Zaidan’s adventures usually unfold against a textured backdrop of history, culture and politics, and The Battle of Poitiers is no exception. Romance and intrigue provide the central plot of this historical novel that are woven into the events culminating in the battle of Poitiers. Maryam, the novel’s heroine, was not only young and beautiful but she was a woman of extraordinary honor, by birth and accomplishment. Like any man, she fought with great courage in several battles. But she also had the grace of women and had many suitors: Hani, Captain of the Arab Cavalry and Bustam his rival and Chieftain of a Berber Tribe. Last but not least ‘Abd al-Rahman, the Arab ruler of Spain and southern France, is also enamored with her. Who will win her heart and how will all these relationships unfold in the context of the historical events?
The story is replete with mystery – the identity and genealogy of many of the principal characters are shrouded in secrecy and suspense reigns for long before their true identity is revealed. Who is Maryam’s father? And is Salma really her mother? What is Salma’s true identity? Who is that grandson of Maryam’s servant, Hassan, whom he has never seen? Is Maymuna, slave and concubine of ‘Abd al-Rahman, really the servant of Lumbaja the daughter of Duke Odo or is she impersonating someone else? Not only are we kept guessing on the true identity of many of the novel’s main characters but we are surprised to learn that so many of them lived at various stages of their lives in both the Muslim and Christian worlds. As we learn their origins and their true loyalties we begin to piece together the game of spies and counter-spies that is played out, with each promoting his or her secret agenda in a web of fast paced actions that influence the outcome of the Battle of Poitiers.
Less than a hundred years elapsed between the birth of Islam in 622AD -- the year in which the Prophet Muhammad had emigrated from Mecca to Medina, that emigration (hijra) marking the beginning of the Islamic calendar -- and the date of the Muslim invasion of Spain in 710 AD. By that time, the Islamic faith had spread rapidly to both East and West: Syria, Iraq and Egypt first, but then East towards India and West along the Northern shores of Africa. From then on, as is well described by Jurji Zaidan in the Author’s Historical Introduction to this novel, the Muslim Caliphs were set on conquering the European continent. They first tried unsuccessfully to do so from the East with the siege of Constantinople in 717 AD and then from the West. They crossed the Pyrenees from Spain and set out to conquer France and a fragmented European continent that was backward and in disarray compared to the far stronger Byzantine Empire. They would thus try to reach Constantinople from the West on their way to Damascus, which was the seat of the Umayyad Caliphate in those times.
The Battle of Poitiers pitted ‘Abd al- Rahman al-Ghafiqi, Arab soldier and Emir of Spain, against Charles Martel, “the Hammer”, leader of the Franks. ‘Abd al- Rahman had conquered parts of Southern France and had become its governor in 721. In 732 AD, when the growth of Frankish power threatened the Muslim position in Spain, he led an army across the Pyrenees into the dominions of the Franks. His army met the Franks, led by Charles Martel, near Tours, France, later that year. Charles Martel (688?-741) was the Mayor of the Palace of the Merovingian Frankish kingdom of Austrasia (in present northeastern France and southwestern Germany). He was the son of Pepin of Herstal and the grandfather of Charlemagne. Although he was engaged in many wars against various kingdoms before he established his authority as the ruler of the Franks, his greatest victories were against the Muslims from Spain. When they invaded France, Charles defeated them at the Battle of Poitiers near Tours following an indecisive outcome on the battlefield after the Muslims withdrew. The progress of Islam, which had filled all Christendom with alarm, was thus checked for a time. Subsequently, Charles drove the Muslims out of the Rhône valley in 739 AD, when they had again advanced into France as far as Lyon, leaving them with nothing of their possessions north of the Pyrenees beyond the Aude River.
Zaidan provides vivid descriptions of the siege of Constantinople and the ensuing military confrontation as well as the Battle of Poitiers. Not only does he describe the details of warfare such as military strategy, the disposition of battle formations and the arms and attires of Christian and Muslim armies. But also and importantly he describes the human and social aspects of war – with commentaries on how each side viewed the other and how the social and tribal composition of the Arab and European armies affected the course of those battles.
The novel depicts the political climate and social mores of Spain and other areas that came under Arab rule. One of the more distinctive attributes of Zaidan’s approach is the continuous and perceptive commentary and reflection on political and social organization and particularly on human behavior, emotions, and motivations under varying conditions. Zaidan analyses the power of a common religion or language in unifying people from different cultures – a theme found in many of his other works. Last but not least is the contrast between the tolerance of Islamic rule in which religious minorities were able to preserve the freedom to worship in exchange for a tax compared to the Christian areas where there was no such tolerance. This situation prevailed for many centuries. It culminated in the 13th and 14th centuries, a period that proved to be a golden age of tolerance and achievement for the various communities living in Spain under Arab rule. This came to an abrupt end with the Christian re-conquest of Spain which led to the Inquisition and the expulsion of both Jews and Muslims.
Professor William Granara from the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University translated this novel. He is Professor of the Practice of Arabic on the Gordon Gray Endowment and Director of Modern Language Programs at Harvard. He teaches Arabic language and literature and directs the Arabic language program at Harvard University. He studied Arabic at Georgetown University and received his PhD in Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also the former executive director of the Center for Arabic Study at the American University in Cairo and the former director of the Arabic Field School of the U.S. Department of State in Tunis, Tunisia. He writes on cross-cultural encounters between Islam and Christendom throughout the Middle Ages. In addition, he lectures and writes on contemporary Arabic literature and has published translations of Egyptian and North African fiction. His work on literary criticism focuses on post-colonialism and cross cultural poetics.
Professor Granara, a noted scholar and teacher of Arab literature and experienced translator of many Arab literary works, has also prepared a Study Guide for students.
The Study Guide for students deals with a number of questions about the author, the evolution of the Arabic novel, the historical context and the events of in the novel; it also includes a list of books for further reading. Questions include the following:
1. Who was Jurji Zaidan?
2. How may we understand ‘Arab Nationalism’ at the time of Jurji Zaidan?
3. What is the Nahda?
4. Why is the Battle of Poitiers so important to both Muslims and Christians?
5. Who are the principle characters of The Battle of Poitiers?
6. What are the major themes of the novel?