Sunday, August 16, 2015

Jeanette Fregulia: “Reorienting the East”

Jeanette M. Fregulia

Book Review

Martin Jacobs, Reorienting the East, Jewish Travelers to the Medieval Muslim World. University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia, 2014), 344 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4622-3

1> In search of adventure, spiritual enlightenment, economic gain, or just to satisfy their curiosity, medieval and early modern travelers ventured far from home.  Many of these sources are familiar, in the thirteenth century Marco Polo ventured east to the court of Kublai Khan.  A century later, John Mandeville a century later likely made it no further than a library.  By the fifteenth century, the reach of Europeans travelers spanned large parts of the globe.  In Reorienting the East, Jewish Travelers to the Medieval Muslim World the author Martin Jacobs has discovered a rich new source in the genre of travel narratives, accounts of Jewish travelers in the Islamic world, primarily the Near East.  In an engaging and scholarly consideration of twenty-three narratives, both factual and imaginary penned between the eleventh century and the early fourteenth century Jacobs interrogates the sources for clues as to Jewish travelers interacted with the foreign cultures of the Near Eastern Muslim world, the literary tropes they used to described the differences between themselves and the people they met, and ways that travel in the Islamic world contributed, or not, to “Jewish reflections on identity, community, and home.” (11)  Seeking to illuminate how Jewish travelers experienced the Muslim world, the author highlights where their points of view where they converge and diverge, and reveals changing perceptions in Medieval and early modern Muslim-Jewish relations.  Jacobs also provides a fresh new contribution to the genre by placing the narratives within the much more modern ideology of Orientalism, pondering if these writings “foreshadow later imperialism without necessarily enabling it.” (11)  In a nod to postcolonial studies, Jacobs searches the texts for clues that the writers tended toward an “othering” of the Muslim world.  Mindful that travel narratives tell readers more about the author than the people and places that are the subjects of their writing, the texts selected by the author reveal much about the worldview of the writers, and therefore offer insight into the universe of Medieval European Jews.

2> Firmly situating the texts in the history of the eras in which they were produced, broadly between the Crusades and the Age of Exploration, Jacobs provides relevant detail about the travelers themselves including place of origin, occupation, and reason from travel, offering clues about the writers themselves, as travel narratives in the main tell modern readers more about the author than the people and places encountered.  In the pages we meet more well-known travelers such as Benjamin Tudela, writing sometime before 1174, and the more obscure including the Italian Jewish traveler Obadiah of Bertinoro, writing in 1495 just a few short years after Christopher Columbus first set sail.  Further, the author does not ignore those who engaged in what Jacobs’ terms “imaginary travel” (43), as even fictive texts do not negate the significance of travel narratives as a source of literature and history. As Jacobs’ illustrates from his chosen manuscripts both the home culture and the foreign one intersect on the page. The author also gives some attention to the more familiar accounts of Christian travelers, as Jewish narratives were produced alongside the Christian ones, although it is only now with Jacobs’ book that the former have received the detailed consideration they deserve.

3> Organizationally, the book is broadly divided into three parts.  Part One examines the travelers themselves, their writings, motivations, destinations, and the distinctive challenges of travel in the Levant.  Part Two looks at accounts of places, particularly Palestine as for most of the writers in this book the Holy Land was the final destination.  The third and final the section considers Jewish encounters with non-Europeans living in the East, particularly Muslims, but also Christians, Near Eastern Jews, Druze, Turks, and those living “beyond the rivers of Cush” (196) (possibly Ethiopia or the Upper Nile).

4> The success of Jacobs’ books lies significantly with his sensitivity to the nuances of language and expression in his primary sources, which results in convincing analysis.  Taking readers through where the authors concur and where they depart, Jacobs reminds his readers that although the travelers shared a faith background, Judaism, they were far from monolithic in their views of Muslims and others residing in the Near East and beyond.  For example, Jacob’s notes how Jewish pilgrimage itineraries from the early Mamluk period present a more favorable view of the region as sacred to Muslims as well Jews as the author “acknowledge(s) Galilee’s Islamic religious landscape,” (114).  Jacob’s gives attention to changing attitudes and a rise of anti-Islamic sentiment, such as R. Moses Basola who asserts that Muslims “usurped a Jewish holy place” (115) when referring to the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem.  Jacobs notes where the authors gave in to stereotypes, as David ha-Re’uveni, ca. 1523-1527, did when describing the peoples of present-day Sudan and Ethiopia in terms of “prevalent stereotypes of exoticism:  nudity and colorful jewelry.”(197), and Benjamin Tudela’s” infidel Turks” (195). The author also notes where the travelers resisted prevailing notions, for example when a sixteenth century travel comments on the beauty of the Islamic shrine built over the tomb of Jonah (114). Finally, the author invites readers into a better understanding of how European Jewish travelers perceived Jews living in the Near East, and the ways in which this informed notions of their own identity.

5> Another strength of the book, is Jacobs’ acknowledgment of the wonder travelers of all faiths experienced.  Echoing the work of Stephen Greenblatt who takes up the subject of wonder in Marvelous Possessions, the Wonder of the New World as part of the European traveler experience, regardless of faith, particularly when encountering the non-European others.  Jacobs echoes this important point explaining “medieval travel literature is inclined to marvel at the wonders and curious sites of foreign place.”(137)  One effective example of this comes from the descriptions of Damascus in Petahyah of Regensburg, who wrote prior to 1187, “If paradise lies on earth, then Damascus is paradise.” (138)  Jacobs goes on to discuss what the Massa’ot and other Jewish writings share with the Muslim texts of the same cities.

6> By the end of the book, the reader discovers that the author’s title gives an important clue to his conclusion, that in their narratives the writers “reoriented” (4) the prevailing Christian worldview, decentering the West as the pinnacle of world civilization.  He also found that, in the end, the writers reveal how their travels led to “mingled identities:  European and Jewish, Western and Eastern.” (214)  To the question of Orientalism, the author notes finding no evidence of this in these pre-modern travel writings.

7> My reservations about the text are few.  I might have liked a bit more attention paid to how, if at all, the texts of Jewish writers were part of travel literature as commodities by the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, at which time these literary productions enjoyed such a great popularity with a European audience that they became part of the social milieu of curiosity, including the collection of oddities and the texts that described them.  This is does not constitute a criticism as much as a nod to my own interest.  I might also question the use of Medieval Jewish travel writers as the book moves all the way into the early sixteenth century, when the Middle Ages had given way to the early modern world, particularly an Age of Exploration when travel began to take on much more imperialistic goals.  Finally, I found the series of questions that began each chapter, and interspersed throughout, thought-provoking if somewhat distracting.  At times the focus of my reading became more concerned with counting the questions and searching for direct answers, as opposed to concentrating on how the author answered them. Again, these are minor points in a book with little room for criticism.  That said, Martin Jacobs does successfully answer the fundamental questions he raises at the beginning, and those posed subsequently, effectively analyzing the sources to illuminate how European Jewish writers navigated the cultures of the Near Eastern world to which they traveled, and how they described people different from themselves, for good or ill.

8> As quite familiar with the writings of non-Jewish travelers this book filled a significant gap in my own knowledge.  For the valuable quality of its scholarship and for its smart prose, Martin Jacobs’ book will interest scholars of both literature and history.

9> While not an expressed intent of the author, this book serves as a reminder that intercultural and interfaith relations have a history, and that traveler narratives provide important insight into this history.  The events of the day notwithstanding, travel writings such as those presented here illuminate admiration and contention, and remind us that human relations are punctuated by periods of animosity, respect, cooperation, and conflict.

Jeanette M. Fregulia is Associate Professor of History at Carroll College in Helena, Montana. She holds an MA in Middle East Studies from the University of London and a PhD in Renaissance History from the University of Nevada, Reno. Her research interests center on women, commerce, and trade in early modern Italy and the Mediterranean.

Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature and Culture,
Volume Eight (2015): Dialogues & Exchanges

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