The best books to read to understand the Middle East

David Stansfield Author Of The Making of a Suicide Bomber
By David Stansfield

Who am I?

From a young age, I have been obsessed with the Arabic language and culture. In 1959, I studied this language at Durham University, graduating Summa Cum Laude – including living with a Palestinian family in Jerusalem for a number of months. Then moving on to further studies in Arabic at Cambridge University, graduating with a First Class Honors degree. Over the next decades, I have made many trips to the Middle East, working on a number of projects, including stints in North Africa, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jerusalem, Kuwait, and the Persian Gulf. Most recently, I served as the Arabic consultant on the Netflix TV series House of Cards.

I wrote...

The Making of a Suicide Bomber

By David Stansfield,

Book cover of The Making of a Suicide Bomber

What is my book about?

A couple of months ago, my wife stumbled on a notebook I’d kept while living with a Palestinian family in Jerusalem in the summer of 1961 to brush up my colloquial Arabic as part of my studies in that language at Cambridge University. I’d completely forgotten about this notebook and was amazed when I read it 60 years later and realized that it was a book waiting to be written.

Hence The Making of a Suicide Bomber, my attempt to put you, the reader, into the shoes of one particular people, some of whose members have been driven to such an extreme of pain and desperation they are prepared to do the unthinkable. This personal Odyssey proceeds through half a lifetime of experience with the Arab world that ends – well, but for the grace of God, it could well have ended very much as described in my book.

The books I picked & why

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Seven Pillars of Wisdom

By T.E. Shaw,

Book cover of Seven Pillars of Wisdom

Why this book?

This is a brilliant autobiographical account of the astonishing experiences of British Army Colonel T.E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia") as he served as a military advisor to Bedouin forces during the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks, 1916-1918. With the support of Emir Faisal and his tribesmen in Wadi Rum, he helped carry out attacks on the Ottoman forces from Aqaba in the south to Damascus in the north. Many sites inside the Wadi Rum area have been named after Lawrence, including the rock formations near the entrance now known as "The Seven Pillars."

The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine

By Ilan Pappé,

Book cover of The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine

Why this book?

Israeli historian Ilan Pappe revisits the formation of the State of Israel. Between 1947 and 1949, over 400 Palestinian villages were deliberately destroyed, civilians were massacred and around a million men, women, and children were expelled from their homes at gunpoint. If this had happened today it would have been called "ethnic cleansing". Totally debunking the myth that the Palestinian population left of their own accord in the course of this war, Ilan Pappe offers stunning archival evidence to show that, from its very inception, a central plank in Israel’s founding ideology was the forcible removal of the indigenous population.

Gaza: An Inquest Into Its Martyrdom

By Norman Finkelstein,

Book cover of Gaza: An Inquest Into Its Martyrdom

Why this book?

Finkelstein is the son of holocaust survivors and explains so meticulously how terribly Israel has treated the people of Gaza since occupying it in 1967. Two-thirds of its two million Palestinian inhabitants are refugees, and more than half its population is under 18. Israel has not only systematically destroyed the Gazan economy turning into “the world’s largest open-air prison camp,” But it has launched no fewer than nine military operations against Gaza – including Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and Operation Protective Edge in 2014 with its latest bout of savage bombing all but destroying the place altogether.

Palestine: A Four Thousand Year History

By Nur Masalha,

Book cover of Palestine: A Four Thousand Year History

Why this book?

The Palestinian writer, Nur Masalha, traces Palestine's thousands of years old heritage, uncovering cultures and societies of extraordinary depth and complexity that stretch back to the very beginnings of recorded history. Starting with the earliest references in Egyptian and Assyrian texts, Nur Masalha explores how Palestine and its Palestinian identity have evolved over thousands of years, from the Bronze Age to the present day. Drawing on a rich body of sources and the latest archaeological evidence, Masalha shows how Palestine’s multicultural past has been distorted and mythologised by Biblical lore and the Israel–Palestinian conflict. 


By Edward W. Said,

Book cover of Orientalism

Why this book?

Said explains with extraordinary clarity how Orientalism a way of seeing that exaggerates and distorts differences of Arab peoples and cultures as compared to that of Europe and the U.S. – often perceives Arab culture as exotic, backward, uncivilized, fatalistic, superstitious, and at times dangerous, while being at the same time impervious to progress and in need of regeneration by the far superior European colonial powers that be. An entertaining and thought-provoking book, sometimes hilarious, Said consistently witty and incisive.

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