Middle East bookshelf: society and politics

Our list of 10 books that explain the Middle East for people unfamiliar with the region is taking shape. So far, aided by suggestions from readers of this blog, we have covered history,literature and Islam. Today I want to add two more titles – about Arab politics and society.

Hisham Sharabi's Neopatriarchy (1988) was proposed by a reader.Sharabi (1927-2005) was one of the first modern Arab writers to develop a critique of his own society, drawing on the ideas of Marx and Freud. His work shocked many Arabs when it appeared and is still banned in some countries. Reading Neopatriarchy for the first time a couple of years ago, though, I found it rather dated and its use of Marxist terminology tends to jar these days. So I'm going to rule out Neopatriarchy. It's also outrageously priced on amazon.com at $60, though you can get it more cheaply secondhand or at amazon.co.uk.

Two more recent books are Halim Barakat's The Arab World: Society, Culture and State (1993) and Nazih Ayubi's Over-stating the Arab State (1995). It's hard to choose between them, though some might find Ayubi's book heavy going: it has been described as magisterial and a tour de force

Barakat focuses more on society and culture that Ayubi, and less on the state and politics. There are good reasons for this:

"Authoritarianism is not merely an attribute of the political system. Interpersonal and social relationships ar also characterised by authoritarian tendencies." [p175]

Ayubi, meanwhile, explores the nature of Arab states in great detail and, over the course of 500 pages, makes a very important point. He explains the apparent paradox of states that behave as if they were strong – with an insatiable urge to control their citizens – when in many respects they are actually very weak. Arab regimes may legislate and regulate endlessly but their desire for control is often not matched by an ability to exercise it. Though they may succeed in keeping a lid on open dissent, though they may establish large armies and security forces and employ vast bureaucracies, their ability to effect change and influence the behaviour of their citizens is far more limited than it looks. 

This is something that often puzzles visitors to the region. How is it, for example, that the Egyptian government can arrest opposition acitvists in their hundreds and interfere endlessly with civil society organisations but is unable – despite the existence of various laws – to persuade citizens to wear seat belts in their cars or stop mutilating their daughters' genitals?

With the aforementioned reservations about readability, I'm going to opt for Ayubi over Barakat because in terms of content I think it's the more impressive book, as well as being ground-breaking in many ways.

For the second soc-pol title, I wanted to choose something about gender and sexuality but, hopefully, nothing too predictable. There's a lot of feminist writing about the Middle East, and some can be found in Progressive Muslims, a book I chose earlier for the Islam section.

Considering that it's such a male-orientated and male-dominated society, surprisingly little has been written about Arab perceptions of masculinity. To my mind, this is a big omission: if you want to understand the society you must also try to understand the "male role" and how Arab men view themselves.

So, my second choice is a bit of a quirky one: Imagined Masculinities (2000) – a collection of essays edited by Mai Ghoussoub and Emma Sinclair-Webb (reviewed here), which also touches on Turkey and Israel.

That's seven books so far, assuming the inclusion of two novels. I'm almost certain one of the novels will be The Yacoubian Buildingbut I'm still dithering about the other one. Next time, I'll add three more books to complete the list.