The best books for understanding Imperialism in the Middle East

Geoffrey P. Nash Author Of From Empire to Orient: Travellers to the Middle East 1830-1926
By Geoffrey P. Nash

Who am I?

I graduated from Oxford University in 1975 at a time of social and economic crisis for Great Britain. My country has since unraveled from being a world imperial power to a petty nationalist rump on the western fringes of Europe. In addition to England I’ve taught at universities in North East Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, areas of the world where the British Empire once held sway. And I’ve also participated in conferences on various Middle Eastern topics in venues in the United States, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Morocco to name but a few. Hence my fascination with the Middle East and how the Western empires have impacted upon it.


I wrote...

From Empire to Orient: Travellers to the Middle East 1830-1926

By Geoffrey P. Nash,

Book cover of From Empire to Orient: Travellers to the Middle East 1830-1926

What is my book about?

One big difference between the British Empire and the American world hegemony that replaced it was that servants of the former either traveled extensively or lived almost their whole working lives in eastern lands. If you read Robert Kaplan’s The Arabists and thought the people who serve the US’s interests in the Arab world a bit strange, compare them to the British travelers and diplomats in my book!

From the idiosyncratic Scotsman David Urquhart, who in the 1830s engaged in cross-cultural dressing while working at the British embassy in Constantinople, to the imperious George Curzon, later Viceroy of India, who traveled in Persia and Afghanistan in the 1880s, these Britishers acquired a sympathy and affinity for the East.

The books I picked & why

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The Middle East from Empire to Sealed Identities

By Lorenzo Kamel,

Book cover of The Middle East from Empire to Sealed Identities

Why this book?

The pressures modernity and European governments (Great Britain especially), brought upon peoples of the Middle East in the late imperial age are here re-presented. In this revisionary study Lorenzo Kamel, Associate Professor of History at the University of Turin, "demonstrates how the heterogeneous identities of Middle Eastern peoples were sealed into a standardized and uniform version that persists today." Extensively researched and full of new material, Kamel’s book shows how the region transitioned from empire into nation-states, and how the modern ethnically-conceived countries of Israel and modern Turkey, and embattled ones like Lebanon and Iraq, came into being.

The Middle East from Empire to Sealed Identities

By Lorenzo Kamel,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Middle East from Empire to Sealed Identities as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This compelling analysis of the modern Middle East - based on research in 19 archives and numerous languages - shows the transition from an internal history characterised by local realities that were plural and multidimensional, and where identities were flexible and hybrid, to a simplified history largely imagined and imposed by external actors. This version of history is distinguished by the politicisation of these identities with the aim of better grasping and, ultimately, controlling them. The author shows - mainly through a study of key moments, including the germs of competing ethno-religious visions in the 1830s, the Ottoman Tanzimat, the…


The Hundred Years' War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917–2017

By Rashid Khalidi,

Book cover of The Hundred Years' War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917–2017

Why this book?

According to one reviewer Rashid Khalidi’s recently published book is "the first true people’s history of the hundred-year struggle of the Palestinian people." The narrative begins with the British Mandate facilitating the deprivation of their land from the original inhabitants of Palestine. Skillful manipulation of the world powers and the UN by Zionists, and woeful disorganization among the Palestine notables and still partly colonized Arab states help to produce the continuing Palestinian tragedy. 

The Hundred Years' War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917–2017

By Rashid Khalidi,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Hundred Years' War on Palestine as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

THE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

Shortlisted for the 2020 Cundill History Prize

'Riveting and original ... a work enriched by solid scholarship, vivid personal experience, and acute appreciation of the concerns and aspirations of the contending parties in this deeply unequal conflict ' Noam Chomsky

The twentieth century for Palestine and the Palestinians has been a century of denial: denial of statehood, denial of nationhood and denial of history. The Hundred Years War on Palestine is Rashid Khalidi's powerful response. Drawing on his family archives, he reclaims the fundamental right of any people: to narrate their history on their own…


From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia

By Pankaj Mishra,

Book cover of From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia

Why this book?

Published a decade after the events of 9/11, Mishra’s challenging book goes a long way to explaining the response to imperialism of indigenous activists and thinkers, not just in the Middle East, but across Asia. The story begins with Japan’s 1905 defeat of Russia and builds through biographies of original nineteenth and early twentieth-century figures like the Iranian reformer Jalal al-Din al-Afghani and China’s “first iconic modern intellectual” Liang Qichao. From Pan-Asianism, through commitment to their respective countries’ modernization, Asia’s "thinkers, journalists, radicals and charismatics emerged from the ruins of empire to create an unstoppable Asian renaissance."

From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia

By Pankaj Mishra,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked From the Ruins of Empire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Financial Times and The Economist Best Book of the Year and a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice

A SURPRISING, GRIPPING NARRATIVE DEPICTING THE THINKERS WHOSE IDEAS SHAPED CONTEMPORARY CHINA, INDIA, AND THE MUSLIM WORLD

A little more than a century ago, independent thinkers across Asia sought to frame a distinct intellectual tradition that would inspire the continent's rise to dominance. Yet this did not come to pass, and today those thinkers―Tagore, Gandhi, and later Nehru in India; Liang Qichao and Sun Yat-sen in China; Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Abdurreshi al Ibrahim of the Ottoman Empire―are seen as…


The Translator

By Leila Aboulela,

Book cover of The Translator

Why this book?

Now you know about the history and the politics, how about a post-colonial romance that turns out to be a solvent of East-West dichotomy? Aboulela’s re-writing of Jane Eyre as a love match between Scottish academic Rae and his Sudanese translator Sammar carries the reader away from orientalism to a happy union catalyzed by the westerner male’s translation into a Muslim.  

The Translator

By Leila Aboulela,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A New York Times Notable Book: “Aboulela’s lovely, brief story encompasses worlds of melancholy and gulfs between cultures” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review).
 
American readers were introduced to the award-winning Sudanese author Leila Aboulela with Minaret, a delicate tale of a privileged young African Muslim woman adjusting to her new life as a maid in London. Now, for the first time in North America, we step back to her extraordinarily assured debut about a widowed Muslim mother living in Aberdeen who falls in love with a Scottish secular academic.
 
Sammar is a Sudanese widow working as an Arabic translator at a…


The Arabian Desert in English Travel Writing Since 1950: A Barren Legacy?

By Jenny Walker,

Book cover of The Arabian Desert in English Travel Writing Since 1950: A Barren Legacy?

Why this book?

A book that deconstructs shibboleths of Britons’ patrician identity and their romantic urge to escape modernity in the Arabian desert, A Barren Legacy reorders and erases the imperial world of From Empire to Orient. The author has spent decades working as a civil servant in Oman and has written several Lonely Planet Guides about Middle Eastern countries. Here, she reviews the Arabian journeys of some media-savvy contemporary British travellers and articulately delivers the genre of Arabian travel-writing into the post-modern era. 

The Arabian Desert in English Travel Writing Since 1950: A Barren Legacy?

By Jenny Walker,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Arabian Desert in English Travel Writing Since 1950 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Broadly this book is about the Arabian desert as the locus of exploration by a long tradition of British travellers that includes T.E. Lawrence and Wilfred Thesiger; more specifically, it is about those who, since 1950, have followed in their literary footsteps. In analysing modern works covering a land greater than the sum of its geographical parts, the discussion identifies outmoded tropes that continue to impinge upon the perception of the Middle East today while recognising that the laboured binaries of "East and West", "desert and sown", "noble and savage" have outrun their course. Where, however, only a barren legacy…


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