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The best books on The Arabs

recommended by Eugene Rogan

Eugene Rogan is Director of the Middle East Centre at Oxford University. His research focuses on the social and economic history of the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire and the Arab states in the 20th century.

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You’ve started with a travel account from the early 19th century, John Lewis Burckhardt’s Travel in Syria and the Holy Land. Why this book?

Burckhardt really was the original Lawrence of Arabia, the Westerner who goes out to the Middle East, studies Arabic, dresses in the local fashion, and travels right through the Arab world. And he came away with a depth of understanding about the people among whom he travelled that was just unsurpassed in its day. Burckhardt was actually preparing himself not to be an Orientalist and Middle Eastern traveller, but to go and try to find the sources of various African rivers – he was fascinated by the origins of the Niger river. He was preparing himself to go into Central Africa but he never actually made it – he went up the Nile and made his pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina and then came back to Cairo, where he got ill and died in 1817. So he never fulfilled the objective for which he was learning the language and travelling through the region. But in the process he left behind a couple of fantastic books. One was his travel book, Travel in Syria and the Holy Land, and the other one was a study of the Wahabis in Arabia, from the time of his pilgrimage to Mecca.

And of all the things he describes, what really sticks in your mind?

He is most famous for being the first Westerner to see the Nabatean ruins in Petra. He had discerned that the lost city of Petra might correspond to some places the Bedouin were talking about, and he finally persuaded some of them to lead him there. The Bedouin were very suspicious of anybody trying to visit ruins and old sites, thinking they were seeking gold or treasure or that they might be necromancers: Burckhardt was often suspected of raising the dead, because of his interest in travelling among ruins. And so his is a very quickly sketched description of Petra, because his guides took him to see it, showed him the place and then quickly frogmarched him out again. But I think that stands as one of the most famous passages in his travels. For me, what’s interesting are the reflections on the Arab societies in which he moved: this is someone who could talk to the people, who really came to grips with the politics of the local society. There’s a sophistication of knowledge and engagement that came from travelling, from living among people for a long time, from speaking their language, which makes him stand out above many of the other Western travellers of his generation.

So your next choice is al-Tahtawi’s An Imam in Paris, which was one of the most influential books in Arabic of the 19th century. What can you tell me about this book?

Al-Tahtawi was sent by the ruler of Egypt as the chaplain of an educational mission to France. The aim of the mission was to train young Egyptians in the languages and the arts and the sciences that had made Europe so strong in that first quarter of the 19th century. And he was a very insightful observer, who presents us with a pretty unique example of an Arab or Muslim traveller describing the manners and customs of an exotic people: in this case the French. He was very curious and he wasn’t particularly judgmental. So he went with an open mind and wide open eyes. He was fascinated by the relations between men and women, by how they dressed, by how they worked, by the way they decorated their homes and even how they set their tables. There are wonderfully vivid descriptions of all these things, which were so different from the way in which society worked in his native Egypt. He was also very interested in the way the politics of French society worked; he was fascinated by constitutional government, the idea that there could be rules that applied on rulers as well as on subjects. And he’s the first person to introduce the idea of a newspaper to the Arab world. At the time, in the 1820s, there were no newspapers in Arabic. He’s the first one to describe how they worked, how they allow accountability, how people’s actions can be put under scrutiny, and how anybody, whatever their standing in life, was able to write for these things called newspapers. The book was a bestseller from the moment it was published in Arabic. It was instantly translated into Turkish, so it reached the Ottoman world at large, and really is more responsible than any other book, in the first half of the 19th century, for setting reformist debates in Ottoman and Arab society. But it’s also just a great read – a fascinating, fantastic book, and there’s a wonderful new translation of it [by Daniel Newman].

On to One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate by Tom Segev. What does that mean, One Palestine, Complete?

It was a mock receipt for the handover between high commissioners in Palestine: the one handing on to his successor ‘one Palestine, complete’, in the same way someone handing over a battleship might give it into the hands of the next commander, itemising all aspects of the battleship. So it’s very much a reflection of a British notion of their responsibilities as commanders of this colony or ship. But the irony of it is, of course, that Palestine was made, by the British, into a twice-contested land: between Palestinian Arabs and Jewish Zionist immigrants. It was a country slated for partition. Arabs and Jews in Palestine were taking Palestine in the direction of a divided land, not ‘one Palestine, complete’. But, actually, Segev doesn’t dwell on that irony at any length. Instead, what he gives us is a very human history about the encounter between British imperial rulers, the indigenous Arab people and the Jewish immigrants in the inter-war years, when Palestine was created as a British mandate. The book is very richly peopled – these vivid characters from all three communities – and Segev tracks the way they didn’t live in isolation from one another, but interacted and were shaped by each other. It’s a book full of startling challenges to assumed wisdoms and borrowed wisdoms.

For example?

My favourite is his description of the Hebron Riots in 1929. This is an instance where growing tension between Arab and Jewish communities led to violence where Arabs attacked Jewish places of worship. They attacked the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and that set off a wave of attacks of other areas where there were Jewish communities in Hebron. As I recall, around 69 people were killed by Arab rioters, and it’s always portrayed as an instance of Arab intolerance towards the Jewish community in their midst, evidence of a genocidal streak. But what you get from reading Segev, is that what saved the Jewish community in Hebron from a much worse massacre was the fact that so many Arabs took in their Jewish neighbours to protect them. And, in this way, what could have been an elimination of the Jewish community in Hebron, led instead to two or three score people being killed rather than hundreds. I’d never read that anywhere else and I just think that this is a great example of how powerful a well-written book can be, for challenging people’s pre-conceptions.

Segev also gives us the very best portrait of Chaim Weizmann who was the Zionist diplomat responsible for the Balfour Declaration. He explains how Weizmann was able to leverage European misconceptions about international Jewry: he really played on their belief that he was the head of a kind of diaspora nation that he was in direct communication with, that they were organised and a force. The reality, as Segev points out, is that Weizmann was a guy in a small flat off Piccadilly, whose office was the suitcase of letters that he kept under his bed. There wasn’t more to him than that. But he was able to present himself and gain access to the very highest levels of British policymakers, and in this way shaped their views, so that they would come around to declaring British policy in favour of creating a Jewish national home in Palestine.

So Jewish stereotypes played in Weizmann’s favour?

There was always this notion among anti-Semites in Europe that there was a kind of Jewish International. And for some, this meant Jews were in some way seeking to dominate or control the economy or world politics. And Weizmann never fought that. He let people continue to work on such false assumptions and then presented himself as the head of the world Zionist organisation, as someone who was almost of head of state status; somebody who represented the interests of a lot of powerful, wealthy, influential Jews around the world. And he really wasn’t that. So it’s a book full of very rich and cliché-overturning anecdotes, told in a very lively and engaging way.

Your next book is Robert Fisk’s Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War.

Fisk writes the most compassionate and engaging prose about his own experiences in Lebanon. As a journalist he seems to get underneath the skin of that society better than just about anyone I know. And it’s a book I relate to very personally, having lived for five years in Lebanon and having been forced to leave the country because of the outbreak of the civil war. So I felt very close to his subject. Fisk, of course, stayed through the very worst days of the conflict, when any rat worth his skin was going to get on a ship and get out of Lebanon. And so he wrote the story of the horrors that he saw in war-torn Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s, and I think it probably stands as the best example of a book of political journalism of conflict in the Middle East that I can think of. He just writes like an angel.

What insights does it offer into the conflict?

The central dilemma for Fisk is the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila camps in the fall of 1982. He begins the book by going to talk to Holocaust survivors, and he’s trying to come to grips with how it was possible for a Jewish state, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, to be party to a massacre that was so exterminationist in its nature. The Israelis did not kill Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila, but they surrounded the camps and allowed their Maronite allies into them. The book is not in any sense a gratuitous swipe against the Israelis, because the Israeli public was also deeply appalled by the violence done in the camps, and one-tenth of the population of Israel actually took to the streets to protest, and the Israeli Supreme Court convened a commission of inquiry that was to find a number of government officials responsible to different degrees for that mass murder.

He is also trying to understand how a society divided by its own feuds or – worse than feuds – by genocidal warfare, how the Maronites, the Palestinians and the different militias can get to that point of brutality.

The other story in Fisk’s book is the kidnapping of Westerners, part of the emergence of a new Shiite power called Hezbollah, which fought its war against outside domination with very unconventional means. That started with the advent of suicide bombing and then went through the taking of hostages as a political bargaining chip. His friend Terry Anderson, the AP journalist, was not released by the time this edition came out. That too is one of the big stories that sticks in your mind after you’ve read the book.

Given our broader topic is the Arabs, does Fisk’s book say anything that is relevant when you look at other countries in the region?

Lebanon was not unique in facing civil conflict. There was Algeria in the 1990s where the cancellation of a parliamentary election led to a massive civil war. The longest civil war in the region is in the Sudan, and if we think more recently to what’s been going on in Iraq since its 2003 invasion, there are a number of examples of internecine conflicts that reached the degree of violence that Lebanon knew, and much worse.

I think the other thing about the broader Arab story is how many Arab countries are playing out their inter-Arab rivalries through the Lebanese conflict. You see Syria had a very strong position there; Iraqis opposed Syria’s involvement in Lebanon and didn’t want to compromise, and the Saudis were backing some groups. In some sense Lebanon was going to become a microcosm of broader regional conflicts too. All that is very much captured in Fisk’s book.

A lot of your choices seem to focus on personal narratives – it’s very much about firsthand accounts, what people are going through, rather than broad impersonal histories…

I find that this human interaction in history is what really hooks me, and it makes history much more immediate to readers generally. Though my fifth book is going to be in some ways the most impersonal and broad-sweeping of the lot. There’s an exception to every rule.

This is Albert Hourani’s A History of the Arab Peoples?

Yes. Though, actually, Hourani begins with a person too: Ibn Khaldun, the great Arab father of sociology, the 14th-century Arab intellectual. Khaldun wrote a very serious history about the rise and fall of empires which saw the driving energy of Arab history as coming from the desert. The power of the tribes from the desert conquers the towns and establishes itself as dominant power, and then, in the course of generations, loses its martial ardour, and becomes shaped by the refinement and culture of city life. So in the end it is no longer strong enough to defend itself against the next wave of ardour coming from the desert that will challenge the political order in the now effete city and impose a new political order. He sees the rise and fall of empires in Arab classical history as in a sense shaped by this cyclical pattern.

He also sees the loyalties of Arabs being shaped by a force called asabiya. This is the notion that your loyalties belong to those you know best. So it’ll be me against my brother, my brother and I against our cousin, us and our cousin against the next family over, us and our neighbours against the next town over, us and our villages against those in another province – this notion of social cohesion that grows more diffuse the larger the unit. Khaldun sees asabiya as being one of the driving forces of Arab history.

And Hourani picked up on Khaldun’s cyclical notion of the rise and fall of Arab empires, and these almost Weberian notions of loyalty, as the key themes with which to weave a history of the Arab peoples – critically he speaks in the plural. He sees the Arabs as being many peoples and one people at the same time, and his history traces the Arab world from the rise of Islam to modern times, and does so with an elegant conciseness that allows him to cover that huge sweep of 14 centuries in about 500-600 pages.

Hourani is in many ways the most respected modern historian of the Arab world. He made his career here in Oxford – he was the founding father of the Middle East centre where I work – and when I met him as a graduate student, the awe and reverence with which I approached the great man was, I’m sure, pretty funny to him. But he was a delightful man. When I came to take my appointment to Oxford in 1991 I had two years of seeing him before he died. I keep being described as disciple of Hourani, or a student of Hourani, and I was neither of those things. I never got a chance to study under Albert, though I would have loved to. But I always wanted to write a book like Albert Hourani did. I always felt very much in awe of his scholarship and his depth of knowledge and erudition. And, in a sense, all of those great qualities were brought to bear in his last great work, A History of the Arab Peoples.

January 7, 2010

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Eugene Rogan

Eugene Rogan

Eugene Rogan is Director of the Middle East Centre and a Faculty Fellow and University Lecturer in the Modern History of the Middle East at Oxford University. His research focuses on the social and economic history of the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire and the Arab states in the 20th century. His most recent book, The Arabs: A History, came out in 2009 to widespread media attention, not least because it offered historical insight into why US efforts to promote democracy in the region have been met with such suspicion.
Eugene Rogan at Oxford
Review of Eugene Rogan's 'The Arabs'

Eugene Rogan

Eugene Rogan

Eugene Rogan is Director of the Middle East Centre and a Faculty Fellow and University Lecturer in the Modern History of the Middle East at Oxford University. His research focuses on the social and economic history of the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire and the Arab states in the 20th century. His most recent book, The Arabs: A History, came out in 2009 to widespread media attention, not least because it offered historical insight into why US efforts to promote democracy in the region have been met with such suspicion.
Eugene Rogan at Oxford
Review of Eugene Rogan's 'The Arabs'