You say Hourani, I say Ajami, let’s call the whole thing off

Back in the fall, Garth Hall, a grad student and research assistant at the American University in Cairo, sent an email to 202 professors of Middle Eastern studies. Hall asked them to “jot down what you think are the ten most interesting, informative, and readable nonfiction books in the last century of Middle East studies… And if you could, please write one sentence on why you chose the book you did for your first choice.” (Details here.)

Of those queried, 52 responded, and so did I. Having skimmed Hall’s instructions, I forgot them when I got around to the chore: I thought he wanted ten books, in no particular order, and a comment on each. Maybe that’s why I don’t see my name on the list of respondents: I disqualified myself by not making a top choice. In any case, here’s my list in alphabetical order by author, with my original comment on each book. I did this in a hurry, and I wouldn’t fight to the death for every choice, but the list gives an idea of the approach that I value. (Caveat: I kept to books on modern history and politics. Otherwise I’d have filled up quickly with Oleg Grabar on Islamic art, S.D. Goitein on medieval Egypt, André Raymond on the Ottoman city—for starters.)

  • The Arab Predicament by Fouad Ajami. Still the most eloquent and precise account of the impasse of Arab nationalism since independence.
  • Islam in European Thought by Albert Hourani. Hourani wrote bad books but elegant essays, and these are some of his best, on a theme he knew best.
  • Sayyid Jamal ad-din al-Afghani by Nikki R. Keddie. The ideal biography, masterful use of sources, correcting a hundred myths.
  • The Chatham House Version by Elie Kedourie. I constantly reread these essays, which turn assumptions about nationalism and imperialism on their heads.
  • Muslim Extremism in Egypt by Gilles Kepel. Pioneering on-the-ground reportage that preceded all accounts of Islamism and has yet to be surpassed.
  • The Arab Cold War by Malcolm H. Kerr. No one had a better feel for the cut-and-thrust of inter-Arab politics.
  • The Emergence of Modern Turkey by Bernard Lewis. Essential to understanding the late Ottoman period and the early Turkish republic.
  • Cruelty and Silence by Kanan Makiya. Treason of the Arab intellectuals, exposed meticulously and passionately.
  • A House of Many Mansions by Kamal S. Salibi. The best account (in essays) of the persistence of primordial identities.
  • Nasser and His Generation by P.J. Vatikiotis. Nasser’s Egypt thoroughly revealed, at a time when other scholars engaged in social science obfuscation.

So much for my choices. Here are the first ten results of the survey, in descending order of preference—and to make it more interesting, I offer an irreverent aside on each selection.

There are another eleven books on the list, but the sample isn’t large enough for any of these choices to mean much. The same goes for an additional list of thirteen runners-up. (Do note this, however: nothing by Rashid Khalidi made the cut.)

Of course, a few fatal problems with the methodology and sample size render the survey worthless, so Garth Hall promises to do it again, presumably in a more systematic manner. No matter how many times he repeats it, two things are certain: Said’s Orientalism will come out on top, and my Ivory Towers on Sand won’t be anywhere in sight.

Update: Check out Robert Irwin’s best ten. Three of his choices overlap those in the survey.