Originally appeared in Bookforum (Summer 2011).
Bibliomancy—the ancient practice of opening a sacred text to any page, then mining a random line for prophecy and advice—is not one of my
standard journalistic research methods. But for those who write about the Middle East, 2011 has been an exceptionally demanding year. With
autocracies toppling and teetering decades ahead of schedule, untold shelves of books on Arab politics now need revision (or pulping). Could the methods of yore be any worse? The medieval bibliomancers liked to consult Virgil, Protesters and soldiers celebrate in Cairo, February 2011. And the ancient Chinese—along with plenty of hippies— preferred the wisdom of the I Ching. Back home after covering the Egyptian revolution and the fall of President Hosni Mubarak on February 11, I tried both. I hoped the Aeneid would yield something apropos about Carthage, but instead I landed on a verse about naval architecture; my random page in the I Ching was “Ta Kuo” through “Wei Tzu” in the index). Any relevance to Arab revolution was opaque.
But I am happy to report that bibliomancy of a more recent vintage has held some promise. It is a special book whose every page offers an insight and an expertly deployed phrase. In this season, more than in most, Leon Trotsky’s energetic and embittered The History of the Russian Revolution is ripe for bibliomancy, and capable on any page of furnishing an aperçu uncannily relevant to the Arab world today. It is also among the most thrilling works of history ever written. Trotsky wrote “a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny,” which should in itself sound similar to much of the masters-of-our-fate liberation rhetoric in common currency in revolutionary Arabia. In its characters, but even more so in its depiction of the eddies and microcurrents of collective action during the crucial February Revolution, it is riveting and intelligent, capable of nourishing any reader who wants to know what the Arab Spring feels like from inside.