Traffic has recently gone through the roof at the ironically-named Socialist Unity Blog, as Andy Newman has been giving us all invaluable blow-by-blow coverage of the split in the Respect coalition [now here and here]. And having built up a huge readership for the blog, it can finally turn its attention to the issues that matter — so Tawfiq Chahboune has been brooding on the issue that bugged me here and here, concerning Martin Amis, camels and wheels. Continue over the fold for the relevant portion, or visit the original over here.
Amis the historian of ideas: “The stout self-sufficiency or, if you prefer, the extreme incuriosity of Islamic culture has been much remarked. Present-day Spain translates as many books into Spanish, annually, as the Arab world has translated into Arabic in the past 1,100 years. And the late-medieval Islamic powers barely noticed the existence of the West until it started losing battles to it. The tradition of intellectual autarky was so robust that Islam remained indifferent even to readily available and obviously useful innovations, including, incredibly, the wheel. The wheel, as we know, makes things easier to roll; Bernard Lewis, in What Went Wrong?, sagely notes that it also makes things easier to steal.” Amis, obviously, means the “extreme incuriosity of Islamic culture” as represented by the totalitarian regimes of today, not the glorious and curious cultures of yesteryear. This is no mere pedantry on my part; this is taking history seriously. The use of the wheel did indeed decline–but in pre-Islamic Arabia, not, as Amis insinuates, after Islam’s triumph of the peninsula.I have recently corresponded with Professor Richard W. Bulliet, the world’s pre-eminent scholar in this field (author of the groundbreaking “The Wheel and the Camel”). He affirms that “wheels disappeared in the first half of the common era before the rise of Islam” and that preference of the camel over the wheel was simply due to the “intrinsic economy of raising immensely strong animals on low quality desert grazing” and that “camel caravans had the advantage of not requiring much in the way of road upkeep.” That is to say, it was a question of economics.
Bulliet replies that Amis’s argument is “silly” and that “it should be easy to show that Islam has nothing do with any of this. Muslims used wheeled vehicles in Central Asia, India, and China; and the Muslim ladies of Istanbul commonly went on picnics outside of town in parties carried by covered wagons drawn by usually four oxen. This, of course, was a matter of comfort, not of economic efficiency. In temperate climes where cheap camel labour was not so readily available, wheeled vehicles did not disappear.”
Moreover, Bulliet writes: “If Amis had wanted to explore intellectual blinders in this arena, he might instead have noticed that everywhere in the world for the two millennia that preceded the nineteenth century, the two-wheeled vehicles were so much preferred over four-wheeled vehicles that the latter were practically non-existent . . . except in Europe. Europeans have used four-wheeled vehicles for some 5000 years despite obvious and severe inefficiencies in friction, harnessing, steering, braking, and road requirements. ‘The tradition of intellectual autarky was so robust’ in Europe, I guess, that they failed to notice that everyone outside of Europe realized that four-wheeled transport really sucked before about 1500.” Bulliet ends with the inspiring, “Good luck on rapping Amis-Lewis knuckles. Their sort of foolishness is so widespread these days that it’s an uphill battle.” Well, I hope I haven’t done too badly, Professor Bulliet. You’ve certainly kicked Amis’s teeth in – or what’s famously left of them.