Middle East reading list.

I’ve done a couple of reading lists already, but there are several books that I wanted to recommend that don’t fit into my earlier categories! And so: General Middle East reading (with one, less general, exception). Hem-hem:

  1. The Crusades Through Arab Eyes (1984) – Amin Maalouf. It’s been years since I read this, but it made such a huge impression on me. From the back cover: “The Crusades Through Arab Eyes is a vivid portrait of a society nearly destroyed by internal conflict and shaken by a traumatic encounter with an alien culture. Maalouf offers fascinating insights into the historical forces that even today shape Arab and Islamic consciousness.” (Hmm. I may have to read it again!) It’s one of those books that forces you to realize that you had taken on some cultural assumptions without even realizing it. Also, I seem to recall that in the months following 9/11, some poor sap of Arab-American extraction who (if memory serves, and it might not) actually worked at the White House, got on a plane with this book and left it on his seat to go to the bathroom before the flight took off — and was thrown off the flight, or questioned, as a result. So. Now you’re duty bound to read it!
  2. Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East (2008) – Robin Wright. Wright first began reporting from the Middle East in 1973, and this is an exhaustive, and very human, sketch of the various forces shaping the region. She focuses on the people you don’t hear much about — those working for real change — managing to both give a real sense of hope for reform where it’s needed, while also keeping those hopes in perspective (she was writing during the Bush years, when it was becoming painfully clear that the Iraq invasion had done an enormous amount of harm: “Everywhere I went, I heard a similar refrain from people of all political parties and religious affiliations…. In Iraq, the world’s mightiest democracy had undermined – even sabotaged – prospects for political change.”) I remember feeling frustrated that she undervalued the impact of the Israeli occupation on the Palestinian Authority’s functionality, but other than that, an excellent book.
  3. Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (2008) – Mark LeVine. Oh my, but I did enjoy this book. LeVine teaches Middle Eastern History at the University of California-Irvine, and is a guitarist who’s spent years jamming with musicians across the Middle East, to fairly awesome effect in the form of this book. It’s one of those rare sources of insight into a region that both gives you the information you need to have, and fills you in on all kinds of stuff you never would have dreamt of on your own (like, for instance, that yes – they play death metal in the Middle East). Though I’ll confess that my ability to truly appreciate heavy metal as an artform is limited, it’s clear that these men (mostly men) are protest artists who face down corruption and violent oppression with their music,  “devoting their lives to creating an alternative system that builds an open and democratic culture from the ground up” — sometimes risking imprisionment or even torture for the privilege. (Here’s the review I wrote for the Dallas Morning News. Ack! I meant Paste Magazine! ).
  4. The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday (2009) – Neil MacFarquhar. This is an excellent example of the kind of book that a good journalist produces, snappily written and deeply researched. Most of these round-up regional books tend to focus on the kinds of questions that Westerners have about the Middle East, but MacFarquhar is much more interested in the questions that Middle Easterners — particularly Arabs, with little direct attention paid to Israel or Iran — ask themselves. Really, honestly, you should read it for the title alone, but the rest of it is just as good.
  5. City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism (September publication, 2009) – Jim Krane. Not strictly speaking “Middle East,” in that it’s about just one country, but a) Dubai has resonance far beyond its own borders, b) I have nowhere else to lump it, and c) it’s too good not to list somewhere — it’s another one of those “excellent examples of the kind of book that a good journalist produces.” I knew next to nothing about Dubai when I started reading it, and I came away feeling as if I’d been there. Krane is clearly fond of his adopted home and its people, but also very honest about what it can mean to take capitalism and modernity to their outer limits. Really, really, really interesting.

1 Comment

  1. Elise Hasselbring Womack

     /  August 7, 2009

    Maybe you covered this earlier (I have only read this post), but did you read Jimmy Carter’s book on the subject?