A Brief List of Helpful Books on the Middle East


1.      Introduction:

Several years ago, I decided to confine my reading to books on the Middle East, more broadly defined than is customary. I wondered if any classmates would benefit from seeing a list of those books that I considered most helpful in trying to understand an area vital to the interests of the West generally, and Canada and the United States in particular. Reviews are available on Google.


2.      Islam:

The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist, by Robert R. Reilly (2010).

Reilly provides an historical analysis of a debate among Sunni Muslim thinkers a thousand years ago over the role of the intellect in every day Muslim life. The conclusion of the debate was that Allah controlled all aspects of the human experience and that the intellect, and in particular, the concept of cause and effect, had no role whatsoever. Since Sunni Muslims to this day are taught this concept, even if not all actually believe it, it helps to explain several aspects of Muslim life. These include their rampant belief in conspiracy theories, the difficulties in teaching Muslim soldiers to shoot straight, the difficulty in getting Muslim students to cram for exams, the general acceptance without questioning of any item appearing in the media and finally, the poor performance of the Arab economies. In other words, Allah’s assumed control of individual behaviour obviates any need for personal striving in matters other than religious observance.


3.      Afghanistan:

Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, 2nd Edition, by Ahmad Rashid (2010);

Rashid has spent his professional life in Afghanistan and Pakistan and knows most of the players in the current strife in that area. His knowledge, based on hundreds of interviews, is extensive and his language flows easily. A very good read.

4.      Egypt:

Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak by Tarek Osman (2010).

Osman describes the socialist approach of Nasser and the crony capitalism of Sadat and Mubarak and its corruption, resulting in a dramatic decline in the standard of living of most Egyptians. An excellent explanation of the recent events in Egypt, indeed an implicit prediction.

5.      Iran:

The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran by Hooman Majd (2009)

A very readable, personal account of Majd’s recent travels in Iran, including interviews with Khatami, the recent president. He describes Ahmadinejad, the current president, as a cunning operator who is widely hated by most Iranians.

6.      Israel:

1948: The First Arab-Israeli War  by Benny Morris (2008):

As good a military history as I have come across. Three factors combined to award victory to the Israelis: they were fighting for their survival, each of their Arab enemies seemed more concerned about what each other Arab combatant would gain in the war at their expense, and the Israelis had no need to expend large resources dealing with the Palestinian Arabs, whose leaders had largely fled and who were encouraged by a well-planned Israeli ethnic-cleansing campaign to flee.

7.      Lebanon and Israel:

From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas L. Friedman (2004):

This book though dated, still provides essential background since over the years, little has changed. The Israeli government is hamstrung by proportional voting which gives unhelpful political clout to minor religious parties, and the Palestinians are unable to speak with one focused voice. Consequently, a two-state solution remains unachievable.

8.      Pakistan:

Pakistan: A Hard Country, by Anatoly Lieven (2011).

This long book provides an intimate picture of Pakistan, whose army is the only institution that works. Patronage and kinship dominate Pakistan politics: every politician seeks to extract maximum benefit for one’s kin at the expense of the rest of the population. The Pakistani Taliban provide a much more effective if brutal justice system than that of the state where influence and bribery are the main determinants of outcomes.

9.      Saudi Arabia:

Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorist and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia by Robert Lacey (2009).

This book follows up on Lacey’s previous book, The Kingdom, and is a must-read for anyone interested in the impact of Saudi Arabia on events in the Middle East, e.g., their funding of madrassas in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and its influence through its oil on American foreign policy.

10.  Yemen:

Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes by Victoria Clark:

Clark, who was born in Yemen, provides a readable history of a very troubled country that is a hot bed of Al Qaeda activity and of political unrest. That’s not all: it is also running out of water, potable or otherwise, and its population is addicted to qat, a mild opiate.