The best books on how culture influences Middle Eastern history and politics

Andrea Rugh Author Of Egyptian Advice Columnists: Envisioning the Good Life in an Era of Extremism
By Andrea Rugh

Who am I?

From over three decades of work on development projects in countries of the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Africa, I am convinced that when efforts fail, it is invariably because we lack the cultural understanding of what people want or how we provide it. These books all reinforce my point by either underlining the way culture shapes the way people see the world or by showing how when we neglect culture, we do so at our own peril. Culture can be discovered through multiple entry points with these books offering a good start. Even something as mundane as advice columns in newspapers offer political insights when plumbed for the meanings below the surface.

I wrote...

Egyptian Advice Columnists: Envisioning the Good Life in an Era of Extremism

By Andrea Rugh,

Book cover of Egyptian Advice Columnists: Envisioning the Good Life in an Era of Extremism

What is my book about?

In the 1980s, religious conservativism gained momentum in Egypt. At the time a column appeared in Al-Ahram written by a self-described humanist addressing readers’ questions about personal problems. Also, religious sheiks in numerous newspapers answered readers’ questions about Islam’s views of the morality of certain behaviors. The two types of columns differed in their prescriptions for how to achieve the good life—the humanist by recommending time-tested traditions and the sheikhs by telling readers to comply with their Islamic duties. Both addressed extremism cautiously, probably out of fear of Islamists’ reactions. The sheikhs, although salaried government employees, showed a perplexing ambivalence by vacillating between support for government positions and contradictory extremist positions. This was partly to make themselves appear independent of government control but also to avoid angering the Islamists.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes

Why did I love this book?

This is my favorite book for showing how culture affects perceptions of history. Ansari writes brilliantly of the time between the Prophet Muhammad and the fall of the Ottoman Empire and beyond. My favorite quote about differences between Western and Eastern cultures, says it all: “What looks from one side like a campaign to secure greater rights for citizens…looks from the other side like powerful strangers inserting themselves into the private affairs of families and undercutting people’s ability to maintain their communal selves as families and tribal networks. In short what looks from one side like empowering each individual, looks from the other side like disempowering whole communities” (p.353). The book is full of similar cultural insights and is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding the Middle East. 

By Tamim Ansary,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Destiny Disrupted as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Western narrative of world history largely omits a whole civilization. Destiny Disrupted tells the history of the world from the Islamic point of view, and restores the centrality of the Muslim perspective, ignored for a thousand years.

In Destiny Disrupted, Tamim Ansary tells the rich story of world history as it looks from a new perspective: with the evolution of the Muslim community at the center. His story moves from the lifetime of Mohammed through a succession of far-flung empires, to the tangle of modern conflicts that culminated in the events of 9/11. He introduces the key people, events,…

Book cover of Yemen Chronicle: An Anthropology of War and Mediation

Why did I love this book?

In 1979 Caton traveled to a remote area of Yemen to do fieldwork on the oral poetry of local tribes. He describes how tribesmen used poetry in multiple facets of their lives, to praise friends and scorn enemies, at important events and in mediating local conflicts. Although he works to develop trust with his neighbors, he is never quite sure of the cultural rules, and soon finds himself involved in a local controversy that leads to his betrayal and ultimately abduction and imprisonment. Many of the traditions Caton describes are lost or abbreviated now, but knowing about them helps us understand the subtleties that drive Yemen’s modern conflicts. 

By Steven C. Caton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Yemen Chronicle as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A report like no other from the heart of the Arab Middle East

In 1979, Steven C. Caton went to a remote area of Yemen to do fieldwork on the famous oral poetry of its tribes. The recent hostage crisis in Iran made life perilous for a young American in the Middle East; worse, he was soon embroiled in a dangerous local conflict. Yemen Chronicle is Caton's touchingly candid acount of the extraordinary events that ensued.

One day a neighboring sheikh came angrily to the sanctuary village where Caton lived, claiming that a man there had abducted his daughter and…

Book cover of Tents and Pyramids: Games and Ideology in Arab Culture from Backgammon to Autocratic Rule

Why did I love this book?

In Tents and Pyramids, Khuri describes how Arabs’ ways of seeing and dealing with reality have implications for power in the Middle East. He juxtaposes tents—the low horizontal Bedouin ones—against vertical hierarchical pyramids. Khuri argues that authority is not built into the tent approach—rather the strategy is to act as equal groups with leaders who are only “first among equals” and isolated individuals are the vulnerable ones. The second group, imagined as hierarchical pyramids, has no standardized rules for succession and ends up being the ones who conquer the rest. To stay in power these autocrats need strong militaries to keep the public from holding them accountable. Although Khuri’s framework doesn’t always hold up, it offers a useful way of imaging the region’s power structures.    

By Fuad I. Khuri,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Tents and Pyramids as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This study deals with an unusual and absorbing topic: how the Arabs see and deal with reality and the implications this has for the nature of power in the Arab world. "Tents" and "pyramids" are, metaphorically, opposed mental images; the first signifies the absence of hierarchy and graded authority, the second the presence of both, Khuri argues that the Arabs perceive both social and physical reality as a series of discrete, non-pyramidal structures that are inherently equal in value - much like a Bedouin encampment composed of tents scattered haphazardly on a flat desert surface with no visible hierarchy. Authority…

Book cover of The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq

Why did I love this book?

In 2003 Stewart was appointed deputy governor of Amara and then later Nasiriya, both provinces in the remote southern marsh areas of Iraq. His job was to offer reconstruction resources and bring a semblance of order to their civilian government after coalition forces overthrew Saddam Hussein. What he found was two very different kinds of reactions to his advice by the local population. When he returned to see the results of their community-building efforts much later, he was surprised to find that the most contentious group had made the greatest progress. His narrative reminds us that cultures have sub-groups with variations in the way they respond to various sets of conditions. Accepting assistance passively from an outsider rather than negotiating differences upfront can result in a flawed implementation.

By Rory Stewart,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Prince of the Marshes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An adventurous diplomat’s “engrossing and often darkly humorous” memoir of working with Iraqis after the fall of Saddam Hussein(Publishers Weekly).
In August 2003, at the age of thirty, Rory Stewart took a taxi from Jordan to Baghdad. A Farsi-speaking British diplomat who had recently completed an epic walk from Turkey to Bangladesh, he was soon appointed deputy governor of Amarah and then Nasiriyah, provinces in the remote, impoverished marsh regions of southern Iraq. He spent the next eleven months negotiating hostage releases, holding elections, and splicing together some semblance of an infrastructure for a population of millions teetering on the…

Book cover of The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family's Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World

Why did I love this book?

This book describes the rich multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and multi-lingual communities that co-existed peacefully in Alexandria and Cairo in the 1940s and early 1950s. They forged close ties in such public domains as commerce and schooling, while keeping their family and religious lives mainly private and marrying within the community. By the mid-50s as Arab-Israeli problems spread to Egypt, the Nasser government stoked animosity against the Jews and other non-Muslim communities, forcing many to migrate. The book shows graphically how even during normal times cultural communities distinguish between areas where it is safe to mingle with outsiders and those where it is better to draw tight boundaries against penetration if they are to sustain their uniqueness. The latter are mostly areas that define them, including religion, values, and bloodlines.

By Lucette Lagnado,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In vivid and graceful prose, Lucette Lagnado re-creates the majesty and cosmopolitan glamour of Cairo in the years between World War II and Gamal Abdel Nasser's rise to power. Her father, Leon, was a boulevardier who conducted business on the elegant terrace of Shepheard's Hotel, and later, in the cozy, dark bar of the Nile Hilton, dressed in his signature white sharkskin suit. But with the fall of King Farouk and Nasser's nationalization of Egyptian industry, Leon and his family lose everything. As streets are renamed, neighborhoods of their fellow Jews disbanded, and the city purged of all foreign influence,…

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