Writing in the Independent, Robert Fisk says that several times a year he is asked by readers to recommend a list of books about the Middle East in English. "It's a tough one," he says – and indeed it is.
I've had similar requests myself and before giving an answer I like to find out what lies behind the question. Usually it comes from people who know little about the region but for reasons of travel, work, etc, want to familiarise themselves. So what we're looking for, really, is books that give a broad picture of the Middle East today, while acknowledging that you can't fully understand the present without knowing something about the past.
Fisk's article doesn't actually provide a list, though he mentions a small number of writers, including T E Lawrence, George Antonius (The Arab Awakening), David Hirst (The Gun and the Olive Branch), Benny Morris, Edward Said and the murdered Lebanese journalist, Samir Kassir.
This strikes me as a rather odd collection and, with the exception of Kassir, a very dated one. If you were to read those and nothing else, you wouldn't get much of a feel for what the contemporary Middle East is really like. The only one I would be tempted to include is Said's Orientalism – mainly because of its influence on subsequent debate.
Anyway, over the next few days, I'll try to come up with my own list of 10 books of the "new readers start here" variety, and I think it should include fiction as well as non-fiction. Readers of this blog are also welcome to chip in with their own suggestions.