BOOK REVIEW / Flowers of the sun, and pearl divers: Shusha Guppy reflects on some stories about ordinary and extraordinary Middle Eastern lives - 'Struggle and Survival in the Modern Middle East' - Ed. Edmund Burke III: I B Tauris, 14.95 pounds

THE PHOTOGRAPH on the cover is of Mohand, an old Berber farmer from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, dressed in a hooded jellaba: his bearded face furrowed deep like the folds of his land, his lips with the ghost of a smile, his eyes gazing into the distance, his expression denoting humour and melancholy.

Born in 1873, Mohand was 94 when this photograph was taken in 1967, a while before he died. His centenarian life spans most of the period covered by this book, as well as the history of Morocco, the colonisation of North Africa by France, and the way he and others like him came to terms with it. His is one of the 24 'ordinary people's lives' collected from all over the Islamic world, from North Africa to Afghanistan, by Professor Edmund Burke. Together they shed a fresh light on the societies of the Middle East, and the way its peoples have managed to survive through the cataclysmic changes of the past century: from the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, through Western colonialism and nationalist movements to today.

Every day we are confronted by dramatic images of the turbulences in the Middle East - internecine or civil war, revolution, coup d'etat - that periodically convulse the region. Yet we know little about the daily lives of ordinary people in the midst of all this, and the stratagems they use to survive. Instead: 'we see the Middle East over the shoulders of diplomats, military officers, bureaucrats . . .' contends Professor Burke. As a result we tend to generalise from such vague notions as 'the Arab mind', 'Islamic fanaticism' and 'Oriental fatalism' put about by 'Orientalists' and other 'experts'.

Islamic historiographers have always used biography as a vehicle, starting with the Prophet Mohammed and his Companions: 'Perfect Men', whose exemplary lives were supposed to provide a model for Muslims everywhere. Professor Burke has gone back to this method, which emphasises the centrality of human personality in history.

The mini-biographies aim to provide a new perspective on the region by showing the possibilities of individual action despite restrictive social frameworks. The stories are told chronologically, and are divided in three sections: 'Pre-colonial Lives', 'The Colonial Experience' and 'Contemporary Lives'. It is hard to single out one story among many in each section - they are all fascinating. Yet some lives will be more exemplary than others in shaking the preconceived ideas of the Western reader.

Take Shemsigul (Flower of the Sun), a Circassian slave woman. She was bought in 1852 in Constantinople by Mehmet, a Cairo merchant, who immediately began to exercise his droit du seigneur, deflowering her, repeatedly raping her, and making her pregnant. When his wife found out that the 'maid' was with child, she tried to make her abort by beating her. Finally taken in by another slave dealer whose wife pitied her and adopted her baby, eventually she brought a suit against her owner to the Sharia (Islamic court), defended herself by simply telling her story, and amazingly won the case.

Shemsigul's testimony, found by Professor Ehud Toledano in the Egyptian Police Archives, makes all the more painful reading as it is matter-of-fact, and devoid of self-pity or pleading. Her account of rape, beating and torture is harrowing - we are a long way from the sensual fantasies of 19th-century European paintings, such as Ingres' Odalisque.

The story of Ahmad is of a Kuwaiti pearl diver who started work at 14. His equipment was a nose-clip, a basket tied around the neck for oysters, and a tool for prising the oysters loose; and his life was another form of slavery. Pearl divers were not paid a salary, only a share of the profits, which seldom went beyond mere subsistence. They lived in appalling conditions, were permanently indebted to their ship's captain and to the pearl merchants, and their 'debts' were inherited by their male progeny. When the oil revenues began to flow in the Persian Gulf, the pearl industry died out, and social benefits were introduced. Ahmad, by then old and retired, had no truck with the new way of life: 'people should work for a living,' he said. When his sons came to visit him in their Mercedes, driven by Palestinian chauffeurs, he mocked them: they were not 'real' people doing 'real' work.

Through the story of Al-Suwayhil we learn the history of Libya: its conquest by the Italians, the fascist period, the ruthless crushing of any resistance - no wonder Colonel Gaddafi has a chip on the shoulder and paranoia. The story of Bibi Maryam, a matriarch of the nomadic Bakhtiaris of southern Persia, shows how women exercised power despite their 'inferiority' in law. At the height of the First World War, in 1916, she conducted Wilhelm Wassmus, 'the German Lawrence' into the Bakhtiari lands to rally opposition to the British and capture the oil fields they controlled. This was in defiance of the tribal chiefs, as well as her husband and father, all of whom were pro-British and whose land would have been confiscated if they had been suspected of double-dealing.

Other stories include those of Haddou, a Moroccan migrant worker in Europe; of Abu Jamal, a Palestinian villager who has lived through the partition of Palestine, the wars of 1948, 1967, 1978 and the intifada; of Sumaya, the Lebanese house-maid living in her destroyed home in war-ravaged Beirut, and many more who arouse both profound admiration and pity as they demonstrate the resilience of human beings in adversity - of how life goes on and renews itself, and somehow triumphs.

The list of contributors is almost entirely of academics, which explains a certain dryness of tone. A few more direct interviews among the 'Contemporary Lives' would have made for variety of expression. Still, there is enough plot, character, intrigue and drama to inspire any novelist.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge
books
Arts and Entertainment
Don’t send in the clowns: masks and make-up conceal true facial expressions, thwarting our instinct to read people’s minds through their faces, as seen in ‘It’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Go figure: Matt Parker, wearing the binary code scarf knitted by his mother
comedy Mathematician is using comedy nights to teach and preach sums
Arts and Entertainment
Ryan Gosling in 'Drive'
filmReview: Ryan Gosling is still there, but it's a very different film
Arts and Entertainment
Urban explorer: Rose Rouse has documented her walks around Harlesden, and the people that she’s encountered along the way
books Rouse's new book discusses her four-year tour of Harlesden
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
film
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Franco Zeffirelli's production of 'Aida' at Milan's famed La Scala opera house
operaLegendary opera director in battle with theatre over sale of one of his 'greatest' productions
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Juergen Wolf won the Young Masters Art Prize 2014 with his mixed media painting on wood, 'Untitled'
art
Arts and Entertainment
Iron Man and Captain America in a scene from
filmThe upcoming 'Black Panther' film will feature a solo black male lead, while a female superhero will take centre stage in 'Captain Marvel'
Arts and Entertainment
The Imperial War Museum, pictured, has campaigned to display copyrighted works during the First World War centenary
art
Arts and Entertainment
American Horror Story veteran Sarah Paulson plays conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler
tvReview: Yes, it’s depraved for the most part but strangely enough it has heart to it
Arts and Entertainment
The mind behind Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin
books

Will explain back story to fictional kingdom Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Dorothy in Return to Oz

film Unintentionally terrifying children's movies to get you howling (in fear, tears or laughter)
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robert James-Collier as under-butler Thomas

TVLady Edith and Thomas show sad signs of the time
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Dad's Army cast hit the big screen

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge

books
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning?
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
    The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

    Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

    Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
    Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

    What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

    Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
    A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

    Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

    Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
    Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

    'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

    A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

    Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

    The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
    Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

    Paul Scholes column

    Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
    Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

    Frank Warren column

    Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
    Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

    Adrian Heath's American dream...

    Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
    Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes