Monday, 6 May 2013


I am reading ‘The Crusades Through Arab Eyes’ by Amin Maalouf. It’s a bit like that part in the film ‘Zulu’ when the grizzled sergeant at Rourke Drift looks off into the hills and says 

            “Zulu’s…. Faaasands of em”

Except in this case the person saying it is a Turkish Sultan and the Zulus are blonde cannibals with big hammers.

I never thought I would read a book where I was actively cheering for the enactment of a holy war*, but in this case I have been going through the last 70 pages waiting for someone to kick off the fucking jihad and it hasn’t happened yet.

In 1099 Sa’ad al-Harawi arrives in Baghdad to point out to the people and the Caliph that every fucking person in Jerusalem has been killed, and that the people who did it  are apocalyptic fucking nutbars who have slaughtered everyone in their way, who have even turned against their supposed ally their fellow Christian the Emperor of the Rum (Byzantium) and who, get this, fucking eat people.

Yep, join the first crusade, we’ll straight up eat a guy. You got the stones for that son?

So, he remarks, since we are fighting fucking cannibals who have conquered the holy city of Jerusalem, do you think that maybe, possibly, we could have like a teeny weeny holy war? These presumably being exactly the kind of circumstances that the idea of jihad was created to deal with. It’s kind of a jihad-centred situation. Like a jihad might solve it. Like a holy war? Like those ones we used to have? Those ones? Us against the world eh? Great days.

And nobody wants to know. People are just like ‘oh a Jihad, oh yeah, great idea, right behind you son, oh, what’s that, I think my friends calling me from another room, yeah, so….. anyway, I’ll call you bro, right?’

So here I am turning the pages, thinking 'come on guys, bring the fucking Jihad already, this ones legit'. Nada. Nothing but a lot  of titting around.

The Seljuk Turks are fucking useless. Maybe I crossed a line there. That might not be the kind of hard-hitting truth bomb you’ve been trained to expect by your liberal media, but that doesn’t change the facts. The Turkish dynasty that ruled the Levant about a millennia ago? Gang of tits. I’m not afraid to say it.

Never say I shy away from controversy.

Anyway, Saladin turns up by page 118 so hopefully things will improve.

It is strange to see yourself as the monster. I don’t mean as the bad guy. Thanks to a combination of American films and actual world history, any British person will be well familiar with seeing themselves in that role. I mean the monster. Something else. Something from outside.

The crusaders in arab history, especially the first ones, are more like Orcs than anything else I have read. They do the things that Orcs do, in the way that orcs do them. They attack anything that isn’t them. They destroy everything. They eat everything. You can bribe them with food and horses more than money because they ate everything in the vicinity, including their own horses. They barely have a leadership structure that you can see. Looks pretty much like the biggest ones in charge.

I took out all the positive aspects of the following description-, I changed ‘he’ to ‘it’ and ‘man’ to ‘thing’

Now it [Bohemond] was such as had never before been seen in the land of the Romans (for it was a marvel for the eyes to behold, and its reputation was terrifying). Let me describe the things appearance more particularly -- it was so tall in stature that it overtopped the tallest by nearly one cubit, narrow in the waist and loins, with broad shoulders and a deep chest and powerful arms. Its skin all over its body was very white, and in its face the white was tempered with red. Its hair was yellowish, but did not hang down to his waist like that of the other things; (it) had it cut short to the ears. Whether its beard was reddish, or any other colour I cannot say, for the razor had passed over it very closely and left a surface smoother than chalk... its nose and nostrils breathed in the air freely; its chest corresponded to its nostrils and by its nostrils...the breadth of his chest.  A certain charm hung about this thing but was partly marred by a general air of the horrible. Its wit was manifold and crafty and able to find a way of escape in every emergency. 

You shoot them and shoot them and they don’t fall down. They follow rituals you can’t understand and do crazed irrational things. They clearly don’t know what they are doing. They lie relentlessly to you and to each other. They betray every trust. They consistently win. What are we to think of these things?

I can’t help but wonder what Tolkien would have thought of crusader-orcs.

*Especially one against people who look like me. I am firmly against those ones usually.

How many times have I read history where a large group of ethnically-similar people who share a language and a culture are invaded by a small group of utterly focused bastards (who they could easily kill en-masse), and I’ve sat there reading as group after group get wiped out, thinking ‘well, come one then guys, get it together’.

Because that’s what I’ve been trained to think by films and television and modern history. That’s what happens when someone invades. Everyone gets together and fights back. And it keeps not happening. Because those structures don’t exist yet.

When the Romans take Britain.  When the Mongols take China. When the British go into India and Africa. When the Spanish arrive in South America. When the crusaders arrive in the middle east.

You keep waiting for some noble hero type to stand up with a halo behind him, unify the people and fight back. But that’s not what happens. Not in real life. In reality people just stand around looking at each other and shrugging. Or start laughing when the almost-identical-people next door get taken out. Not thinking even a second into the future.

And you sit there staring at the page thinking ‘what’s with you guys, don’t you know what’s going on here? Now would be a good time to get your shit together’ and no they don’t, and no they won’t. Because history hasn’t taught them that yet.

Actually the middle east does get its noble hero, but like a lot of them, he arrives a bit fucking late.

How many of our cultural identity’s  were originally improvised under the pressure of someone trying to kill us? Built with stuff we just made up combined with stuff we stole from the people trying to do us in? Just fling that shit together, keep it going a few centuries, bang, you’ve got a culture. Oh that one? Always been there.

How many of our ethnic groups were formed when someone tried to kill us, you know, as a group (news to us) and we fought back, as, you know, a group, and bam there you are.


  1. "Now it [Bohemond] was such as had never before been seen in the land of the Romans (for it was a marvel for the eyes to behold, and its reputation was terrifying)."

    I'll take "What is the Varangian Guard?" for $200. Anna Comnena was writing in a literary form that consciously echoed Classical 'us and them' military/ethnographic literature (Herodotus, Sallust, Caesar, Tacitus, etc.).

    Because history hasn’t taught them that yet.

    Doubly ironic considering how the Caliphs, and later the Seljuks themselves, rose to prominence.

  2. I think orcs were spawned from the need to have murderous squads of pseudo-humans that our heroes could cut down without remorse. As a result, they sort of got loaded down with all the worst and most violent stuff we could think think of. So when you say they "are more like orcs", I think "are the worst incarnation of violent assholes imaginable." It's tough to turn the volume up on an orc. They're already sort of a conceptual maximum.

    Although I really like the idea of blond orcs on a mission from from the orc pope. Not a king chief warlord orc, but the orc pope.

  3. I've mustered so much enthusiasm for this particular post that I don't know quite what to say. Bohemond appears in my favourite novel of all time - Russell Hoban's Pilgermann (1983)- wherein he manifests as a kind of embodiment of the inexorable motion of the universe. Bohemond is inevitability.

    You should read that book, Patrick. The thing Hoban does with the exoticisation of the banal and the mundanification of the abhorrent is magic.

    1. I will put it on my big list of books-to-buy-and-read Tom

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  5. Nice Post - to me it raises a question though. What does Greyhawk look like in 500 years? So you've got orcs, and they are monsters, brutish, violent, a force of despoiling chaos and you've got Franks - same thing.

    Yet, in one hundred years the people of the Middle East were trading with the crusader states and interbreeding, and forming hybrid kingdoms (which again got taken over, but still they left a mark). Is this what happens in Greyhawk - are most people 1/32 orcish at a certain point, and all orcs except the wild orc of the far wastes 1/32 human or elvish or whatever? Do orcish rituals and concepts sneak in to human culture - do human concepts get taken back to the orcish homelands and spread like crazy?