Book Review: ‘In Search of the Phoenicians’ — Josephine Quinn

Book Review In Search of the Phoenicians
Updated 24 March 2018

Book Review: ‘In Search of the Phoenicians’ — Josephine Quinn

In this provocative, brilliant and original book, Josephine Quinn not only sheds new light on the ancient civilization of Phoenicia but actually questions its very existence. Quinn argues that while the Phoenicians as a people certainly existed, as did the Phoenician language, there is no historical evidence that they ever constituted an ethnic group or nation or that they ever claimed to.
Quinn’s interest in Phoenicia was aroused by Virgil’s epic poem, “The Aeneid” and particularly the beautiful, fiercely independent Dido, the founder and first queen of Carthage.
Later, Quinn saw an exhibition on Carthage at Paris’ Petit Palais that opened her eyes to the ancient Mediterranean beyond Greece and Rome.
Quinn went on to give three groundbreaking lectures at Tufts University, which form the basis for “In Search of the Phoenicians.” Her thought-provoking research debunks several myths and uncovers unexpected truths.
It is surprising to learn, for example, that Phoenician craftsmanship has only a weak link with Phoenicia: “It is well known, for instance, that the beautiful metal bowls with mythological and hunting scenes discovered in Italy, Cyprus, Iraq and Iran, which are regularly labeled ‘Phoenician’ in museums and textbooks, have never actually been found in ‘Phoenicia’ or in Levantine settlements abroad,” Quinn writes.
Quinn’s multi-level research cannot fail to impress, but I found myself wishing for the discovery of at least one piece of evidence of Phoenicia’s existence. Alas, one learns that the Near Eastern powers which ruled the Levantine coast from the tenth to the fourth centuries BCE never treated the Phoenicians as a nation. In fact, the Persians who governed the region from 539 BCE to 332 BCE considered Tyre Sidon, Byblos and Beirut as relatively autonomous.
This political approach reflected the situation on the ground. Indeed, Phoenicia’s most famous cities — Tripoli, Tyre, Sidon, Byblos and Beirut — never succeeded in forming a political entity. This inherent separatist fiber has continued through the centuries and still runs deep in the social fabric of today’s modern Lebanon.
The history of the ancient Mediterranean is being rewritten. Civilization itself is under scrutiny. Who is next?


Book Review: ‘But You Don’t Look Like a Muslim’ — an exploration of Indian-Muslim identity

The book consists of 40 essays on the Indian-Muslim identity. (Supplied)
Updated 18 October 2019

Book Review: ‘But You Don’t Look Like a Muslim’ — an exploration of Indian-Muslim identity

DHAHRAN: The cover portrait of a young woman — stained with colors, smiling and unrecognizable — at a Holi festival, encapsulates what the author believes a secular India should look like. Indeed, renowned writer, critic, literary historian and cultural commentator Rakhshanda Jalil’s latest book on being a Muslim in contemporary India hits home on many accounts.

The book consists of 40 essays on the Indian-Muslim identity, examined through a political, cultural, literary, and religious lens. The book opens with a casual statement, which can be delivered in tones ranging from surprise to approval.

“Oh, but you don’t look like a Muslim.”

Jalil goes on to explain how living in Delhi — through school, university, at the workplace, and in social situations — she has been subjected to a patronizing compliment that insinuates that is she is ‘normal,’ and — by extension — qualified to be considered as ‘belonging.’ The demonization and misrepresentation of Muslims in films and popular culture has birthed a narrative that often equates Indian Muslims with anti-nationalism. So much so that even something as simple as an appreciation for Urdu literature and cheering an India-Pakistan cricket match becomes a political discourse.

The cover portrait of a young woman encapsulates what the author believes a secular India should look like. (Supplied)

Jalil says that there is no duality: “I am a Muslim and an Indian, in no particular order. I am both,” she writes. She sees no reason to be either embarrassed or defensive of her religious identity. She explains that Indian Muslims fall into different spectrums, marked by regional, ethnic, social, and linguistic differences. But the entire community suffers as a result of stereotyping and alienation.

In four chapters — The Politics of Identity, The Matrix of Culture, The Mosaic of Literature, and The Rubric of Religion — Jalil addresses shared issues: Why, for example, the Muslim League’s demand for a separate homeland did not appeal to some Muslims and why some (like her grandfather, Ale Ahmad Suroor) chose to put their faith in a new secular nation. Or whether religiosity can be linked to external indicators, be it the hijab or the turban.

In other chapters, she recounts times when communal harmony prevailed and inclusion was the norm, rather than an exception.

And Jalil’s book is just as relevant to the Indian diaspora 3,000 kilometers away from the subcontinent as it is to communities within India. Can we — and should we — delineate identity?