Prize Winners 2009

(for books published in 2008)


In 1996 the British-Kuwait Friendship Society took the far-sighted decision to establish a valuable (£10,000) book prize for the best work of academic standard on a Middle Eastern subject published in the United Kingdom in the course of the year. The British Society for Middle Eastern Studies, of which I have the honour to be President, gratefully enjoys the task of administering the prize.

Our warm thanks go to His Excellency Mr Khalid al-Duwaisan, Ambassador of the State of Kuwait, Dean of the Diplomatic Corps and Co-Chairman of the British-Kuwait Friendship Society, for hosting this evening's reception in the impressive surroundings of Manchester Museum. This is not the first time that the Ambassador, despite his many preoccupations, has found the time to preside at such an occasion; we are duly grateful. We are also very grateful to Shaikh Mubarak Abdullah Mubarak Al-Sabah, who takes a keen interest in the prize both on his own account and as representative of the Abdullah Al-Mubarak Al-Sabah Foundation, which generously finances the prize.

The Judges Panel for the 2008 prize consisted of myself; Shaikh Mubarak Abdullah Mubarak Al-Sabah; Professor Carole Hillenbrand, formerly Head of the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Edinburgh; Professor Yasir Suleiman, Director of the Centre of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge; Professor Robert Gleave, Professor of Arabic Studies at the University of Exeter; Dr Zahia Salhi, Head of the Department of Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Leeds; and Sir Roger Tomkys, formerly Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge, and Chairman of the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce. Thanks to Sir Roger, the Judges Panel were able to hold their discussions in great comfort at the Chamber.

The Judges Panel were much aided by the assessments made by the professional reviewers to whom the books are submitted in the first place.

Thirty-three books were submitted this year, fewer than the forty-five of the previous year but offering great variety in their subject-matter. The Judges Panel are grateful to both the authors and the publishers who gave them so many hours of stimulating reading. There were books in the fields of ancient and modern history, politics, anthropology, economics, religion, culture, archaeology, literature, language and gender studies; they included two engaging studies of women of renown in the shape of Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope by Kirsten Ellis (Harperpress) and Pilgrimage to Mecca by Lady Evelyn Cobbold, annotated by Ahmad S Turkistani and with an introduction by William Facey and Miranda Taylor (Arabian Publishing Limited).

At the risk of making invidious distinctions the judges singled out a number of works for honourable mention (by alphabetical order of their authors):

(a) Coptic Christology in Practice: Incarnation and Divine Participation in Late Antiquity and Medieval Egypt by Stephen J Davis (Oxford University Press). Described by the reviewer as "a stimulating read that raises many general questions", this work traces the Christological beliefs of the Egyptian Coptic Church from the sixth century to the thirteenth. The history is prefaced by a substantial introduction to the Christologies of the Alexandrian theologians Athanasius and Cyril, and the interest of the non-specialist is aroused by a postscript on controversies in the modern period. A feature of the work is the way in which it incorporates into its discussion of literary remains other aspects of Coptic culture that illustrate ways in which belief in the incarnation influenced spirituality and forms of worship - accounts of sermons, narratives of pilgrimage, textile motifs and wall paintings.

(b) The Culture of Letter-writing in Pre-modern Islamic Society by Adrian Gully (Edinburgh University Press). As the reviewer states, "Gully tackles a neglected subject that has relevance to the study of the history, politics and the art of writing in the Ayyubid and Mamluk periods. He does this from a comparative perspective with epistolography in European culture in the same period". The reviewer further comments that the book is well written, full of interesting information and based on meticulous research.

(c) Mathematics in Ancient Iraq: A Social History by Eleanor Robson (Princeton University Press). The reviewer states that this book "sets out to do something that has never been done before, to write a history of Sumerian and Baylonian mathematics that integrates mathematics into the intellectual, social and economic life of ancient Mespotomania. It succeeds magnificently". Although it remains a difficult work for non-mathematicians, the author has been at pains to present complex material with clarity. The reviewer concludes that Eleanor Robson's book is "essential" for the study of ancient Mesopotamia.

(d) Charity in Islamic Societies by Amy Singer (Cambridge University Press). Relying chiefly on Ottoman sources, this engaging work examines the attitude to charity in a broad range of Muslim societies across space and time, and discusses contemporary themes as well as the origins of almsgiving in early Islam. It also includes useful discussions based on a comparative approach with other societies, including Byzantium and Elizabethan England. The reviewer comments that it is noteworthy that Amy Singer looks at the important role of Muslim women, and that she discusses charitable giving not just from the viewpoint of the donor but also that of the recipient. The reviewer sums up that this "is a very interesting book on a neglected aspect of Islamic studies".

(e) Palestine in Late Antiquity by Hagith Sivan (Oxford University Press). The reviewer begins his review by stating that this book "is without doubt an important one from an academic point of view. Apart from filling a significant gap in the cultural history of Palestine and displaying in the process an impressive breadth of learning, the author brings to the task an enviable level of modern methodological skill". The work contains some remarkable accounts of individual cities in Late Antique Palestine, and, unusually, the Samaritans are given a prominent role. The reviewer concludes that the work "will have high impact among specialists".

(f) In the Shadow of the King: Zill al-Sultan and Isfahan under the Qajars by Heidi A Walcher (IB Tauris). Heidi Walcher's study of Zill al-Sultan (son of Nasir al-Din Shah), who was governor of Isfahan from 1874 until his death in 1907, is based on her doctoral thesis; the reviewer comments that it is "an impressively thorough piece of research". The author uses her case study to explore a range of broad political, social and cultural phenomena in later Qajar Persia; the reviewer states that the "originality and importance of Walcher's work stems in large part from her taking a perspective from the periphery (although Isfahanis might object to the suggestion that their city is anything bur central!)".

As in all previous years, the judges decided that the award itself should be split. They decided that prizes of £2,500 should be awarded to:

(a) Jewish Property Claims against Arab Countries by Michael R Fischbach (Columbia University Press). The reviewer comments that "Professor Fischbach's examination of Jewish property claims against Arab countries is an exemplary example of original scholarship which is solidly based in archival research and takes into account the relevant secondary literature. Given its focus on primary sources, this is ground-breaking work". While the author demonstrates an acute awareness of history and politics he remains dispassionate in his analysis. His work, again to quote the reviewer, is "of great significance in relation to the compensation questions which could arise in any final Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, and has eminently practical implications".

(b) Artillery of Heaven by Ussama Makdisi (Cornell University Press). The author begins by contrasting, in the early 19th century, an intolerant United States, in which the Christian white men had forced their religion on the native populations, and a broadly tolerant Ottoman Empire in which dhimmis could normally live in a considerable degree of security. He goes on to describe how American missionaries in an exceptionalist enterprise crossed the oceans to Syria - and made just one convert, As'ad Shidyaq. The latter's tragic life serves as the focal point of the book. The reviewer comments that it is "an important contribution to the expanding field of study on Christian missions to the Middle East as well as revisionist history of Ottoman Syria", and refers to its "innovative exploration of cross cultural encounters, use of English and Arabic sources, and approachable narrative". He concludes that it is "a well-written and innovative example of how the careful and thorough work of a historian can critically assess contemporary society, while providing readers with a factual and exciting narrative of historical events".

The judges decided that a first prize of £5,000 should go to The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights (Penguin) translated by Malcolm Lyons, with an elegant introduction to each of the three volumes by Robert Irwin, and with three of the most celebrated stories translated by Ursula Lyons from Galland's French. The appearance of this work is undoubtedly a major literary event, which, in the words of the reviewer, "will have an impact far beyond the field of Middle Eastern studies. Since the first time they were translated into a European language, the 1001 Nights have never ceased to excite fascination in Western readers; they have formed a bridge between the cultures of the Arab world and Europe". Malcolm Lyons has chosen an accessible, easy-to-read contemporary idiom, but the choice of translating style and even more the execution of it can have been no simple task and represents years of labour: difficult decisions had to be taken about textual variations and choice of manuscripts. An outstanding entry for the prize.