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The Arabs: A History

Eugene Rogan

(Basic Books; US: Nov 2009)

Oxford lecturer Eugene Rogan’s The Arabs: A History is as sweeping and epic as its title implies, a comprehensive look at the Arab world from the 1516 battle at Marj Dabiq—when a decisive Ottoman victory over the Egyptian Mamluks ushered in centuries of foreign domination—to the current Middle Eastern crises in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Arabs immediately feels definitive, exuding the thoroughness of a textbook. Its generally uncontroversial retelling of historic events suggests a trustworthiness unencumbered by the temptations of politicking and diatribes.


But with this inoffensiveness, this masterful history sometimes lapses into the unmemorable. Rogan rarely focuses on the gossipy, character-driven stories that fill the pages of so many recently-published histories. There is too much geographical and chronological ground to cover to get bogged down in court intrigue and sex and quirky characters. And though this is undoubtedly a skill and not a hindrance for a serious historian, the average reader—or indeed, anyone not deeply interested in the Arab world and its complex history—may drift or resort to skimming after the tenth page of Egyptian constitutional reform or Israeli military strategy or Arab oil policy. While not boring by any means, this book surely requires patience and seriousness, but the payoff is worth it.


Rogan is a writer of extreme subtlety, but his restraint sometimes works against him. His seemingly straightforward account contains a number of innovations to the study of Arab history, but he rarely raises any flags or blows any whistles to alert us to this experimentation.


For example, he makes a point of employing mainly Arab sources, from famed chroniclers and journalists to everymen like Ahmad al-Budayri al-Hallaq, an 18th-century Damascene barber whose diary covers wide-ranging topics such as local politics, the weather, and “general complaints about how things were no longer as they were in the good old days.” In his introduction, Rogan writes:


It has seemed only natural to me to privilege Arab sources in writing a history of the Arabs, much as one might privilege Russian sources to write a history of the Russians. The authoritative foreigner—statesmen, diplomats, missionaries, and travelers—have valuable insights to share on Arab history. But I believe Western readers would view Arab history differently were they to see it through the eyes of Arab men and women who described the times through which they lived.


The inclusion of predominantly Arab sources sounds like an easy, almost common-sense task. But these missing voices—the European ethnographer, the ambassador, the American general—form an important reshaping of our perceptions. From this new perspective, Arabs are not a specimen to be studied, but the central characters of their own story. It is a simple, obvious shift in point of view, but one that is rarely extended to this region in American public discourse. 


In addition, Rogan’s frequent inclusion of female figures at key historical moments—revolutions, social reforms, wars— does wonders in dissolving long-standing stereotypes of the Arab woman as subservient and home-bound. These are not exoticized harem-dwellers, sensual enchantresses from Orientalist paintings and poems. These are women, for better or worse, at the frontlines: Egyptian feminists who organized and called for the liberation of Arab women as early as World War I, Algerian freedom-fighters who carried bombs or served as couriers or harbored those wanted by the French, Palestinian terrorists who hijacked jets alongside their male counterparts. These women, slipped in so seamlessly, never announce their intentions: to reshape modern Western misconceptions about Arab gender relations.


Rogan often hints that current stereotypes of the Arabs as conservative, militant, and socially backward ignores a vibrant history of cultural exchange, progressive gender relations, and modern secularism. At one point late in the book, Rogan pulls the reader aside to remind us, “Given the prominence of Islam in public life across much of the Arab world today, it is easy to forget just how secular the Middle East was in 1981.” Western fashions, the consumption of prohibited alcohol, and women in higher education and the workplace were commonplace through the mid-20th century Arab world but for the most conservative Gulf states. It may come as some surprise that figures like Osama bin Laden and the aggressive Islamist parties of today are anomalous in the great span of Arab history, not a continuation of some anti-modern tradition.


If the most notorious Arab villains of today represent a great schism with the past, the troubled societies in which they have developed are very much a product of this long history. The crises of today, from Iraq and Palestine in the Arab world to Iran and Afghanistan on the Arab periphery, are a part of a continuum set in motion by the iniquities and humiliations thrust upon the this region over centuries. At its heart, this book is a tale of subjugation, intervention, or outright imperial rule at the hands of the Ottomans, the French, the British, the Israelis, the Americans, and even the Italians. 


While the Arabs could easily have been portrayed as victims, Rogan takes care to not paint them as helpless pawns being moved around by great empires. Arab leaders throughout the ages may have been just as corrupt and greedy and ineffectual as their Western counterparts, but they also often displayed the capacity for sound judgment, the ability to seek reform when necessary, and the wit to play global superpowers against one another.


Then how to explain the region’s unrest today? In Rogan’s view, groups like the Palestinians have unfortunately been pushed to the breaking point by outsiders and forced to deal with problems in all the wrong ways. Rogan is in no way an apologist for tactics like suicide bombing or hijackings. Rather, he has thoroughly paved the road from 1516 to 2010 with story upon story upon story of injustices inflicted upon the Arabs such that we cannot help but extend a little empathy to a group that is so frequently pegged America’s ideological enemy.


Finally, Rogan shows unexpected restraint in his subtle deconstruction of George W. Bush and his cronies, who only show up in the book’s brisk epilogue. In a way, America’s failed foreign policies of the past decade are treated with the same historical distance as the British mandate system or French colonialism. Rogan’s political ideals are never in question (the militarism of the Israelis is suspect, the meddling of the United States has yielded few successes), as he crafts his argument through carefully chosen examples rather than snarky retorts and fiery tirades. 


Yet Rogan can be quietly devastating when he wants to be. In a discussion of the looters that struck historic Iraqi institutions like the national museum and the archives, Rogan writes, “When asked by journalists why the American authorities did not do more to stop the looting, the U.S. secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld dismissively quipped, ‘Stuff happens.’” With that, Rogan achieves a damning critique of an eight-year reign with a mere two words.

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