Friday, February 4, 2011

Egypt: a select reading list

Yet another international development that supposedly erupted out of nowhere. What a crazy, unpredictable world!

I don’t think the “out of nowhere” standard applies when traditional broadcast media haven’t done elementary reporting on a country for a decade or more. It only seems "out of nowhere" to us ignorant Americans, protected as we are from the dangerous journalism of Al Jazeera as we luxuriate in the freedom to watch Skins.

For some reason I turned on the NBC Nightly News yesterday, thinking I might get the latest on what’s happening in Egypt. Instead, it was the usual self-centered, US-centric blather: a screaming, cheesy slogan (Rage and Revolution!); a focus on one particular American woman who is afraid to leave her apartment; endless looping visuals of people clashing in the street with no context to really understand what’s happening; and, inevitably, the heroic anchormen, Brian and Lester.

The fact that journalists are apparently being targeted by the regime and these two empty media suits might be rattled becomes the focal point of the whole story. Forget Mubarak, will the anchormen and the old woman get out of Cairo alive? Yes, it might seem to be about the Egyptians but really, as always, it's about us! Would it be too much to ask for an interview with an Egyptian political scientist or two, who might actually give American viewers some informed background?

Thankfully, we still have books for that job. Even with the vast resources of the internet, books are still the undisputed go-to source when seemingly inexplicable world events pop up. There have been many worthy titles on the subject of Egypt and the region, the Islamic renaissance, and Middle East politics published over the past decade.

Here are a dozen from our presses that I heartily recommend. There are many more, so please check with your local bookseller for their recommendations. Spend thirty minutes with any of these and I guarantee more enlightenment than you’ll get from long hours enduring Brian Williams & Co.

A History of the Arab Peoples

Albert Hourani and Malise Ruthven
9780674058194 $18.95 paper (Harvard)

Hailed in 1991 as the definitive history of Arab civilization, this panoramic masterpiece has been brought up to date with a new Afterword.

Cairo: Histories of a City
Nezar AlSayyad
9780674047860 $29.95 (May 2011 Harvard)

This loving forthcoming homage to Cairo as an urban space, and a history of the built environment- by a working Egyptian architect- now takes on added significance.

The Mind of Egypt: History & Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs

Jan Assman
9780674012110 $25.50 paper (Harvard)

This sweeping 2003 history by the noted scholar is excellent deep background.

Beyond Terror & Martyrdom: The Future of the Middle East

Gilles Kepel
9780674057319 $17.95 paper (Harvard)

The competing dominant narratives about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism are both exhausted and bankrupt, according to the renowned French Mideast scholar.

Andre Raymond
9780674009967 $25.50 paper (Harvard)

A deeply observed, nuanced study by the leading social historian of the Arab world.

Awakening Islam: Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia

Stephane LaCroix
9780674049642 $29.95 (April 2011 Harvard)

Political dynamics in one of the most opaque Muslim countries, based on rarely seen documents and the author’s extensive travel to the region.

Shi’ism: A Religion of Protest
Hamid Dabashi
9780674049451 $29.95 (Harvard)

Shi’ism, perhaps surprisingly, as a faith based fundamentally on protest- history, culture, religion, literature, art.

Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak
Tarek Osman
9780300162752 $20.00 paper (Yale)

There couldn’t be a timelier introduction to contemporary events in Egypt.

Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes

Victoria Clark
9780300117011 $20.00 paper (Yale)

This former correspondent for The Observer was born in Yemen, the poorest state in the Arab world, and knows it inside out.

Sudan: Darfur & the Failure of an African State

Richard Cockett
9780300162738 $22.00 paper (Yale)

The Africa editor of The Economist chronicles the descent of Sudan into failure- sad, but well worth knowing.

A Quiet Revolution: the Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America

Leila Ahmed
9780300170955 $30 (March 2011 Yale)

An excellent history of the Muslim Brotherhood, and how a younger generation- in Cairo and across the world- has appropriated one of its key symbols- the veil- for progressive ends.

Levant: Splendor and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean

Philip Mansel
9780300172645 $35 (April 2011 Yale)

A celebration of cosmopolitan crossroad cities, this lovely excavation of Smyrna, Beirut and Alexandria blends historical sweep (think Adrian Goldsworthy) with an armchair travel vibe (think Jan Morris.)

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