Book review: Robert Irwin brings 14th century historian Ibn Khaldun back to life in ‘An Intellectual Biography’

Ibn Khaldun’s bibliography is huge, and books about him are constantly published. (Shutterstock)
Updated 13 June 2018

Book review: Robert Irwin brings 14th century historian Ibn Khaldun back to life in ‘An Intellectual Biography’

  • Irwin avoids the tendency to Westernize his thoughts, and ignores a plausible influence over Machiavelli, Hobbes, Montesquieu, Marx and Durkheim
  • Ibn Khaldun’s ideas are a product of his time, and Irwin places him firmly back in his context, in the Arab world during the 14th century

BEIRUT: More than 600 years after his death, Ibn Khaldun is alive and well. One of the world’s greatest minds, Ibn Khaldun is best known for his masterpiece, “The Muqaddimah” (1377), a book about the principles of history and the rise and fall of dynasties. This all-time classic continues to generate unabated interest.

In 2015 Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s new-year resolution was to read an important book every two weeks. For his 11th pick, he chose “The Muqaddimah.” “While much of what was believed then is now disproven after 700 years’ progress, it’s still interesting to see what was understood at the time and the overall world view when it’s all considered together.”

Ibn Khaldun’s bibliography is huge, and books about him are constantly published. The latest on the market is “Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography.” Its author, Robert Irwin, joins a long list of Ibn Khaldun’s admirers. “It feels as though I have been living with Ibn Khaldun since I first read ‘The Muqaddimah’ as a student in the 1960s. So it was high time that I took a close look at the assumptions and vocabulary that underpinned his thinking. To spend so much time with a polymathic genius has been both demanding and exhilarating,” Irwin said.

This biography is a tour de force. Irwin avoids the tendency to Westernize his thoughts, and ignores a plausible influence over Machiavelli, Hobbes, Montesquieu, Marx and Durkheim. Ibn Khaldun’s ideas are a product of his time, and Irwin places him firmly back in his context, in the Arab world during the 14th century.

To comprehend the nature of his authority and genius, one needs to study Ibn Khaldun in his own time. “It is precisely Ibn Khaldun’s irrelevance to the modern world that makes him so interesting and important. When I read ‘The Muqaddimah,’ I have the sense that I am encountering a visitor from another planet, and that is exciting,” Irwin said.

Irwin, a specialist in medieval Arabic culture, plunges his readers into the adventurous life of one of the greatest Arab thinkers with a remarkable ease and brio. Understanding Ibn Khaldun’s work helps us to cast a fresh and more critical eye on our modern world.


Film review: Great storytelling makes for fascinating watch in Netflix’s ‘Yeh Ballet’

“Yeh Ballet” is no rags-to-riches story, but one of sheer fortitude and a bit of luck. (Supplied)
Updated 24 February 2020

Film review: Great storytelling makes for fascinating watch in Netflix’s ‘Yeh Ballet’

CHENNAI: Sooni Taraporevala gained immense fame by writing for Mira Nair’s films, such as “The Namesake,” “Mississippi Masala” and the Oscar-nominated “Salaam Bombay.” In 2009, Taraporevala stepped behind the camera to helm a small movie called “Little Zizou” about the Parsi community. It was a hit, and three years ago, she took up the camera again to create a virtual reality short documentary about two boys from Mumbai’s slums who became renowned ballet dancers. 

Taraporevala converted her documentary into a full-length feature, “Yeh Ballet,” for Netflix, and the work, though with a somewhat documentary feel, is fascinating storytelling — a talent we have seen in her writings for Nair. 

Happily, “Yeh Ballet” is no rags-to-riches story (of the kind “Gully Boy” was), but one of sheer fortitude and a bit of luck. The film begins with a breathtaking aerial shot of the Arabian Ocean on whose shores Mumbai stands — an element that points toward the director’s background as a photographer. 

The film chronicles the lives of Nishu and Asif Beg. (Supplied) 

A story inspired by true events, “Yeh Ballet” chronicles the lives of Nishu (Manish Chauhan) and Asif Beg (newcomer Achintya Bose). The two lads are spotted by a ballet master, Saul Aaron (British actor Julian Sands) who, driven away from America because of his religion, lands in a Mumbai dance school.

Nishu and Asif, despite their nimble-footed ballet steps, find their paths paved with the hardest of obstacles. When foreign scholarships from famous ballet academies come calling, they cannot get a visa because they have no bank accounts. And while Asif’s father, dictated by his religion, is dead against the boy’s music and dancing, Nishu’s dad, a taxi driver, feels that his son’s passion is a waste of time and energy.

Well, all this ends well — as we could have guessed — but solid writing and imaginative editing along with Ankur Tewari’s curated music and the original score by Salvage Audio Collective turn “Yeh Ballet” into a gripping tale. It is not an easy task to transform a documentary into fiction, but Taraporevala does it with great ease. Or so it appears. Of course, the two protagonists add more than a silver lining to a movie that will be long remembered — the way we still mull over “Salaam Bombay” or “The Namesake.” But what I missed was a bit more ballet; the two guys are just wonderful to watch as they fly through the air.