Today, I'm making the final selections in our list of 10 books that explain the Middle East for people unfamiliar with the region. Aided by suggestions from readers of this blog, we have so far covered history, literature, Islam and Arab society and politics.
When choosing Philip Hitti's History of the Arabs for the history section, I mentioned that it does not discuss the conflict with Israel, so we need a book to fill that gap. From a very wide field, I'm opting for The Iron Wall (2000) by Avi Shlaim. One reader's review on Amazon describes it as "By far, the best account of the Arab-Israeli conflict", and I agree – though there are some hostile reviews on Amazon too. Shlaim is one of the "new historians" who challenged the traditional Zionist interpretations of Israel's history. There are extracts from the book here, plus reviews from the New York Times, the Guardian, the Independent and Reviews in History.
I have contemplated adding Edward Said's Orientalism (1978) to the list. This was one of the titles suggested by Robert Fisk in his article which triggered this selection exercise. Orientalism has certainly been very influential in academic discussion of western policies towards the Middle East, particularly in the field of postcolonial studies, but I have decided not to include it in the list of 10. While I do feel the book said a lot of things that needed to be said back in 1978, I'm more doubtful about its value today. Newcomers to the Middle East would probably do better to familiarise themselves with the subsequent debate than to plough through the book itself.
In the hope that first-time visitors to the Middle East will venture beyond the local burger bars and pizza joints, I said earlier that I would like to include a book about the region's food.
I'm going to propose The New Book of Middle Eastern Food (1985) by Claudia Roden, which is the most popular one at amazon.com. It includes some interesting general discussion of food and eating habits, as well as a huge number of recipes. However, the British (Penguin) edition does not have the usual colour photographs associated with recipes books (I don't know about the American edition). Another option, which I like the sound of but haven't seen, is Middle Eastern Cookbook (2007) by Maria Khalife, a Lebanese celebrity chef.
Visitors to the region also need to behave with a degree of cultural sensitivity so as not to cause unintended offence. A lot of the "practical guides" to Arab etiquette are fairly crude but I'd recommend Understanding the Arab Culture (2008) by Jehad al-Omari, which is more skilfully done; it's aware of the dangers of stereotyping and over-simplification.
Last week, I discussed a number of novels that might be included in the list. I said I would like to include two but didn't make a final choice at the time. As mentioned earlier, I'm not judging the books on literary merit but on what they reveal about about life in the Middle East today.
I also said earlier that I was trying to choose a list of books that reflect the region as a whole, rather than individual countries – but this is difficult in the case of novels because they tend to be set in a specific location. Anyway, I have opted for Alaa al Aswany's The Yacoubian Building (originally published in 2002) as my first choice.
Sonallah Ibrahim's 1992 novel, Zaat, is a tempting second choice but, since that is also set in Egypt, I'm opting for The Consequences of Love (2008) instead. Written by Eritrean-born Sulaiman Addonia, it's set in Saudi Arabia.
That completes the list of 10 books, which you can view on a separate web page here. Many thanks to the readers who contributed ideas. Recognising that a lot of good books have had to be left out, I'm hoping to supplement this basic regional list over the next few weeks with recommendations for other books relating to specific Arab countries – so keep the suggestions coming.