Obituary: Albert Hourani

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The Independent Online
OF THE 220 or so Arabic speakers at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, at least half will, at some stage of their lives, have heard Albert Hourani's quietly mesmerising lectures on Middle Eastern history, writes Fiammetta Rocco (further to the obituary by Roger Hardy, 18 January).

Such a singular influence on modern diplomacy is unusual. But Hourani was an unusual man. He was an enthusiast, and never more so than when speaking on his favourite subject.

In the mid-1970s, the Arabs' sudden new wealth had made Arabic the course to study at Oxford. Twenty students started it in 1976, when previously there would have been one or two, if that. Yet the Oriental Institute in Pusey Lane remained curiously deaf to the changing world outside, and insisted that its Middle Eastern history syllabus would cover nothing after 1258, the year the Mongols sacked Baghdad.

For many of us who went to Oxford in the hope of learning something about the roots of conflict in the Middle East, the course was not what we had expected. Only Hourani's lectures saved it from being a bitter disappointment.

Day after day, he addressed his class, rocking gently back and forth on tiny feet. He spoke as fluently on the pervasive culture of the Ummayyads, as he did on the onslaught of the Abbasid Revolution, and the extraordinary manner in which the Arabs were able to establish a banking system so sophisticated that it was possible, a thousand years ago, to cash a cheque in Spain on an account on a bank in Iraq.

It was Hourani's last year as a history lecturer and, for many of us, the high point of our three years as Oxford undergraduates.