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Doing our homework on the Middle East
March 7, 2007 2:41 PM   Subscribe

22 basic suggested readings on the Middle East from history professor and informed commenter on Middle Eastern affairs Juan Cole.
posted by LobsterMitten (37 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
As in any person commenting often on the Middle East, Cole has his biases, perspectives, and so the list reflects his usual point of view. If you know his blog, this position well-known and often challenged by other specialists in the area.
posted by Postroad at 2:51 PM on March 7, 2007


Postroad - Who doesn't have a perspective? There is sharp division in every field of study. I don't think it totally discounts the very excellent books listed. Rashid Khalidi's books are excellent.
posted by inoculatedcities at 2:58 PM on March 7, 2007


I'd be much more excited if the link included websites. A bunch of books to read? Who reads books anymore?
posted by otherwordlyglow at 2:58 PM on March 7, 2007


I'm kinda kidding but still some web links that I could read while sitting here at work would be welcome replacements to the celebrity gossip that fuels my idle moments currently.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 3:06 PM on March 7, 2007


I've never read Khalidi, so I can't speak to his writing style. But I have to say that I've had a bad feeling about him ever since I saw him speak on a panel discussion in 2000, after the second intifadah broke out. He was speaking opposite Menachem Brinker, who is a very left wing, secular Israeli. The lecture hall was packed...about 500 people. Menachem was fielding angry questions from the right and the left, trying to find a middle ground and challenge both sides to see past their ideology and prejudice. Khalidi, on the other hand, was in full-on victim mode and refused to consider legitimate any of the concerns of the Israeli side. Refracted through Khalidi's bipolar viewpoint, Menachem wound up looking no different from a Kachnik, which made me very sad. I got the impression that he was doing the Palestinian victim shtick at the expense of dialogue. I walked away thinking that if he couldn't do better than alienate and insult half a room full of bright university students and pander to the other half, he can't be much of an intellectual.

When I mentioned this to another professor of mine, a very senior scholar who should probably remain nameless, he said: "Ah yes, Rashid Khalidi...you know, back when I taught him Arabic at Yale, he called himself 'Richard.'"
posted by felix betachat at 3:23 PM on March 7, 2007 [8 favorites]


i was (maybe not entirely) surprised not to see No God But God by Reza Aslan on there. Probably the only book on Islam I've really read, so take the recommendation for what it's worth, but it was fascinating, engaging, with a great writing voice. Perfect for non-religious types like myself who want a primer and basic history of the religion.

otherwordlyglow: there's excerpts from the book here and an interview with Aslan you can read in between the gossip stories.
posted by acid freaking on the kitty at 3:29 PM on March 7, 2007


Interesting story, felix and funny comment about calling himself Richard. I don't know much about him personally but I think the fact that he's the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia can tell you a bit about him. I recently finished The Iron Cage which is his history of the Palestinians and documents the many reasons they've not yet achieved statehood, even when it seemed very likely to happen. In fact, he lays much of the blame for this squarely on the political leadership of the Palestinians over the years. Check it out.
posted by inoculatedcities at 4:13 PM on March 7, 2007


I have never taken to Khalidi's work, that which I have seen, but at one time he did write a piece that I admired: he said it was time for the Palestinians to stop playing the victim game and to consider that they are in some measure also responsible for their current situation. I thought that a big departure from the usual line.
posted by Postroad at 4:13 PM on March 7, 2007


As in any person commenting often on the Middle East, Cole has his biases, perspectives, and so the list reflects his usual point of view. If you know his blog, this position well-known and often challenged by other specialists in the area.

So do you have anything to say about the list that is the subject of this post, or do you prefer to just make ad hominem attacks on Cole?

Me, I'd say it's a pretty sound basic list. Hourani's A history of the Arab peoples always winds up on these lists because it's reasonably comprehensive and Hourani was a respected scholar, but frankly I found it pretty boring, and I still turn to Hitti's out-of-date but readable History of the Arabs. Nikki Keddie's Modern Iran: Roots and Results of revolution is also sound and comprehensive but quite academic and can be a slog. For Iran, I would start with Roy Mottahedeh's brilliant The mantle of the Prophet: religion and politics in Iran (Simon and Schuster, 1985); it's not only well informed but highly readable, mixing history with description of a particular Iranian scholar and the biography of Khomeini. Hugh Kennedy is an excellent historian and writes quite well. Montgomery Watt is a classic—a little too accepting of received tradition for my taste, but well worth reading.

Thanks for the post.

Anybody know what the qqqq at the end of Cole's post means?
posted by languagehat at 4:46 PM on March 7, 2007 [1 favorite]



time for the Palestinians to stop playing the victim game

Uh, what? It was the Israelis who seized their lands and cut them off from society, who bulldozed their houses and shot their children in the streets. Violence from either side is deplorable, but who has the power here? Who has guns and tanks provided by America? Who is responsible for this? The Palestinians have nothing. No jobs, no electricity, no clean water, no security, no hope. Why? Because for hundreds of years they lived on land that Western imperialists wanted for themselves. This is their fault? I still do not understand what the justification is for defending an exclusionary state created 60 years ago that in every manner violates the spirit of democracy and the rule of law and that has trampled over people powerless to stop them. The UN should have created an international zone in Jerusalem as it did in Tangiers, where all would be welcomed, not just Jews. The very existence of Israel is a crime.
posted by bukharin at 4:54 PM on March 7, 2007


The UN should have created an international zone in Jerusalem as it did in Tangiers, where all would be welcomed, not just Jews. The very existence of Israel is a crime.

Um, they did. It was voted on and accepted by the member states and had the support of the majority of Jews and Jewish groups. Then pretty much overnight, Israel was invaded by five Arab armies, which were defeated. Go ahead and hate Israel all you want, but please, learn a bit of history or take it somewhere else.
posted by SBMike at 5:08 PM on March 7, 2007


Not a whole lot pre-dating Islam, to say the least.

Let's rewind the tape. With a mixture of light to heavy weights, try:

The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh by David Damrosch (Before there was an old testament....)

The Secret of the Hittites: The Discovery of an Ancient Empire by C.W. Ceram (he of Gods, Graves and Scholars)

Alexander the Great by Robin Lane Fox (their great empires have been invaded before we reached the table)

From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire
by Pierre Briant (not for the faint of heart)

Religion in Iran: From Zoroaster to Baha'u'llah by Alessandro Bausani (because it isn't just Muslims, Jews, and Christians. By an Italian academic and adherant of Bahai'sm.)
posted by IndigoJones at 5:22 PM on March 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


languagehat : Anybody know what the qqqq at the end of Cole's post means?

I was wondering about that as well. My searching leads me to believe that this is the message he was trying to convey.
posted by quin at 5:26 PM on March 7, 2007 [1 favorite]



I'm well aware of the partition plan, SBMike, thank you. That plan still created a Jewish state on Palestinian lands. What I question is why that state exists to begin with, and I'm familiar with all the excuses for it.
posted by bukharin at 5:34 PM on March 7, 2007


Good list, I'll be sure to add some of those to my reading list. I was surprised to see that From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman wasn't on the list, it was a very good read, I highly recommend it.
posted by Vindaloo at 6:30 PM on March 7, 2007


I'm not sure "Thomas Friedman" and "highly recommend" belong in the same sentence.
posted by proj at 7:32 PM on March 7, 2007 [4 favorites]


There is a lot missing from the list about the Israeli-Arab conflict, from all sides of the spectrum. He includes one of the Israeli New Historians (leftist academics who challenged commonly-held views of Israeli history), Avi Shlaim, but not the better known Benny Morris or Tom Segev, nor (unsurprisingly) does he include their critics, such as Efraim Karsh. Skipping the academic, however, two page turners that might be interesting:

Michael Oren's Six Days of War is the essential history of the 1967 War, with all of the implications for the region.

O Jerusalem by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre is an amazingly readable history giving various perspectives on the struggles surrounding Jerusalem especially around 1947-1949. Written, I believe, in the early 1970s, it is a bit of a product of its time, concentrating less on the implications of the 1967 war, but it is worth reading nonetheless.
posted by blahblahblah at 7:52 PM on March 7, 2007


Proj: I'm curious to know why you say that? The book won the National Book award and Friedman won the Pulitzer twice. Is there some bad press about the book that I should be aware of?
posted by Vindaloo at 7:52 PM on March 7, 2007


Is the Bush surge already failing? The president just gave a rosy assessment of his plan, but insurgents have adapted and Iraqis continue to be slaughtered.
posted by homunculus at 8:22 PM on March 7, 2007


What? No Bernard Lewis?
posted by Heminator at 9:32 PM on March 7, 2007


If you know his blog, this position well-known and often challenged by other specialists in the area.

So is evolution.
posted by dirigibleman at 11:06 PM on March 7, 2007


In all honesty, shouldn't The Qur'an be on the list?
posted by kisch mokusch at 11:57 PM on March 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


Oh, I missed IndigoJones post, but he makes a good point.

Are these books supposed to help the reader understand current-day middle-east (as I initially read it), or are they supposed to enable readers to understand the entire history of the region?

Also, not a lot of those books are published pre-2001. Think about it.
posted by kisch mokusch at 12:12 AM on March 8, 2007


If you know his blog, this position well-known and often challenged by other specialists in the area.

So is evolution.


I understand your confusion regarding evolution being challenged by specialists. But you misheard. Evolution is challenged by specious twits.
posted by srboisvert at 1:17 AM on March 8, 2007


I was surprised to see that From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman wasn't on the list

You shouldn't be. Friedman is readable but superficial and mainly concerned with promoting his own worldview. No knowledgeable person would recommend his books as basic reading.

What? No Bernard Lewis?

You're joking, right? Bernard "All Muslims are the same at all times and places and they haven't done anything worth paying attention to since the Middle Ages" Lewis? I don't think so.

Are these books supposed to help the reader understand current-day middle-east (as I initially read it), or are they supposed to enable readers to understand the entire history of the region?


The former, obviously. It's nice that IndigoJones wants to increase our awareness of Gilgamesh, Zoroastrianism, and the Achaemenids, but it has pretty much nothing to do with the topic.
posted by languagehat at 5:34 AM on March 8, 2007


Obviously? He never really gives a topic as such, other than the history and religion of the Middle East.

Even accepting that premise, I respectfully disagree with your conclusion. This is an ancient, ancient, land, to which Islam is a relatively recent arrival. Go into the country side, and they still practice Zoroastrianism, still talk of Alexander, still consider the 1258 Mongol invasion as recent news. If the locals still think about these things, anyone hoping to understand the area should do so as well.

And I agree with kisch mokusch, it is a little disconcerting that nothing Cole lists is older than 2001.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:18 AM on March 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


I go to the National Review for my Middle Eastern background education.
[ I keed! I keed!]
posted by nofundy at 6:37 AM on March 8, 2007


Night Draws Near is a very good and readable oral history of recent Iraq history. It changed my views seeing things from the average Iraqi's perspective.
posted by stbalbach at 6:44 AM on March 8, 2007


Obviously? He never really gives a topic as such

Exactly, so you go by the list of books he gives, which have nothing whatever to do with the Achaemenids. The fact that "nothing Cole lists is older than 2001" should be another helpful clue. I think "obviously" is quite warranted.

This is an ancient, ancient, land, to which Islam is a relatively recent arrival. Go into the country side, and they still practice Zoroastrianism, still talk of Alexander, still consider the 1258 Mongol invasion as recent news. If the locals still think about these things, anyone hoping to understand the area should do so as well.

OK, I'm going to ask for some credentials here. You talk like someone who has spent considerable time in the countryside, conversing with the locals in Iraqi Arabic about everything under the sun. If this is the case (and I'm willing to take your word for it), then I'll treat your opinions with respect, though I'll still disagree with them. (Even if many Iraqis are aware of pre-Islamic history—beyond "Alexander," who is simply an ahistorical culture hero like Khidr in much of the Near East—I double-damn guarantee you that what actually matters to their lives and current actions is far more recent.) But if you're just talking like an Old Mesapotamia Hand to give your comments more credibility, please stop it.
posted by languagehat at 6:59 AM on March 8, 2007


Oh, and as for:

they still practice Zoroastrianism

Wikipedia says "very few, if any, Zoroastrians remain." And yes, it's only Wikipedia, but the CIA Factbook gives the following under "Religions":

Muslim 97% (Shi'a 60%-65%, Sunni 32%-37%), Christian or other 3%

I think it's pretty safe to say that "Christian" makes up the vast majority of the "Christian or other" category. So again: what are you basing your authoritative-sounding pronouncement on?
posted by languagehat at 7:04 AM on March 8, 2007


Vindaloo: If you're looking for a critique of Friedman, check out this piece: www.nypress.com/18/16/news&columns/taibbi.cfm.
It's pretty scathing, but I personally find it to be spot on. (Plus, I love the term "flathead"!) In my own experience (as a graduate student), I've found him to have limited clout in the academic community.

otherworldlyglow: If you are looking for online material, there is a wealth of stuff out there. I would check out MERIP's site: www.merip.org. This site has a lot of useful reading material and good links to articles, etc. There's also the Egyptian paper, Al-Ahram: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg. Here, you'll find columns by a number of prominent academics including Joseph Massad and Hamid Dabashi. And of course, there's Juan Cole's blog. Just to be clear though, these suggestions reflect my very-left pro-Palestinian views/interests, so if that's not you're thing, you might want to look elsewhere.
posted by anonymous78 at 8:06 AM on March 8, 2007


Thank you for a nice reference. I've been using Middle East Books- Bibliography for my research recently.
posted by techfreak at 8:39 AM on March 8, 2007


Anybody know what the qqqq at the end of Cole's post means?

He's posting with vi, ten'll get you twelve.

posted by bonehead at 9:15 AM on March 8, 2007


Anybody know what the qqqq at the end of Cole's post means?

He could be saying "Four Q" to his detractors.

He could be saying we're 4Q'd.

He could be heavily invested in NASDAQ.

Could also be a reference to "qui quae quo quum" or Who, What, When, Where?
posted by zueod at 10:56 AM on March 9, 2007


proj - From Beirut to Jersusalem is actually fairly good (as good as Friedman gets anyway). It's not excellent, but it's not terrible either. It's very much a document of a young western reporter who lived in the region during very turbulent times and there's very little of Friedman's nascent (bullshit) philosophizing and analysis. His later books are a different story...
posted by inoculatedcities at 3:17 PM on March 9, 2007


I'm going to ask for some credentials here.

Fair enough. I'm a stay at home. I speak to more adventurous folk who have gone into the hills and who have spoken with the locals and I am willing to believe what they say. So you can respect them and disrepect me as suits.

That aside, I stand by my initial point. Cole's first book suggestion starts at 600, and others discuss the Ottomans and the caliphates, so clearly older history is on the table. What is sticks out is that not so much the publication dates as that none covers the pre-islamic period. (Not a one focuses on Judaism or Israel, either, which is also a little odd.)

For someone trying to grasp the middle east, even just the modern middle east, that is simply mind boggling. Would you tell someone studying the US for the first time not to bother with anything pre-dating 1776? Would you tell someone studying England to ignore anything pre-dating 1066?

Alternatively, he could just re-title the list.
posted by IndigoJones at 9:46 AM on March 11, 2007


Would you tell someone studying the US for the first time not to bother with anything pre-dating 1776? Would you tell someone studying England to ignore anything pre-dating 1066?

Yes to both. Not for in-depth study, obviously, but to grasp the essentials of what's happening in those countries today you can totally ignore those periods, and the same is true of pre-Islamic Iraq/Mesopotamia. We seem to be talking past each other to some extent; I certainly don't want to come off as saying "history is bunk," and I'm fascinated by all that premodern stuff and would encourage anyone to get interested in it, but it's quite evident to me that Cole's is a basic list to get you started on understanding what's going on now, and for that, Zoroastrianism and the Achemenids are a distraction, not a help. (In fact, I'd say studying the ancient past is a pretty good way to avoid dealing with the present; Saddam certainly thought so.)

I'm a stay at home. I speak to more adventurous folk who have gone into the hills and who have spoken with the locals and I am willing to believe what they say. So you can respect them and disrepect me as suits.


Thanks for clarifying. It's not a matter of respect—I don't respect someone more for going into the backcountry (there are plenty of adventurous idiots) or less for staying at home (which I do these days myself)—it's a matter of how far removed you are from eyewitness accounts. If you'd seen a Zoroastrian village with your own eyes and talked to Iraqis who said "Yeah, foreigners always ignore them but there are lots of Zorros around here," that would be one thing—I'd still want scholarly backup, but I'd take it seriously. But I'm afraid I take the vague reports of people you've talked to no more seriously than I take reports of the Loch Ness Monster. No offense, but people are willing to report all sorts of crap they don't actually know. Especially when it comes to Iraq.
posted by languagehat at 11:25 AM on March 11, 2007


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