The Physician of the Caliphs by Nabil Saleh

Hunayn ibn Ishaq (803-873 AD) was a Christian physician of Arab descent. He, with other Nestorian physicians, practised the medicine taught by the Ancient Greeks. He was personal physician to eight caliphs and rose to such prominence that his contemporaries dubbed him ‘a source of science and a mine of virtue’. He transmitted to the Abbasids a great number of Greek medical and non-medical works, translating them into Arabic, often from earlier Syriac versions and, as did other Christian physicians, he enjoyed a de facto monopoly on exercising Greek medicine in the Abbasid Empire, often commenting and adding on the works he had translated. Hunayn ibn Ishaq left a sketchy account of his life. Nabil Saleh has written a novel that purports to complete it, re-creating the background of the Abbasid court where he moved, and giving a glimpse of the daily life in Baghdad and Byzantium, during the ninth century AD.

Nabil Saleh is a distinguished international lawyer. He has been living in the UK since 1977 and has published seven books – two on Islamic Law, and five historical novels, four of which have been published by Quartet Books.

Despite his track record as an acclaimed novelist, books by male Arab authors seldom sell in the UK. There seems to be an ingrained resistance to review their books on the sheer assumption that a British audience will be at pains to find them of interest, unless of course in special cases where the author has already established an international reputation with audiences in the western hemisphere.

Quartet has, over the years, made a concerted effort to break this unfounded misconception, deep-rooted as it is, but alas without much success so far. I say this because it is our intention to keep presenting these contributions to the book world so as to kill the notion that Arab writers are less endowed than those of other nations who pride themselves on their literary heritage.

On the other hand, I must admit that the Arabs themselves are equally guilty and have not woken up to the fact that unless they lead by example in encouraging and supporting their budding writers no one else will. They should demonstrate their commitment to nurture talent that is home-grown and until such time the blame must squarely rest upon their shoulders.

Their record to date has been appalling.

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