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5.0 out of 5 stars A Superb Introduction to the Middle East, November 10, 2009
This review is from: The Arabs: A History (Hardcover)
If what you seek is a clear, succinct, yet detailed account of how "the Middle East" --including the Maghrib-- became what it is today, look no further. This is by far the best available account of the modern history of "the Arabs" and their worlds. (And, it IS necessary to stress the plural, "worlds." Language and religious convictions may be common threads among Arabs; but much else is diverse in ways that most of us have yet to fully appreciate).

Rogan writes in clear, accessible prose, and provides a coherent and engaging narrative. Teachers especially will find this volume helpful; but, the general reader too will find the main lines of Arab development (since 1516) covered in ways that both inform and illuminate. Despite the welter of books available on this subject area, none has the mastery of substance and the simple felicity of style necessary to meet the needs of today's deeply misinformed general audience. After Rogan, there is no longer any reason for us "westerners" to remain ignorant of the Arab past, and the Arabs' world. (Mainstream "News" commentators, please take note). If you want to know how it all began and why it has remained the single most barbaric "encounter" in "western" history, look no further. This is where all future students will begin their exploration of Arab history, and is the work to which they will most often turn in seeking to understand its main currents and conflicting personalities. Its perceptive analysis and insights no less than its narrative flow will provide food for thought for all who wish to learn.


Despite its title, this book is less a history of "the Arabs" per se than of external attempts to govern them. For the Arabs themselves, we have Hourani's masterful work A History of the Arab Peoples: Second Edition -- and it comes as no surprise that Rogan's work drinks from the same deep well of scholarship and insight (see page 499-500 for details). However, if Hourani gave us a view of the Arab world from the inside, as it were, this is the same story ... but from the outside. Rogan's prespective is that the modern history of the Arabs is, essentially, the story of external attempts to dominate and govern them. So, starting with the Ottoman victory over the Egyptian Mamluks in 1516, his first five chapters --about one third of the book-- deal with the main trends of Ottoman overlordship, down to the debacle of World War One. The next four chapters (six through nine) deal in considerable detail with the disastrous consequences of Anglo-French imperial self-aggrandizement from 1915 to 1945. (American readers may be pleasantly surprised to learn how positive was the Arab view of American international involvement in 1919. Then they were a positive counterweight to European rapacity. Now, of course, they've changed colors, and are the proverbial fox-in-the-henhouse). Chapter Nine on "The Palestine Disaster and its Consequences," is a masterpiece of concision and erudition, and on its own will more than repay the reader's investment in this book. The outsiders view of Israel (which is the one most of us have) will seem decidedly less rosy and congenial once seen in the real context of broader Arab concerns and indigenous contemporary developments. Chapters 10 and 11 deal with the "Rise" and "Decline" (respectively) of Arab nationalism between 1950 and 1970, using Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser as the yardstick of Cold War "superpower" involvement in Arab affairs. Chapters 12 through 14 bring the story from the "oil shock" of 1973 down to the present day, and show how remarkably short --and ghastly, in human terms-- has been the "western" journey from European arrogance to American hegemony. That all parties to the deepening conflict have been remarkably uninformed and self-centered may come as no surprise, but the true cost of such ignorance should horrify the reader.

To cover so much ground in less than 500 pages is an achievement in itself. To do so with such clarity and elan is nothing short of genius. (Keep in mind that almost half the book is given over to events since WWI).

I sincerely hope Mr Rogan will consider making this into a video history so it can reach a wider audience. (If nothing else, such a project would teach us how to pronounce unfamiliar names ... and perhaps even make them household words!)
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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Nov 21, 2009 5:27:27 AM PST
One of the hallmark topics of Western literature on the Middle East is the universal lament on the "ignorant" and "uninformed" nature of the West's understanding of, and behavior toward that poor, tortured region. Easy enough to believe for the average American or even European, but we have elite universities full of learned people who write book after book on the subject, educate the policy elites that formulate American and European Middle East policy and often take their own turn in devising such formulations. So, why so much "ignorance" when it comes to dealing with this part of the world? It must be the "other guy" who's always so obtuse. Personally, I don't think ignorance is the problem, rather human nature.
At any rate, this is an excellent review, and it, in combnation with the strong positive review in Economist Magazine, has convinced me to read the book. Thank you Mr. Buckley for your time and effort.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 22, 2009 4:37:37 PM PST
James -- I have no doubt you'll find the purchase of this book worthwhile. and I am, happy to know my words helped move you in that direction! (I trust you are aware of my No-fault Reviewer's Policy? "Caveat emptor," as the economists say!)

About reading and ignorance and such:

1) I really DO think the average "westerner" would be enormously benefited by a video history of the last 200+ years of Ottoman/Middle Eastern History. And, frankly, I'm stunned such a product is not available. [Mr Rogan, if you are reading this, get off your duff and start working!!]

2) I think the general level of on-going "ignorance" --at least in "the West"-- has less to do with "human nature" (whatever that might be) than with a certain passivity in the act of reading. Reading is no longer regarded as an active engagement of the intellect but as a passive "consumer experience." We don't really read anymore. At least, not in the traditional sense. Now, we have "a print experience"!! The result of that passivity is that we've come to expect that we should be able to acquire (by osmosis, perhaps; or by the mere scanning of the text) a full and clear understanding of whatever it is we're "experiencing" as our eyes glide over the printed page.

3) This attitude to reading is no less pervasive in "elite" schools than in the general populace. By way of proof, I cite the lamentably uneducated ex-'President' "Dubya" Bush. Not that he cornered the market on Presidential Stupidity, but he certainly didn't do Yale and its alumni any intellectual favors! It's also worth remembering that Intelligence is as randomly distributed among the Professoriate as among the general public. "Elite" institutions are not really as intellectually "elite" as we fondly imagine.

4) "Ignorance" in policy-making, especially in foreign policy making, is the norm; regardless of the level of education attained, or claimed, by those who formulate the policies. I wonder how many foreign policy wonks in Washington, for instance, can actually speak or read Arabic. I'm sure it doesn't in the least slow down their determination to "demand" this and that of the "Players" (so-called) in the Middle East. Their aim is not understanding, but the raw exercise of hegemonic power.

Sorry for this rather long-winded reply ... In any event, I am confident you'll both enjoy and benefit from Rogan's superior volume. Happy reading!!

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 2, 2013 8:23:36 AM PST
Alan Meyer says:
It's an interesting question as to why most Americans, and most people generally, have so little knowledge of the wider world. I haven't read any studies of this but my inexpert supposition is that most of us are wrapped up in personal concerns. Most of us are not even knowledgeable about our own history and politics much less those of other countries, much less those of other countries far away with different cultures.

How many Americans could even say exactly when the American Civil War occurred, surely the most momentous event in U.S. history? How many can accurately describe the U.S. constitution? How many know the names of their governor, senators, congressman, and state and local representatives and officials?

How many Americans could find Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Afghanistan on a map if the names of the countries were not printed - all countries where we have been involved in recent wars?

However, that said, I do hope, and do believe, that you're wrong about the professorial class. You don't get a PhD and become a professor by having mediocre intelligence. In my many years in college and grad school I met lots of professors with whom I did not see eye to eye, but I can't ever recall meeting one who was dumb or was not well read.

I also think that, while some administrations (I'm thinking especially of Reagan and of Bush Jr.) have placed ideologues and corporate stooges in high places, in normal operation most departments of government are staffed at professional levels by competent and well informed people. At any rate, that has been my experience working as a contractor at the National Institutes of Health.

Thanks for your very informative review.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 27, 2013 2:36:48 PM PST
"You don't get a PhD and become a professor by having mediocre intelligence."

I wish you were right Alan! I got a PhD and became a "professor" -- I may be above "mediocre" now; but, if student "evaluations" of my teaching are anything to go by, then I'm the Idiot responsible for the Decline of the West!
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