A Middle East bookshelf (1)

Following my blog post yesterday, several readers have already come up with titles for inclusion on a "Middle East bookshelf". Many thanks to those who contributed, and please keep the ideas coming. The search, as I explained yesterday, is for 10 books that would give a good general introduction to the region for those who are unfamiliar with it.

Hopefully, we'll get there in due course but it's going to involve some difficult choices, so I think we should start with a longer list and whittle it down, as they do with book prizes.

First, though, a word about the types of book I'd like to see represented in the final list. 

There are a lot of excellent books about individual Middle Eastern countries but since we're trying to give a picture of the region as a whole I think country-specific books should be excluded from the final list of 10. They could form a supplementary list, so don't let that put you off making suggestions. Israel/Palestine may be an exception here because that particular conflict is so deeply embedded in the region's politics. Even so, I doubt there will be room for more than one or two Israel/Palestine titles in the final list.

Looking at the likely shape of the final list, I think it should include one general history and two or three books about contemporary society and politics. Among the latter, George Weyman nominates Hisham Sharabi's Neopatriarchy ("A bit academic, and not fresh off the press – but nevertheless a devastating critique of the structure of power in Arab countries"). I'm tempted to add Nazih Ayubi's Overstating the Arab State but, again, it's quite a heavy read. 

It would also be good to see gender issues and human rights represented somewhere in the list. In the social field, the impact of new technology might be worth considering too: Voices of the New Arab Public by Marc Lynch, for example. Elias Muhanna tried a bit of flattery by suggesting my own book, What's Really Wrong with the Middle East ("for a different perspective on the real problems facing the region") but in the light of what it says about wasta, nepotism, etc, I think it should be disqualified from inclusion here.

Considering the centrality of religion in the Middle East, the list ought to include something about Islam. There may be no need for a history of Islam if that is covered in the general history book but there are several other genres of writing about Islam to consider. One is about Islam as a religion – what Muslims believe, how they pray, what happens on the hajj, etc. Then there are vast numbers of books about political Islam and jihadism, plus a third category representing Islamic currents of a more liberal kind – books such as Progressive Muslims (edited by Omid Safi) or Islam and the Secular State by Abdullahi an-Na'im.

Should the list include any of the old classic-romantic traveller's tales? Daryl Barker suggests Wilfred Thesiger's Arabian Sands. Robert Fisk, in the article that prompted this exercise, recommended T E Lawrence and, for a bit of gender balance, we should probably mention Freya Stark too. These were part of my own introduction to the Middle East (as I imagine they were for many other westerners) and I enjoyed them at the time. But I seriously doubt their relevance today and, unless someone persuades me otherwise, I'm not going to treat them as required reading.

However, I'm not averse to including one Middle East travel book if it's reasonably modern and not limited to a single country. Jonathan Raban's Arabia Through the Looking Glass is one that comes to mind. It's 30 years old, though, but at least the author is still alive. Can anyone suggest something a bit more up to date?

I said yesterday that I would like the list to include some fiction. This serves two purposes. The first is to expose newcomers to at least one example of Arabic Literature (with a capital L). The second purpose is that novels (even if they are only literature with a small L) can give a very useful picture of daily life in the Middle East, in a way that non-fiction books rarely can. 

In the capital L category, the late Naguib Mahfouz gets an automatic nomination, since he's the only Arab winner of a Nobel prize for literature, but I'm also inclined to nominate Abdelrahman Munif for his trilogy, Cities of Salt.

Turning to literature with a smaller L (and no offence meant to the authors), I'd like to suggest the following novels which are fairly recent and give an interesting picture of Arab life: Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami, Suleiman Addonia's little-known The Consequences of Love, and of course the highly popular The Yacoubian Building by Alaa al-Aswani.

Arab writing tends to be heavily laden with seriousness and tragedy but it would be nice to have one good example of Arab humour. An added difficulty here, of course, is that jokes don't necessarily translate well into other languages but I do have a suggestion. I'm cheating a bit because it's actually a stage play, though available in book form. It's Tawfiq al-Hakim's Fate of a Cockroach – a delicious satire that also reflects the way Arabs mock those with pretensions of grandeur.

Finally – and working on the assumption that the 10-book list is for people who may be making their first trip to the Middle East – there are three other items I would like to include.

One is a book on Islamic art and architecture. Anyone who spends more than five minutes in an Arab country is bound to come across it, and a basic introduction would be useful.

Visitors also have to eat, so it's worth knowing something about Middle Eastern food. A good cookery book would come in handy as a guide to what's on offer, even if you don't plan to attempt any of the recipes yourself.

The last item is a book on Arab culture and etiquette. "How to avoid giving offence" – that sort of thing. Frankly, a lot of them are terrible and make me cringe. The best one I have come across is Understanding the Arab Culture by Jehad al-Omari. It's mainly intended for business people and is sub-titled "A practical cross-cultural guide to working in the Arab world".

In future posts I'll look at the various categories mentioned here in more detail and try to narrow down the list. In the meantime, I'm listing readers' suggestions here as they come in.