Review: Topsy-Turvy Land

Authors: Amy E. Zwemer is the co-author of Topsy-Turvy Land and Zigzag Journeys in the Camel Country. A native Australian, she met Samuel M. Zwemer while she was serving as a pioneer missionary in Basra, present-day Iraq.

Samuel M. Zwemer

Full Title: Topsy-Turvy Land: Arabia Pictured for Children


This is a book designed to introduce the Arab world to children in an off-kilter setting but with a missional mindset. For one characteristic example, the Kaaba in Mecca is called “The Square-House with the Black Overcoat.” After a description of Muslim practices around the Kaaba, readers are reminded:

For thirteen hundred years Moslems [Muslims] have come every year to Mecca, and gone away, with no one ever to tell them of the Son of God, the Saviour of the World. Thirteen hundred years! Don’t you think it is time to go and tell them?

It is rare to find materials that introduce cross-cultural missions to children, so that may be one of the most important things about this book.


This little book that can be read in an hour or two presents numerous aspects of daily life in the Arabian Peninsula at the turn of the twentieth century. Although the book is dated, it is usually obvious when the authors’ accounts are no longer reliable.

I might not recommend it to people with no experience of the Arab world, because so many of the chapters—while they bear a relation to modern practices—no longer reflect the way daily life is. I don’t see Bedouin women grinding at the mill, Arabia no longer has coins that look like clothespins, slavery is no longer openly practiced, and, praise God, it is no longer true that “few can read and even those who can read, are able to read only the Koran and the Moslem traditions. ”


Zwemer’s mode of introducing Arabia, as “topsy-turvy,” clearly would not pass muster in any modern anthropology class. The introduction presents several practices in Arabic culture and Muslim cultures as inherently negative, but modern missiologists would take issue with this mode of writing:

The women wear toe-rings and nose-rings as well as earrings and bracelets. Everything seems different from what it is in a Christian country.

In its worst sections, this book is patronizingly juvenile toward its audience; at its best, it shows the wealth of fascinating detail about the Arab world that was curated and represented in the lives of its authors.

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