14 October, 2007

BOOKS ABOUT THE MIDDLE EAST: "A History of the Middle East" by Peter Mansfield

NEW SERIES. People are often confused about the Middle East. To help them, I am going to recommend three books that people should read if they want to get a better handle on the region. I will also mention a couple more books that people might find interesting if they want to explore the area in more detail.

I should mention one thing – the term "Middle East" is these days somewhat contested. Following the publication of Edward Said's book "Orientalism", there has been much more self-criticism in the West of how other parts of the world are written about. Some consider that referring to a region as the Middle East defines it by its relationship to the West as an Other, objectifying the region and its people; as against that, one could of course say that the term "the West" defines Europe and North America by their relationship to people further to the east. A variety of circumlocutions are sometimes used to try and replace the Middle East term. These include "The Arab World", "West Asia", the horrible acronym "MENA", and so on. They are all, in their own way, rubbish, so for want of anything better, I am going to stick with referring to the region as the Middle East, as does my first book.

My first book is in fact "A History of the Middle East" by Peter Mansfield. Mansfield, now deceased, was an interesting fellow. He started his career in the British Foreign Office, but resigned in protest over Suez*, thereafter making his living as a journalist and writer. His book is, as the title suggests, a history of the region, from the dawn of time to the present day. Mansfield's triumph is to have written a relatively short book that is very easy to read and that feels always like it is telling you just enough so that you know the key aspect of what it is covering without being buried in extraneous detail.

The edition I have of this book was written in 1991. Since his death in 1996, the book has been revised again by some other bloke, though it has not been brought into the post-Saddam Hussein era yet. Nevertheless, if you want an overview of the Middle East, this is the book for you.

I also recommend "The Arabs", another book by Mansfield. This provides a history of the specifically Arab World, and then profiles each individual Arab country.

*if you don't know what I mean here by Suez then you should read this book

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