The best books for understanding the Middle East

Who am I?

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for the Middle East and Africa studies and director of the International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured International Relations Scholars at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). He is a columnist at Foreign Policy magazine and an expert on Arab and Turkish politics as well as U.S. Middle East policy. 

I wrote...

The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square

By Steven A. Cook,

Book cover of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square

What is my book about?

The Struggle for Egypt is a sweeping political history of Egypt that takes readers from the crystallization of Egyptian nationalism in the late 19th century up to the January 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak. The book underscores that Egypt was never as stable as commonly assumed and that the demonstrations that shook Egypt a decade were consistent with a long history during which Egyptians rebelled against their leaders. This accessible text, written from a "close to the ground" perspective, provides invaluable insight into the Middle East's largest and most influential country. It is for history buffs, policy geeks, and Middle East obsessives.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Last Shah: America, Iran, and the Fall of the Pahlavi Dynasty

Why did I love this book?

Over the years, there has been a lot of mythmaking about the United States and Iran––often influenced more by politics and ideology than an objective reading of history.  Ray Takeyh’s beautifully written volume takes on the U.S.-Iran relationship with all of its complexities and offers a cogent corrective to the received wisdom about events that have shaped the Middle East in the last four decades.

By Ray Takeyh,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The surprising story of Iran's transformation from America's ally in the Middle East into one of its staunchest adversaries

"An original interpretation that puts Iranian actors where they belong: at center stage."-Michael Doran, Wall Street Journal

"An extraordinary account. . . . Deeply nuanced and eloquent."-Benjamin Weinthal, Jerusalem Post

Offering a new view of one of America's most important, infamously strained, and widely misunderstood relationships of the postwar era, this book tells the history of America and Iran from the time the last shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was placed on the throne in 1941 to the 1979 revolution that brought…

Book cover of America's Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier

Why did I love this book?

Vitalis' meticulously researched volume is about Saudi Arabia and the United States. In lucid prose, he makes the controversial case that American oil prospectors in the 20th century recreated the patterns of domination that dominated the exploitation of resources in the American West in Saudi Arabia. The argument smashes long-held truths and myths about the origins of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

By Robert Vitalis, Robert Vitalis,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked America's Kingdom as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

America's Kingdom debunks the many myths that now surround the United States's "special relationship" with Saudi Arabia, or what is less reverently known as "the deal": oil for security. Taking aim at the long-held belief that the Arabian American Oil Company, ARAMCO, made miracles happen in the desert, Robert Vitalis shows that nothing could be further from the truth. What is true is that oil led the U.S. government to follow the company to the kingdom. Eisenhower agreed to train Ibn Sa'ud's army, Kennedy sent jets to defend the kingdom, and Lyndon Johnson sold it missiles. Oil and ARAMCO quickly…

Origins: A Memoir

By Amin Maalouf,

Book cover of Origins: A Memoir

Why did I love this book?

I read Maalouf's book many years ago and it remains one of the best books I have ever read about identity. It helps that he is a gifted writer and that Maalouf's story is so compelling.

By Amin Maalouf,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Origins, by the world-renowned writer Amin Maalouf, is a sprawling, hemisphere-spanning intergenerational saga.

Set during the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth, in the mountains of Lebanon and in Havana, Cuba, Origins recounts the family history of the generation of Maalouf's paternal grandfather, Boutros. Why did Boutros, a poet and educator in Lebanon, travel across the globe to rescue his younger brother, Gebrayel, who had settled in Havana?

Maalouf is an energetic and amiable narrator, illuminating the more obscure corners of late Ottoman nationalism, the psychology of Lebanese sectarianism, and the dynamics of…

Book cover of The Siege of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising in Islam's Holiest Shrine and the Birth of Al Qaeda

Why did I love this book?

The siege of Mecca in 1979 was one of the most consequential events in recent Saudi history. This book reads like a thriller, which makes sense because anyone familiar with Trofimov's work at the Wall Street Journal knows that he is a gifted storyteller and insightful analyst. The book provides context to the worldview that gave rise to al Qaeda.

War in the Land of Egypt

By Yusuf al-Qa'id,

Book cover of War in the Land of Egypt

Why did I love this book?

This brief volume was first published 35 years ago but stands up over time. It is an allegory about Egypt during the early years of Anwar al-Sadat's rule, but speaks to the larger issues of corruption, the arrogance of power, and the fraying of societal bonds under authoritarian leaders. 

By Yusuf al-Qa'id,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked War in the Land of Egypt as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Egypt on the eve of the 1973 October war. A young man has been drafted into the army. His father, the village elder, persuades a poor night-watchman to send his own son as a stand-in. But the impersonation plan goes horribly wrong, with tragicomic results. Qa'id's tale of the fiasco — steeped in irony and black humor — parodies outrageous corruption and ludicrous bureaucracy. A skillfully crafted mosaic of life in modern Egypt.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in international relations, the Middle East, and Mecca?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about international relations, the Middle East, and Mecca.

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