It’s July – and that means it’s time for my annual summer beach week Middle East reading list! If you’re like me, the summer is a time to catch up on all the great books that accumulate over the course of a busy academic year. For beach week, I look for not just great political science, but also books that offer something a little bit different from my usual fare, from history and anthropology to literary novels. That means a wider range of disciplines, topics and styles than you’ll find in my end-of-the-year lists of “best Middle East political science books”.
Some of these books I’ve already read, while others just look interesting to me, and I really will be taking them to the beach in hopes that they deliver. I list them here in alphabetical order. I don’t include some excellent books that aren’t yet available in the United States (like Jean-Pierre Filiu’s “From Deep State to Islamic State,” Charles Lister’s “The Syrian Jihad,” or Samar Hazbek’s “The Crossing”) since what good would that do on the beach? (If you live in Britain, go for it!)
I hope you enjoy these books as much as I did, or plan to!
“Africa Uprising: Popular Protest and Political Change,” by Adam Branch and Zachariah Mampilly. Kim DiYonne and Laura Seay got to this book first for their summer Africa books spectacular, but that’s not going to stop me from including it on my list, too. It’s that good. Any efforts to understand the emergence and the fate of the Arab uprisings need to be grounded in a serious comparative perspective. Branch and Mampilly deliver such a perspective in a highly readable and analytically compelling narrative.
“The Arabs at War in Afghanistan,” by Mustafa Hamid and Leah Farrall. This really unique book presents a first-person account of the jihad in Afghanistan, as told by one of its key participants to a veteran counterterrorism analyst and practitioner. Farrall, familiar to Twitter users as @allthingsct, conducted an extended conversation with Hamid, which sheds genuine new light on the early days of the global jihad.
“The Arab Spring: Pathways of Repression and Reform,” by Jason Brownlee, Tarek Masoud and Andrew Reynolds. If you’re looking for an uplifting tale of democratic successes, maybe choose a different book. But if you’re looking for a rigorous and sharply argued (and, for many, controversial) explanation for the struggles of the Arab uprisings, Brownlee, Masoud and Reynolds deliver an important contribution to the academic debate.
“The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East,” by Eugene Rogan and “A Land of Aching Hearts: The Middle East in the Great War,” by Leila Tarazi Fawaz. A deluge of books came out last year to mark the anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. These were two of the best. These sweeping, well-researched books cover similar ground, but present their accounts with very different points of emphasis and narrative styles.
“Once Upon A Revolution: An Egyptian Story,” by Thanassis Cambanis. Two very different activists serve as a lens into the meaning and aftermath of the Egyptian uprisings. It is difficult today for many people to recapture the sense of hope and optimism that once spread through Egypt, or to fathom what went wrong. Cambanis’s sensitive and insightful narrative helps with both.
“The Orphan Scandal: Christian Missionaries and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood,” by Beth Baron. A fascinating account of the experience of Christian missionaries in Egypt in the early 20th century, told from multiple perspectives. The battle over religious conversion in missionary schools offers a fascinating window into Egyptian history and society – and Baron does a masterful job of shifting the viewpoint in Rashomon style to show how it looked to the different players involved.
“Soft Force: Women in Egypt’s Islamic Awakening,” by Ellen Anne McLarney. Women’s roles in the intellectual, organizational and political development of Islamist movements have rarely received the attention they deserve. McLarney focuses in depth on the writings of a wide array of Egyptian women involved with Islamist movements, presenting a nuanced and careful reading of their religious and political thought.
“Young Islam: The New Politics of Religion in Morocco and the Arab World,” by Avi Spiegel. This book offers a fascinating look at the competition between different Islamist groups in Morocco. Spiegel presents a rich political narrative, but also a nicely textured look at the lived experience of Islamist political participation by young Moroccans.
Finally, I understand that it is traditional to bring some novels to the beach. I haven’t read these yet, but I’m excited to spend some quality beach time with these books, two of which I found via Marcia Lynx Qualey (@arablit) of the ArabLit blog.
“The Bamboo Stalk,” by Saud Alsanousi. This looks like a fascinating novel about the lives of migrant workers in the Gulf.
“The Confines of the Shadow,” by Allesando Spina (a.k.a. Basili Shafik Khouzam). New edition available for Kindle of a classic collection exploring Libya’s history.
“The Corpse Washer,” by Sinan Antoon. This novel about Iraq’s violent and complex history came out a few years ago, but remains deeply relevant.
And finally, each year I seem to recommend a truly outstanding novel written by an outstanding policy wonk. Last year, it was “The Golden Hour,” Todd Moss’s riveting account of a heroic political scientist in Mali (read it now if you didn’t then!). This year, it is “Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War,” by Peter Singer and August Cole. Ghost Fleet, available as of today, is a deeply researched fictional account of how a U.S.-China conflict could unfold. Get it now, to understand how new technologies are changing the nature of war… and because buying it is reportedly the only way to stop Peter from tweeting about it.
Happy summer reading!