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Original Essays

Scholars in the Land of the Prophet

by Nina Burleigh
  1. Mirage: Napoleon
    $12.50 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "Burleigh's storytelling ability is mesmerizing; she skillfully fills in the backstory of the region in artfully crafted paragraphs, summing up thousands of years of history without slowing the flow of the narrative." Library Journal
  2. The Stranger and the Statesman: James Smithson, John Quincy Adams, and the Making of America
    $9.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "Burleigh's research is extensive, and her storytelling ability is captivating." Booklist
  3. A Very Private Woman: The Life and Unsolved Murder of Presidential Mistress Mary Meyer
    $19.00 New Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "A superbly crafted, evocative glimpse of an adventurous spirit whose grisly murder remains a mystery." San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
As I write these words in an office above midtown Manhattan, armed men are disembarking from black SUVs on the street down below. A helicopter beats overhead. It's just a Homeland Security exercise, another nail in the coffin of my long-dead sense of security. Farther downtown, there's a hole where 3,000 people died, murdered by fanatical practitioners of one of the world's three great religions.

Is history, known, a way to ameliorate this conflict? Is understanding even possible between the West and Islam? I don't know. I do know that the reasoning behind the current war in Iraq and the hatred in the Islamic world directed our way are both fed by vast reserves of ignorance, suspicion, mistrust, and prejudice.

I was pregnant and living in France when I first heard the story of the French scientists who traveled to Egypt in 1798 with notebooks and specimen jars alongside a brutal, invading army. It was spring 2003, the Iraq war was imminent, French protesters swarmed the streets of Paris toting effigies of Bush. Americans living far from the Home of the Brave, we could do nothing but watch helplessly as international CNN broadcast first the President's implacable warnings, and then the thudding glow of shock and awe.

My daughter was born a few weeks after the bombs fell on Baghdad. She was nearly bald but it was clear she was going to have the blonde hair and blue eyes of her Nordic-looking dad, not the black eyes bequeathed me via my maternal forebears, from far back and deep in the Ottoman empire.

A few weeks after she was born, I was lolling in bed with her tiny sleeping form draped on my chest, when suddenly I was overwhelmed by a sense of loss about my grandmother, who had died in Chicago long before I had even imagined having children of my own. Her name, Ghazal, means "beautiful" in Turkish, but she was not Turkish. She was Assyrian, a member of a Christian minority chased off an edge of the dying Ottoman empire in a brutal ethnic cleansing almost a hundred years ago. Orphaned at age six, on the refugee trek to what is now northern Iraq, she buried a baby brother.

My grandmother idolized America, and always told her children, "Go to that blessed country." One of her daughters, my mother, emigrated to the United States in the 1950s and married a blue-eyed American. My grandmother finally got a visa herself in the 1970s and moved near our family. By the 1980s, my parents divorced. My grandmother died soon after.

What, you are thinking, does all this family history have to do with a book about French scientists stumbling around Egypt in 1800?

At a molecular level, I embody the unlikely communion of the Middle East and the West. Psychologically, I grapple with this on levels I haven't even begun to examine. The story of my parents' ultimately failed marriage has as much to do with the difficulties faced by anyone trying to cross the cultural divide between the Arab world and the West as it does with the gender politics of the 1970s and their own personality quirks.

As my children (I have two, one blonder than the last) grow up, they already want to know, why are mommy's eyes so brown, and will theirs look that way someday? They haven't yet made the connection between the war their parents lament over dinner every night, and the native country of their "Nana" — my mother - who spoils them rotten with presents.

Someday, I suppose they will. And when they do, how will I explain our connection to that part of the world to them? What does it mean to be a westerner with Oriental blood and what does it mean to judge, speculate upon, imagine the Middle East from the West? How can I explain with any optimism our link to the Arab world, when I know so intimately the difficulties of that interaction?

Thus, my fascination with the corps des savants, Napoleon's scientists, the first westerners to peer into the historically "inscrutable" Islamic world and come back with not just rumors of harems and colossal relics, but a 23-volume illustrated encyclopedia, their best effort to understand, catalogue, categorize, and explain a ragged edge of the Ottoman Empire, 100 years before my grandmother walked out of it.

These men, scientists and rationalists to the last man, went to Egypt to collect information. They studied the country within the confines and limits of their areas of expertise in 1800. They came back with theories about everything from mirages to ostrich wings, to plague, to the picture-writing of the oldest civilization known to man, to the physical nature of desert heat and light.

Committed secularists (like, I might add, me), they were set down and then abandoned for three years in a world ruled by theology and languid under the weight of centuries of religious dogma. They drew, collected and measured in the midst of war, sleeping on bloodstained stone beneath the shadows of soaring lotus-topped columns for which they had no explanation.

The French scholars tried to make sense of the chanting muezzins, the veiled but bare breasted women, the endless doors that segregated Cairo, the mystifying rote religious rituals. Educated bystanders, they witnessed a bloody conflict at the dawn of the new world order. Their experiences, what they brought to Egypt, what they left behind by example (the Muslim theologians admired their spirit of inquiry, though they didn't imitate it) and materially (a library still stacked in Cairo today) are all small clues to how the world came to be at the current impasse, which some call a clash of civilizations.

The scientists learned quickly that the most learned men of Cairo had long ago rejected the kind of knowledge-seeking for which some Arab mathematical and scientific thinkers — Avicenna, for example — were famous during Europe's Dark Ages. Cairo in 1800 was indeed dirty and backward and ruled by tyrants.

Napoleon wanted to be seen as bringing enlightenment and democracy to the Arabs. He actually did distribute Arabic translations of Tom Paine. It did him no good, nor did attempting to believe in the Prophet and dressing in Turkish clothes. Years later, in exile, he confessed to it, without apologizing. "This was quackery but it was quackery of the highest order. Change of religion for private interest is inexcusable but it may be pardoned in consideration of immense political results," he told his scribes late in life. "Will it be said that the subjugation of all Asia were not worth a turban and pair of trousers?"

Imagine that in April 2003 the Pentagon war planners had called up members of the scientific and medical departments of Harvard, MIT and Stanford, as well as the natural historians of the Smithsonian, the Mesopotamia experts at the Oriental Institute and the Met, to board flights alongside army soldiers, and after a few days mustering in Kuwait, to accompany the troops into Baghdad and set up a scientific institute in one of Saddam's abandoned palaces.

What would they be bringing back to the United States today? And how would their presence in the midst of fighting be viewed by the Iraqis themselves? By the American soldiers? By the American people?

The interactions between the Islamic world and the West circa 1800 carry over into today. There are some people, the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said among them, who tar Napoleon's scientists with being the flying wedge of colonialism, as if to study a place is to own it. And similarly, there are Islamic extremist sympathizers even today, who blame the European colonialists for everything that's wrong with the Middle East today.

Napoleon's scientists, in their own way, within the limits of scientific practice and cultural norms 200 years ago, believed that knowledge in and of itself was worth risking life for.

To honor that spirit, and to see what they saw through their eyes, I spent three years writing about them.

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Nina Burleigh is the author of two widely praised books, The Stranger and the Statesman: James Smithson, John Quincy Adams, and the Making of America's Greatest Museum: The Smithsonian and A Very Private Woman: The Life and Unsolved Murder of Presidential Mistress Mary Meyer. Her articles have appeared in Time, the Washington Post, New York, the New York Observer, Elle, Mirabella, Redbook, Jane, Spy, Regardie's, the Chicago Tribune, George, on Salon.com, and many other publications. She has traveled widely in the United States, covering American elections, and extensively in the Middle East, reporting from inside Iraq during the 1990s on assignment for Time. She lives in New York with her family. spacer
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