The best books to change discussions about the modern Middle East

Patricia Goldstone Author Of Aaronsohn's Maps: The Man Who Might Have Created Peace in the Modern Middle East
By Patricia Goldstone

Who am I?

I’ve been fascinated by the Middle East ever since being taken to see Kismet at the age of 3. I travel there extensively, married into it, and have lived inside the Middle East community in the US for the past thirty years. I’m also a journalist, a playwright, and the author of three non-fiction books, Making the World Safe for Tourism, Aaronsohn’s Maps, and INTERLOCK: Art, Conspiracy, and The Shadow Worlds of Mark Lombardi. Although I wouldn't argue that the issue of women’s rights isn't an urgent one, as a woman who focuses on history and geopolitics, I’m often disturbed at how it's being used to whip up popular emotion and obscure other driving forces. 


I wrote...

Aaronsohn's Maps: The Man Who Might Have Created Peace in the Modern Middle East

By Patricia Goldstone,

Book cover of Aaronsohn's Maps: The Man Who Might Have Created Peace in the Modern Middle East

What is my book about?

Scientist, diplomat, and spy, Aaron Aaronsohn’s fascinating story will come as a major surprise to most students of Middle Eastern history. The early 20th-century agronomist and hydrologist’s exploits easily rival those of the fabled Lawrence of Arabia.

Emigrating as a small child to Palestine with his Romanian parents ahead of a wave of pogroms in 1882, Aaronsohn grew up to create the first comprehensive water maps of Palestine and Syria, maps later used to draft the region’s new boundaries at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. A history that speaks directly to the present, Aaronsohn’s Maps reveals for the first time Aaronsohn’s foresight in establishing water, not oil, as the driving force in Middle East politics, and the enduring importance of his maps today.

The books I picked & why

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A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East

By David Fromkin,

Book cover of A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East

Why this book?

Like Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August to which this compares in the breadth of scope and depth of knowledge, this is a huge, rich feast of a book and one of the best you can read on World War I as well as on the formative geopolitics of the modern Middle East. Like the greatest of the imperial geographers, David’s scholarship was omnivorous but his original discipline was law: his discussion of the rashly-drawn boundaries that are at the heart of A Peace to End All Peace is without peer.

Full disclosure: David was also a friend who, like his book, was incredibly generous. I owe my book to a particularly compendious footnote in A Peace to End All Peace. It caught my eye and I became obsessed with why I didn’t know more about such an enormous presence, eventually traveling to Britain, France, Israel, and the Isle of Man to dig up everything I could about Aaron Aaronsohn. After the book was published, David asked to be introduced through a mutual friend. On meeting me, he stuck out his lower lip and said, “But I was going to write a book about Aaron Aaronsohn!” When I rejoined, “Then you shouldn’t have written such a wonderful footnote, “he laughed and I knew I had nothing to fear.   

A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East

By David Fromkin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Peace to End All Peace as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An up-to-date analysis of the historical background to the divisions of the Arab world. For politics students and the general reader.


The Silk Roads: A New History of the World

By Peter Frankopan,

Book cover of The Silk Roads: A New History of the World

Why this book?

Even more than the oil curse, the location curse is key to understanding the Middle East. Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads is one of the best explorations of what imperial geographers identified as Eurasia, the ancient, much-fought-over land bridge between west and east running from the eastern Mediterranean to the Himalayas of which the modern construct of the “Middle East” is only one, sadly reduced part. Frankopan looks away from today’s association with regimes that are unstable, violent threats to international security and/or human rights, and popularly perceived as somehow peripheral to the interests of the West—to its historic center at the crossroads of civilization.

By tracing the evolution of the vitally interconnected trade routes known as the “Silk Roads", from conveying Chinese luxury goods and Turkic slaves to gold and silver, Iranian oil and Ukrainian wheat, Mongolian rare earths, and transcontinental telecommunications links, he shows how the region has functioned for eons as the world’s central nervous system, carrying not only vital commodities but ideas and faiths as well as violence, disease, and world cataclysm, as Frankopan’s chapters on the Eurasian vector in two world wars demonstrate. There’s an oddly beautiful justice in the notion that the empires of the West could destroy themselves over the prosperity that the Silk Roads brought them. Like Halford Mackinder a century before him, today 3 Frankopan concludes that the geopolitics of Eurasia move the West, not vice-versa, and that the Western powers will use any means possible to maintain pole position on the newest incarnation of the Silk Roads.

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World

By Peter Frankopan,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The Silk Roads as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The No. 1 Sunday Times and international bestseller - a major reassessment of world history in light of the economic and political renaissance in the re-emerging east For centuries, fame and fortune was to be found in the west - in the New World of the Americas. Today, it is the east which calls out to those in search of adventure and riches. The region stretching from eastern Europe and sweeping right across Central Asia deep into China and India, is taking centre stage in international politics, commerce and culture - and is shaping the modern world. This region, the…


The House of Rothschild: The World's Banker 1849-1999

By Niall Ferguson,

Book cover of The House of Rothschild: The World's Banker 1849-1999

Why this book?

Ferguson shows us a neural network of another sort: the web of offshore finance and international co-investment that culminated in the First World War—not at Sarajevo but in the Middle East, where Great Britain and Germany faced off over railroad access to Britain’s prize possession, India. Wrapped in the thoroughly engaging family history of the far-flung Rothschilds and how they knit themselves together in an empire of their own, Ferguson embeds an equally enthralling history of what he calls “Globalization I,” the 19th-century race to connect the empires established in the preceding age of exploration with their European centers of power by commercial rather than military means, with railway and telecommunications lines as their primary instruments. I am indebted to him for inspiring insights into how, in the years preceding World War I, the great European railway race came down to the finish line, the last and crucial link connecting Constantinople, the gateway to Europe, with Basra in what is now Iraq, the gateway to India; and how “gentile Zionists” in the British Parliament came up with the idea of a national homeland for the Jews not so much out of love for Zionism, but to have friendly Europeans settled along their railroad tracks in the transport hub of Palestine.

The House of Rothschild: The World's Banker 1849-1999

By Niall Ferguson,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This second volume of Niall Ferguson's acclaimed, landmark history of the legendary Rothschild banking dynasty concludes his myth-breaking portrait of one of the most powerful and fascinating families of modern times. With all the depth, clarity and drama with which he traced the Rothschild's ascent, Ferguson shows how their power waned as conflicts from Crimea to the Second World War repeatedly threatened the stability of their worldwide empire, and how their failure to establish themselves successfully in the United States would prove fateful. At once a classic family saga and a major work of economic, social and political history, this…


The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire

By William Dalrymple,

Book cover of The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire

Why this book?

It’s hard to understand why much, if not most, Middle East foreign policy in the previous two world wars was driven by Britain’s need to protect access to India without reading William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy. Dalrymple goes back four centuries to explain, in a stunning portrait of the first public-private partnership between a government and a multinational corporation, the East India Company that fractured the enormously wealthy Mughal empire and then the British Parliament when it was discovered to be using its own shares to buy politicians willing to subvert the law in its favor. Parliament’s willingness to unleash The Company to pillage countries it wished to subjugate did not go unnoticed in America, where patriots dumped its tea into Boston Harbor and triggered the American War of Independence in order to prevent “America being devoured by rats”: this, however, did not prevent 20th-century American monopolies from insinuating themselves into the marrow of a putatively democratic state. Dalrymple’s 400-year history is an invaluable template for understanding how 4 corporate power has corrupted, magnified, and transcended national power to become a new imperium on its own.

The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire

By William Dalrymple,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Anarchy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

THE TOP 5 SUNDAY TIMES BESTSELLER ONE OF BARACK OBAMA'S BEST BOOKS OF 2019 THE TIMES HISTORY BOOK OF THE YEAR FINALIST FOR THE CUNDILL HISTORY PRIZE 2020 LONGLISTED FOR THE BAILLIE GIFFORD PRIZE FOR NON-FICTION 2019 A FINANCIAL TIMES, OBSERVER, DAILY TELEGRAPH, WALL STREET JOURNAL AND TIMES BOOK OF THE YEAR 'Dalrymple is a superb historian with a visceral understanding of India ... A book of beauty' - Gerard DeGroot, The Times In August 1765 the East India Company defeated the young Mughal emperor and forced him to establish a new administration in his richest provinces. Run by English…


Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East

By Kim Ghattas,

Book cover of Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East

Why this book?

I’m going to be sneaky here and wedge two books in for the price of one. Kim Ghattas’ Black Wave is a beautifully written and reported, intimate history of the destructive ideological rivalry between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, a rivalry fuelled by the “tilt” policy of the Ronald Reagan administration that pitted the former allies against each other in an effort to keep them both weak (and unlikely to lead OPEC to attack the West again as they did in 1973). Ghattas, a Beiruti journalist who was friends with Jamal Khashoggi, grounds her history of the devastating cultural and geopolitical upheaval that followed in the personal and highly emotional stories of public intellectuals and other progressive thinkers who fought the Dark Age descending on the Middle East.

She finds her creation moment in the 1979 Iranian revolution, which occurred in the same year as the siege of the Holy Mosque in Mecca by Saudi zealots and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Her superb book should be read in conjunction with Dilip Hero’s Cold War in the Islamic World: Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Struggle for Supremacy, which predates the Saudi/Iran rivalry to the 1908 discovery of oil in Iran and subsequent jockeying between British and American oil companies, based in Iran and Saudi Arabia respectively. Hero’s style is less accessible than Ghattas’ but compelling in its own way. The depth of his knowledge is worth the slog and the books make excellent companion pieces.

Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East

By Kim Ghattas,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Black Wave as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Blistering' Sunday Times
'Indispensable' Observer
'Fascinating' The Times
'Brilliant' Peter Frankopan
'Revelatory' Lindsey Hilsum

A timely and unprecedented examination of how the modern Middle East unravelled, and why it started with the pivotal year of 1979. Shortlisted for the Cundhill History Prize 2020

'What happened to us?'

For decades, the question has haunted the Arab and Muslim world, heard across Iran and Syria, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and in the author's home country of Lebanon. Was it always so? When did the extremism, intolerance and bloodletting of today displace the region's cultural promise and diversity?

In Black Wave, award-winning journalist…


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