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Book Reflections – The Arabs: A History by Eugene Rogan

Book cover for The Arabs: A History

Book cover for The Arabs: A History

I haven’t posted any book reviews lately because I’ve been fully ensconced and captivated by 500 pages of modern history in The Arabs: A History by Eugene Rogan. Selected as a Best Book of 2009 by the Economist, Atlantic Monthly, and Financial Times and drawing from Arab sources little known to Western readers, Rogan’s The Arabs transformed my understanding of the past, present, and future of the Arab world.

In this definitive account, preeminent historian Eugene Rogan traces five centuries of Arab history, from the Ottoman conquests through the British and French colonial periods and up to the present age of unipolar American hegemony.

The Arabs are an ancient people linked by language, culture and faith, but divided by a vast geography that has exposed each part of the whole to radically different circumstances over a span of 15 centuries. I am privileged to regularly travel to different parts of the Arab world and to enhance my understanding I am reading on the theme of the Arab world. I love the writing style of Rogan. I am filled with admiration that he was able to write 500 pages that practically turn themselves and never let my concentration wander. I read a hardcover version from the library and carried a backpack instead of a handbag for weeks on the bus to and from work to accommodate this big book. I even read it at the gym on the cross trainer. It is not a particularly happy story, but it is a fascinating one, and exceedingly well told.

In this definitive history of the modern Arab world, award-winning historian Eugene Rogan draws extensively on Arab sources and texts to place the Arab experience in its crucial historical context for the first time. Tracing five centuries of Arab history, Rogan reveals that there was an age when the Arabs set the rules for the rest of the world. Today, however, the Arab world’s sense of subjection to external powers carries vast consequences for both the region and Westerners who attempt to control it. The Arabs is an invaluable, groundbreaking work of history.

I learnt about the Ottoman Empire and the subjugation of many Arab countries first by the Ottomans and then European countries bent on empire building and then the arbitrary fragmentation by the British and French and the occupation of Palestine by the Zionists. I felt extreme discomfort reading about the brutality of the Israelis and their unceasing support and advanced armament by the USA. I learnt about the origins of the Hashemites and the increasing influence of the USA on the politics of the region. I also learnt about the interesting histories of Egypt, Lebanon and Syria and the North African countries. I was shocked to read about the brutality of the French and British in their ‘colonies’ and the dreadful violence perpetrated by some Arabs against one another. I learnt about the formation of OPEC and their control on oil prices. Importantly I learnt about the diversity of the Arab people. What a fascinating read.

What makes his book particularly useful is the way it situates [the Arab-Israeli conflict] within the wider context of the Arabs’ long, and still unsuccessful, struggle to come to more equal terms with the West. Europeans in particular, and also Americans, need their memories jogged about just how arrogant, duplicitous and frequently stupid their governments have been in dealing with the Middle East. —The Economist

The aspect of the book that is most appealing is his use of writings by Arabs. From a Syrian barber to Palestinian freedom fighters, Eugene peppers his text with vignettes written by Arabs, thus giving the book a more authentic feel than if he had solely relied on the writings of Europeans and their paradigms. Budayri, a Damascene barber diarist, recorded the barbershop gossip in 18th-century Aleppo. The historian Jabarti observed the arrival of Bonaparte’s army in Cairo in 1798 with admiration tempered by a heavy admixture of cynicism. Rifa’a al-Tahtawi’s detailed an Egyptian’s impression of the manners and customs of the French in the early 19th century. His observations mingled admiration with revulsion. For example, he was shocked to find that in France the “men are slaves to the women here and under their command irrespective of whether they are pretty or not”. An Egyptian hospital worker speaks of her people’s joy at the 1952 overthrow of their king. A Kuwaiti school administrator tells of the terrors of the 1991 Iraqi occupation, and her people’s resistance. Faisal, who was imposed by the British as king of Iraq, in 1921, wrote of his unloved and unloving subjects: “There is still – and I say this with a heart full of sorrow – no Iraqi people, but unimaginable masses of human beings devoid of any patriotic idea, imbued with religious traditions and absurdities, connected by no common tie, giving ear to evil, prone to anarchy, and perpetually ready to rise against any government whatsoever.”

A major theme of this book is that Arabs have for too long been subordinate to the rule of others, from the Ottomans to the Europeans, then the US and USSR, and, most recently, America alone. But all that is changing now, and there can be few books better than this one to put in context the ongoing protests throughout the Middle East.”The Guardian

I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in gaining a deeper understanding of the reasons behind the current state of affairs in Arab countries.

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13 comments on “Book Reflections – The Arabs: A History by Eugene Rogan

  1. Rob Prince
    September 22, 2014

    nice review…will accept your link…thought that perhaps you were some kind of advertiser trying to milk my website…i get a fair amount of those…
    that said, well done. will start re-reading the rogan book in a few weeks to (probably) use as a text in a course in january (history of the modern middle east)…have read a fair number of these sweeping histories…rogan’s is excellent and precisely for the reason you sight about – his use of arab sources.
    best, rob p.

    • strivetoengage
      September 22, 2014

      Hi Rob,
      Thanks for the comment. I enjoyed reading your review. Can you recommend what I should read next? I was considering Albert Hourani’s well-regarded book but I’m open to suggestions.

      • Rob Prince
        October 22, 2014

        Hi Strive…suggest the new book by Norman Finkelstein on the summer Israeli war against Gaza…

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This entry was posted on September 21, 2014 by in Non-fiction and tagged , , , , , , , , .
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