10 Indispensable Books on the Middle East

While the subject of the Middle East is too complex, too fascinating and surprising to be reduced to one volume, however fat and brilliant, if you're short on time it can be reduced to a manageable pile. Here are 10 of the best books on the Middle East, covering a vast range of themes and perspectives, as accessible to the lay reader as they're enlightening for the expert. The books are listed in alphabetical order by author:

01
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"Islam: A Short History," by Karen Armstrong.

The book lives up to its title and reputation as just about the best one-volume introduction to the history of Islam. No jargon here, no battling footnotes. Just a lucid, clear-eyed narrative of Islam's origins, its seemingly confusing branching out (geographically and spiritually), and its modern-day fragmentation. Extremists, fundamentalists and terrorists are the squeaky attention grabbers. But Armstrong convincingly shows that Islam's billion followers around the world are overwhelmingly moderate and enthusiastically modern, if in their own ways. She just as convincingly shows why Western democracy-building, with its blood-soaked colonial precedents, has never been trusted in the Islamic world.
After laying out the history of early Islam in all its spiritual and military opulence, Aslan explains the meaning of "jihad" and the various breakdowns that wracked Islam much the same way that Protestants broke away from Catholics in late-Medieval Europe. Aslan then puts forward a fascinating thesis: Whatever is going on in the Islamic world isn't the West's business. The West can do nothing about it, Aslan argues, because Islam must first go through its own "Reformation." Much of the violence we're witnessing now is part of that struggle. If it is to be resolved, it can only be resolved from within. The more the West interferes, the more it delays the resolution.

A fiction book on the list? Absolutely. I've always found good literature a terrific way to look into the soul of national cultures. Could anyone really understand the American South without reading Faulkner or Flannery O'Connor? Could anyone really understand Arab culture, and particularly Egyptian culture, without reading "The Yacoubian Building"? Maybe, but this is an enthralling shortcut. An Arab best-seller that quickly gained an audience abroad, the book did to Egyptian culture and literature what Khaled Hosseini's "The Kite Runner" did to Afghan culture in 2002 -- trace the last half century of a nation's history and anxieties while breaking taboos along the way.

I loved this book when it was first published, love it still--not because it found its way on a reading list for George W. Bush, but for providing penetrating insights into the lives of Arab women in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and elsewhere, and for busting some of the silliest stereotypes about life behind the veil. Yes, women are often and usually ridiculously repressed, and the veil remains a symbol of that repression. But Brooks shows that, despite the controls, women have still pressed for and gained some advantages, including the abolition of Koranic law in Tunisia, where women won the right to equal pay in 1956; the vibrant political culture of women in Iran; and the small social insurgencies of women in Saudi Arabia.

At 1,107 pages, this is the "War and Peace" of Middle East histories. It stretches the map eastward to Pakistan and westward to North Africa, and covers every major war and massacre of the last hundred years, going back to the Armenian genocide of 1915. The remarkable tour-de-force here is that Fisk's first-hand reporting is his most primary source for almost everything beginning in the mid-1970s: Fisk, who now writes for Britain's Independent, is the longest-serving western correspondent in the Middle East. His knowledge is encyclopedic. His obsession with documenting what he writes with his own eyes is Herculean. His love of the Middle East is almost as passionate as his love of detail, which only occasionally gets the better of him.

Even though Thomas Friedman's book is approaching its 20th anniversary, it remains a standard for anyone trying to understand the reams of factions and sects and tribes and political camps that have been battling it out all these years in the region. The book is also an excellent primer on the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990, the fateful Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and the run-up to the Palestinian Intifada in the Occupied Territories. Friedman didn't yet see the world through rose-colored globalist glasses at the time, which helps keep his reporting grounded in the lives of the people around him, many of them victims no matter to whom they pray, answer or submit.

Images of Baghdad in shards and shatters on the nightly news make it difficult to imagine that the city was once the center of the world. From the eighth to the tenth century A.D., the Abbasid Dynasty defined civilization with such sunk-kings of the caliphate as Mansur and Harun al-Rachid. Baghdad was a hub of power and poetry. It was, after all, during the reign of Harun that the "Arabian Nights" began to be mythologized with all their "stories of poets, singers, harems, fabulous wealth and wicked intrigues," as Kennedy puts it. The book offers a valuable contrast to contemporary Iraq, both by detailing a luxuriant history often overlooked, and by putting in context contemporary Iraqi pride: it is founded on more than most of us know.

Bernard Lewis is the neo-conservatives' historian of the Middle East. He is unapologetic for his Western-centered perspective on Arab and Islamic history, and quite enthusiastic in his denunciations of intellectual and political stupor in the Arab world. The flip side of those denunciations were his ardent calls for war on Iraq to give the Middle East a good dose of modernism. Agree with him or not, Lewis, in "What Went Wrong," nevertheless compellingly traces the history of Islam's decline, from its high watermark during the Abbasid period to its version of the dark ages, beginning some three to four centuries ago. The cause? Islam's unwillingness to adapt to and learn from a changing, Western-driven world.

An absorbing history of al-Qaeda's ideological roots and development through 9/11. Wright's history draws two principal lessons. First, the 9/11 Commission underplayed how much the intelligence services were to blame for allowing 9/11 -- criminally so, if Wright's evidence is true. Second, al-Qaeda is not much more than an assembly of rag-tag, fringe ideologies that barely have credit in the Islamic world. It isn't for nothing that in 1980s Afghanistan, the Arab fighters Osama cobbled together to fight the Soviets were called the "Brigade of the Ridiculous." Yet the Osama mystique lives on, empowered in large part, Wright argues, by American insistence on treating Osama and what he represents as this young century's greatest threat.
This magnificent, Pulitzer-prize winning history reads at times like a detective novel, at times like a thriller with its "Syriana"-like George Clooneys running about. It's a history of oil on all continents, not just the Middle East. But as such, it is also forcibly a history of the Middle East's most powerful economic and political engine of the 20th century. Yergin's conversational style is a good fit whether he's explaining "OPEC's Imperium" on western economies or the first hints of peak oil theory. Even without a more recent edition, the book fills in the unique and indispensable story of oil's role as the vital fluid in the industrial world's veins.