Two prominent historians provide their lists of must-read books on the Middle East:
Juan Cole: Middle East history professor at the University of Michigan and author of two recent books on the region.
And Eugene Rogan: Director of the Middle East Center at Oxford.
I guess it should come as no surprise that the one point of overlap between the two lists is Albert Hourani's A History of the Arab Peoples.
The interview in which Rogan presents his list was timed to coincide with the launch of his recent book, The Arabs: A History. Rogan actually wrote the book, in many ways, as an extension or revision of Hourani's work. In the interview he characterizes it as a sort of post-9/11 version of Arab history. Not only does it focus more on 19th and 20th century history than does Hourani's, but in describing the history of the Arab people it seeks to articulate a partial response to the shrill, but frequently-raised question: why do they hate us?
I have only read the first half of Rogan's book. But at first pass, I think that Rogan conveniently warps the last five-hundred years of Arab history to fit his thesis -- which also attempts to answer the blunt question above. He argues that "the Arabs have negotiated the modern age largely by the rules set by the dominant powers of the day. In this sense, modern Arab history begins with the Ottoman conquest of the Arab world in the sixteenth century, when the Arabs first came to be ruled by an external power." Thus, Arabs hate us because they have been dominated by foreign powers for half a millennium and are really ticked off about it.
The problem is not only that the argument is overly simplistic, but in the book Rogan sort of tries to warp time to conform to his thesis. In a 500 page book he spends the first 60 pages on the Ottoman Empire. This is arguably the place where his thesis finds itself on its weakest footing and demands a more serious argument than the one he provides. I felt like he breezed past 300 years of history in part so that he could make history conform to his story.
Still, he does present an excellent reading list and gives good reasons for his selections. Worth a look.