Six (make that seven) greatest stories ever told about the Middle East

On Facebook, I ran a series listing the most influential modern books on the Middle East (in the English language). I selected each not on the basis of quality, but my rough assessment of a book’s impact on readers and politics, short-term and long. It’s rather rare for a book on the Middle East to have much of an influence in America and Britain; at most times, it’s a marginal region. But events have propelled a few books into the limelight, and these six, for better or worse, had an impact, influenced perceptions, and may have changed history.

Arabia of Lawrence


Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence (1926). I rather like Charles Hill’s depiction of Lawrence as someone “who wrote himself into history as a fictional character leading Arab tribes in revolt against the Ottoman Turks.” (Hill calls the book “a novel traveling under the cover of autobiography.”) But the book lives, and is even said to have inspired U.S. counter-insurgency theorists in Iraq.

Arise, ye Arabs!


The Arab Awakening by George Antonius (1938). This purported exposé of British double-dealing provided all the pretext that Britain needed to retreat from its support for the Jewish National Home in Palestine, culminating in the 1939 White Paper. The British commander of forces in Palestine in 1946 said he kept the book “on my bedside table.” It also became the bible of American sympathizers of Arab nationalism. “We had our revered texts,” wrote the American Arabist Malcolm Kerr, “such as The Arab Awakening.” It has been refuted on many grounds, but while its influence doesn’t endure, it lingers.

God Gave This Land…


Exodus by Leon Uris (1958). Recently I asked a class of grad students in Mideast studies whether they’d heard of it, and I didn’t get a single nod. But this fictionalized account of Israel’s founding was said to have been the biggest seller since Gone with the Wind, propelled by a blockbuster motion picture starring Paul Newman. The novel, confessed journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, “set me, and many others, on a course for aliyah, and it made American Jews proud of Israel’s achievements. On the other hand, it created the impression that all Arabs are savages.” Arabs have been searching for their equivalent of Exodus ever since.

Snake Charmer


Orientalism by Edward Said (1978). Sigh… I suppose “baneful” is the best adjective. No book has done more to obscure the Middle East, and impart a sense of guilt to anyone who has had the audacity to represent it. The French scholar Jacques Berque (praised by Said) put it succinctly: Said had done “a disservice to his countrymen in allowing them to believe in a Western intelligence coalition against them.” But the book gave rise to a cottage industry in Western academe, and helped tilt the scales in academic appointments. Its influence may be waning, but it’s still on syllabi everywhere.

Fit to Print and Reprint


From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman (1989). It spent nearly twelve months on the New York Times bestseller list and won the 1989 National Book Award for nonfiction. Coming in the wake of the 1982 Lebanon war and the 1987 intifada, it captured the “falling-out-of-love-with-Israel” mood, although it cut no slack for the Arabs either. Friedman has said he keeps threatening to bring out a new edition with this one-line introduction: “Nothing has changed.”

How the East Was Lost


What Went Wrong? by Bernard Lewis (2002). The book appeared in the aftermath of 9/11, and it rocketed to the New York Times bestseller list, where it spent 18 weeks. Lewis used his broad historical repertoire to explain “why they hate us.” (In a word: resentment, at failed modernization and an absence of freedom.) Lewis later summarized his view thus: “Either we bring them freedom, or they destroy us.” Some in Washington took him literally.

Nakba Validation


At a reader’s suggestion, I’m adding a seventh book to my list. It’s The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-49 (1988) by Benny Morris. Drawing on Israeli archives, Morris did what no Palestinian Arab historian had managed to do: (partially) validate the Nakba narrative. The book confirmed Israel’s “original sin” in the eyes of the Israeli left, and persuaded Palestinians (wrongly) that Israel might compromise on the “right of return.” Neither the criticism by Efraim Karsh, nor the political swerves of Morris himself, could mitigate the book’s political impact.

This doesn’t exhaust the list of books about the Middle East that made the New York Times bestseller list or won the admiration of scholars. That bibliography would be much longer (and some years ago, I myself put together a different list, of choice scholarly works). But for sheer influence in the longer term, I don’t see another book that deserves inclusion in this club. If you have other ideas, share them at this link on Facebook.

Start with two Palestinians

In an interview in February 2003, Edward Said said this:

An outrageous Israeli, Martin Kramer, uses his Web site to attack everybody who says anything he doesn’t like. For example, he has described Columbia as “the Bir Zeit [university] on the Hudson,” because there are two Palestinians teaching here. Two Palestinians teaching in a faculty of 8,000 people! If you have two Palestinians, it makes you a kind of terrorist hideout. This is part of the atmosphere of intimidation that is McCarthyite.

Flash forward seven years later, to last week’s formal inauguration of the new Center for Palestine Studies at Columbia University. From its website:

Founded in January 2010, the Center for Palestine Studies is the first such center to be established in an academic institution in the United States. Columbia University is currently the professional home to a unique concentration of distinguished scholars on Palestine and Palestinians, as well as to award-winning supporting faculty in a variety of disciplines.

So how did Columbia go so rapidly from “two Palestinians teaching in a faculty of 8,000 people!” to “a unique concentration of distinguished scholars on Palestine and the Palestinians”? Don’t be shocked, but Edward Said was out to deceive in that 2003 interview. Obviously there were more than two Palestinians back then. But I didn’t invent the nickname Bir Zeit-on-Hudson because of their number. It was meant to evoke precisely the atmosphere of intimidation—anti-Israel intimidation—that would later come to light in the “Columbia Unbecoming” affair.

Now that Columbia boasts of being home to “a unique concentration of distinguished scholars on Palestine” (who “will have a national and global reach”), Bir Zeit-on-Hudson hardly sounds far-fetched. By that, I don’t mean a “terrorist hideout”—those were Said’s words, not mine—but a redoubt of militant Palestinian nationalism in the guise of scholarship. And I mean militant: the affiliates of the new center aren’t only engaged in the positive affirmation of Palestinian identity, but are activists in the campaign to negate Israel. This is obviously the case in regard to Joseph Massad and Nadia Abu al-Haj—their field isn’t Palestine studies, it’s anti-Israel studies—but it’s increasingly true of the new center’s co-director, Rashid Khalidi, Columbia’s Edward Said Professor, an enthusiastic spokesman for the PLO in its terrorist phase and a severe critic of the same leadership in its present phase.

For now, Khalidi is cleverly doing what Said did with his “two Palestinians” shtick. “We have absolutely no money,” Khalidi said at the launch (attended by an overflow crowd). “What our little modest center will be able to do may be some narrow, specific things,” he reassured a journalist from the Jewish Forward. I’m not buying it, and I think that the moniker Bir Zeit-on-Hudson is too modest to convey the scope of the ambition behind this project. So I’m working on an alternative. For a preview, click on the thumbnail or here.

More Massad mystery at Harvard

In August 2006, I wrote a post entitled “Massad mystery at Harvard.” There I asked why, for two years, Joseph Massad described his book Desiring Arabs as “forthcoming from Harvard University Press,” only to announce that it would be published by the University of Chicago Press. I wrote the following:

Last spring [2006], Columbia promoted Massad to associate professor, a rank from which he could be tenured. Did the list of publications he submitted include Desiring Arabs as forthcoming from Harvard? If so, on what basis? What went wrong for Massad at Harvard University Press?…

Since Massad paraded the Harvard credential when he needed it, he should explain why it’s evaporated. And if the elusive book figured in Columbia’s promotion decision, the university should investigate Massad’s conduct—again.

So did Columbia ever look into that Harvard mystery? Massad himself (perhaps in response to my post) gave his explanation in the acknowledgments to Desiring Arabs (pp. xiii-xiv). It turns out that it hinges on Edward Said:

Edward [Said] read drafts of three chapters of the book…. [During] the conference celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of Orientalism in April 2003, he asked me if I would be interested in publishing the book in his Harvard University Press (HUP) series. I was in disbelief of this unexpected praise. I prepared a proposal quickly and sent it to him and then forwarded it to the HUP editor. The HUP approved the contract for the book several months later, in September—two weeks before Edward’s death…. He called me on his cellular phone from the car while on his way home from yet another chemotherapy treatment at the hospital. “Any word from Harvard?” he asked. I told him that I had just heard half an hour earlier. He was thrilled. I was ecstatic.

Unfortunately, a few weeks before production was set to begin, the HUP editor and I realized that we had differing visions for the book, and we parted ways.

So the mystery has begun to unravel. “Forthcoming from Harvard University Press” was yet another Columbia inside job. At the time, Edward Said was the general editor of an HUP book series entitled Convergences. HUP apparently accepted Massad’s book provisionally for publication in Said’s series, on the basis of the proposal and Said’s reading of a few chapters. But after HUP had the complete manuscript—and Said was no longer editor of the series—its own editor rejected Massad’s finished product. (“We parted ways” is an amusing euphemism.) Presumably, this decision would have been based, at least in part, upon readers’ reports on the completed manuscript. (At university presses, anonymous peer review is a precondition of publication. All books accepted as proposals still must be vetted.)

The president and trustees of Columbia University, if they haven’t already approved Massad’s tenure, might well bear HUP’s decision in mind. Absent Edward Said, Massad must be judged strictly on his own merit. And they might take some interest in precisely why Massad’s book failed to make the cut at Harvard. “My books are not controversial at all in academe,” Massad recently steamed in a tirade against a critic of Desiring Arabs, “and [to] the extent that I am said to be ‘controversial’ at all, I am so for the New York tabloid press and for Campus Watch, and now for some right-wing gay newspapers upset with my book.” Well, at Harvard University Press, they were less than impressed.

Footnote: The latest on Massad’s book comes from Dror Ze’evi in the American Historical Review. Ze’evi is the author of Producing Desire: Changing Sexual Discourse in the Ottoman Middle East, 1500-1900 (University of California Press). Money quote: “If Massad’s evidence is to be trusted, then he is completely wrong in his conclusions.” But move on, folks, no controversy here—at all.