Obituary: Peter Mansfield

Michael Adams
Wednesday 13 March 1996 00:02

Peter Mansfield was a writer of distinction who made an important contribution to the promotion of a better understanding of the contemporary Arab world.

During 40 years of travel throughout the Middle East he became one of the most seasoned observers of the Arab scene. Early in his career he demonstrated the strength of his convictions by resigning from the diplomatic service in protest against Anthony Eden's ill-fated Suez adventure (as did Eden's deputy minister, Anthony Nutting).

Mansfield was born in India, where his father was a member of the Indian Civil Service in Bihar province, but was sent home to England as a small child to undergo a traditional education. At Cambridge he was President of the Union, as a prelude to joining the Foreign Office in 1955. At the beginning of 1956 he was posted to the Lebanon to study Arabic at MECAS (the Middle East Centre for Arabic Studies), the school maintained by the Foreign Office (and known to the Lebanese as the "spy school") in the hills above Beirut.

With his intellectual distinction already apparent, this should have been the start of a successful career as a diplomat; but fate intervened in the shape of, first, Egypt's president Abdel Nasser, who in July that year nationalised the Suez Canal Company, and then Anthony Eden, whose ill-judged response led in October to the abortive Anglo-French invasion of Egypt.

Peter Mansfield, still only 28 years old, shared the sense of outrage felt by many older men and women inside and outside the diplomatic service, and it prompted him to take the decision which was to divert his career into a completely different field. He had by now some acquaintance with the Arabic language and some feel for the Arab environment; the circumstances in which the British Government, in clandestine collusion with the Israelis, launched its assault on Egypt, gave him an added incentive to find a way to inform his fellow countrymen about the realities of the Middle East.

Initially he found work as a freelance journalist in Beirut, where he met the Spanish painter Luis Canizares, who was to be his faithful companion for the next 35 years. A connection with the Sunday Times led to Mansfield's appointment as the paper's Middle East correspondent, based in Cairo. For most of the 1960s he travelled widely through the Arabian peninsula, gaining a reputation as a perceptive reporter and acquiring a store of experience and information, which he put to good use in writing the book for which he will be best remembered. He gave it the simple title of The Arabs, and it combined a history of the Arab peoples with a comprehensive survey of the Arab world as it was in that revolutionary phase, when Nasser was the undisputed leader of Arab nationalism. Published by Penguin in 1976, the book went through several editions here and in the United States, where it was published in 1977 under the title The Arab World: a comprehensive history.

Before that, Mansfield had published two useful books about Egypt, one a biography, Nasser (1969), and the other on Nasser's Egypt (1965). Later on he was a natural choice as editor of a new edition of The Middle East: a political and economic survey (published in 1980 by the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) and of a Who's Who in the Arab World, for which he had built up a probably unrivalled list of acquaintances, as well as many friends, everywhere from Aleppo to Aden, from Casa-blanca to Baghdad.

His books were accurate and informative, as was the occasional journalism which he continued to practice. They were never distorted by prejudice or partisanship; but they were informed always by the desire as far as possible to understand and to sympathise. The last chapter of The Arabs, significantly, is called "Through Arab Eyes".

Peter Mansfield was a very early member of Caabu (The Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding), and he wrote regularly for Middle East International, to whose comprehensive coverage of the affairs of the region he was especially qualified to contribute.

Michael Adams

Peter John Mansfield, writer: born Ranchi, India 2 September 1928; died Warwick 9 March 1996.

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