bad light, is often treated as some kind of aberration, which need not be taken very seriously when evaluating Napoleon or his era.

Cole thinks that the invasion of Egypt is far more important than that, and for me at least he makes his point. In my reading about the great revolutionary era on either side of 1800 I have been struck by how just about all revolutionaries were fascinated by the possibility of an "Empire of Liberty." There is a great deal of that in this account and it makes perfect sense to me. Cole believes that the motives that took Napoleon to Egypt were not absent from other revolutionary-era projects, and were indeed central motives.

There is one fault I see in this book, and it almost drove me crazy before I decided to relax. Cole again and again (and again) quotes some participant and then explains the significance of the quotation immediately thereafter. Good practice, perhaps? Well, it seems to me that he overdoes it, and as a result repeats some of his favorite conclusions and observations too many times. Was he urged to do this by his editor, or was he afraid that his audience really, really needed some pretty basic things spelled out?

However, the book has two great virtues.

First, Cole is an opinionated writer, but he's very straightforward in admitting his opinions, and does not pretend to be an omniscient observer. He is careful to tell the reader where he got his data, specifically which French officer's journal or Egyptian chronicle he is using at a given point. He has his opinions about their usefulness, but doesn't think any of them necessarily tells the whole story. This should be basic scholarly procedure, but even with the repetition noted above, I think Cole does a very good job in depicting the variety of contemporary views and how they have affected and limited modern understanding of the Egyptian invasion.

Second, Cole succeeds in making his subject come to life. When readers of English in the next few years or decades look into this episode of European/Middle Eastern interaction, they'll pick this book up, and many of them will get excited. For some, it will be the beginning of their own investigations, and a good start, too. For even more, it will fill in a blank page in their understanding of Islamic and Middle Eastern society. They will be unlikely to leave Cole's account with the idea that Napoleon had, that the Muslim world was asleep and waiting for the touch of a prince of modernity.

Note: Speaking of good scholarly practice, Cole is supplementing Napoleon's Egypt on a continuing basis in a blog of the same name, in which he includes documentary material that just wouldn't fit into the printed work.

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