The Silk Road

I’ve just finished another terrific Coursera course with the University of Leiden, this time on the Cosmopolitan Medieval Arabic World. As promised by the course leader, a number of my preconceptions and beliefs about this place and time in history have changed…

The sophistication of medieval Baghdad, the mixing and mingling of peoples and cultures, the virtuous circle of stability, good rule and prosperity from Spain, North Africa and the Middle East and across the arc of the Turkic silk route to China; all these and more brought technological, intellectual, medical, social and philosophical advances.

Expansion of the four Caliphates 622-750 – Wikipedia

So, nice to see some of that encapsulated in a useful aphorism, which dropped into my inbox on Monday; and that I’ve quoted three times this week:

He who has a thousand friends has not a friend to spare,

He who has one enemy will meet him everywhere.

Ali ibn-Abi-Talib c.602–661, fourth Islamic caliph: A Hundred Sayings

I first started to realise this about enemies in my late thirties, and learnt some formative lessons in making one or two in my forties. But I’ve only really fully embraced the truth of the matter post 50…

It is really really really not worth gratuitously falling out with people. There’s pretty much always an amicable way forward and it’s always worth seeking one.


A friend and I were discussing the relative merits of, in boxing parlance, ‘keeping your guard up’.

In cricket, a careful guard would be a predisposition towards defence – the style of the opening batsman. Endure and accumulate, rather than the flashing blade of the middle order cavalier. It takes discipline and concentration.

Of course whether a boxer or a batsman, defence is only half the job. You have to land or hit a few too. But a hopeful swing in either can cost you your wicket or your teeth. The point of our conversation was how emotionally ‘open’ to be to others. Guard up or guard down?

I think, generally, I’m pretty emotionally open these days. The upside is pleasant surprises, new friends and enriching moments. The downside is the body shots, low blows and bruises of being hit with other people’s emotional angst.

At times this week I’ve felt like Muhammed Ali in the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ – soaking up head and body shots. There have been occasions for a positive flurry of revelation, knowledge and ideas. But lots of questioning, buffeting and absorbing the needs of others.

Too much ‘Rope a Dope’ cost Ali his gilded tongue and electric wit – knocked clean out of him. Emotional shots take it out of me too, perhaps I should keep my guard up just a fraction more.