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Reorienting the East: Jewish Travelers to the Medieval Muslim World.


Martin Jacobs. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 2014. 331pp.

Martin Jacobs explores in this book the Islamic world as it was encountered and envisioned by over two dozen European Jewish travelers from the Middle Ages (c. 1150-1520), through close reading of their writings in Hebrew andJudeo-Arabic. It is the first comprehensive investigation of Jewish travel writing (books and letters) to the Holy Land during this era. The research is an original and innovative, the first to subject the narratives of medieval Jewish travelers to a critically intense investigation, and it appraises their role in corroborating and challenging any sense of a clearly defined East and West at the heart of Jewish constructions of identity and difference. Jacobs rightly argues that the travel narratives demonstrate the manifold ways in which Jews of the Middle Ages negotiated their own identities. Placing the travelers' shifting perspectives on the Muslim world in their historical, social, and literary contexts, Jacobs reads them as mirrors of changing Jewish self-perceptions. The travel accounts echo the various ways in which premodern Jews negotiated their mingled identities.

The Middle East that emerges through Jacobs's thorough analysis is a heterogenous region with diverse attributes. Jacobs shows the various and also shifting depictions and perceptions in the way Jewish travelers saw the Islamic world and Jewish holy sites (mostly in the Holy Land which was under crusader rule and Muslim rule. He also demonstrates how some of these travelers constructed the world they discovered, and subverted a decidedly Christian vision of the Levant along with some of the European presuppositions, images, beliefs, and claims, hence reorienting the East.

Jewish travelers tend to present Jewish-Muslim relations in contrast to the situation in Europe. Their descriptions of the Near East include polemics against the church rather than Islam. Yet some of the later travelers express condescending attitudes toward Muslims, Islam, and Near Eastern Jews.

There are three main parts in the book: 1) on travel and travel narratives, which concludes on medieval Jewish travelers of multiple categories, and their polyphonic writing, on the two main reasons for traveling to the holy land--pilgrimage and trade; 2) on territory and place, which deals with the encounter with gentiles in Erets Israel, and impressions of Muslim great cities Baghdad, Alexandria, and Damascus; and 3) on encountering the other, which is dedicated to encounters--travelers and local Jews as well as Jewish sects, travelers and Muslims, travelers and Christians--local and European; and with others.

The book is an important contribution to various fields, but first and foremost to that of Jewish travel literature--and its respective authors-what they saw, felt, and wrote, and the subjects of their writing, and as such Jacobs corresponds with current questions related to authorship and identity, as well as postcolonial studies and Saidian criticism. Besides the many new insights, the author includes valuable quotations from the Hebrew sources, some of which have been translated anew by the learned author. The broad bibliographic list is impressive and attests to the serious research done by him.

The book will be of great interest not only to specialists, but to a general readership, as it deals in a very clear and appealing manner with many topics that do not appear in its title. Among the subjects are Jews under Islam and interfaith encounters, historiography, travel literature, popular religion, Jewish identity, solidarity, and self-image, and, of course, glimpses of daily life in the Middle Ages.

I hope that the author will continue his research on the Ottoman period, which is even richer with materials, and will also use some visual sources that complement the written travelogues.

Yaron Ben-Naeh

The Hebrew University
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Author:Ben-Naeh, Yaron
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2015
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