I knew little about the Middle East and Islam before I printed out the reading list for the IWF Conference. I take that back. When my daughter Caro and I went to Turkey two years ago, I did some reading for that trip. There I began to pursue an elusive subject that is becoming a bit of an obsession with me. Now I spend several hours a day online reading the Middle East news from sources large and small, trying to put together, just as if people and events were puzzle pieces, what's going on.
Each day begins with the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Reportage in hand--literally, for I clip and save articles--I move on to the Internet to try to make sense of the morning's content. The stories in these two good newspapers seldom cohere. One reason for the muddles--aside from reporters doing the best they can with the limited information and perspective countries without free speech offer--is the scattershot nature of the attention. When the war in Iraq is the only Middle East story that the Times covers every issue, and when the Times has an aversion today (a different situation forty years ago) to covering religion per se, it is hard to follow everything else that is going on not only in the Middle East but in the Islamic world at large.
Here are some web sites I find useful, as of summer 2007:
Al-Ahram Weekly (http://english.ahram.org)
Here are the books on the IWF reading list:
1. Leila Ahmed
Women & Gender in Islam (1993)
A Border Passage (1999)
2. Katarina Dalacoura
Islam, Liberalism and Human Rights (2003)
3. Khaled Abou El Fadl
Islam and the Challenge of Democracy (2004)
4. Maria Rosa Menocal
The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of
Tolerance in Medieval Spain (2003)
5. John Esposito & John Voll
Makers of Contemporary Islam (2001)
Islam and Democracy: Religion, Identity & Conflict Resolution in the Muslim World
6. Kamal S. Salibi
The Modern History of Jordan (1993)
To this list, so far I would add:
7. Robert D. Kaplan
The Arabists (1993)
8. Karen Armstrong
9. Bernard Lewis
What Went Wrong? (2002)
10. Vartan Gregorian
11. Robert Fisk
The Great War for Civilisation (2005)
12. The Quran
A few comments on the list: Leila Ahmed and Esposito/Voll I can't recommend highly enough. Dalacoura and El Fadl are difficult reading, but necessary for any pondering of Islam and Human Rights. Ornament of the World fills in the missing links for medieval French poetry. (For the first time, I understand the Roman de la Rose.) However, even as she explores the things medieval Judaism and Christianity took from Islam, Menocal does not put forward much, if any, influence in the other direction. Surely, this is significant, but Menocal does not explore the one-way-ness of the influence.
On the books I recommend: Kaplan's book is all-the-more revealing for being dated. For example, two of the Arabists Kaplan struggles to like (and almost but not quite succeeds) turn out to be prescient years before 9/11. More importantly, his book describes America's good relationship with Arabs in the Middle East pre-Israel. Kaplan doesn't make sense of how things went wrong after that, but he does describe Kissinger's crucial role in the change. To begin to understand how America went so wrong in the Middle East, Fisk is a good, if lengthy (over 800 pages) read. Despite the annoying title of his book, Fisk, a British journalist in the Middle East for forty years, witnessed many of the crucial events there. He covered the Civil War in Lebanon. He was the last western reporter out of Afghanistan. He knew Osama Bin Laden back in the day.
I now know enough to be able to disagree with Bernard Lewis. But still he is a seminal western scholar and a must-read. I now know enough to realize that Edward Said is, too. Orientalism is on my beside table. And, of course, we must read the Quran. So far, I have not found a good translation. (Arberry's on order. Will report back.) This situation would seem to bear out what people who know Arabic say--namely, that the Quran is untranslatable.
The Quran is not a narrative, like many books of the Bible. In fact, the book is not linear. It jumps around from "submissions" (prayers to Allah, many of them beautiful and more sophisticated than anything in the Bible) to specific injunctions about caring for orphans, dividing property, keeping sheep and cattle, settling disputes, husbands and wives, and other elements necessary for a cohesive society. Here the Quran reminds me of the Judaic laws in Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Surprisingly, much of the Quran is a commentary on Genesis, Exodus, and the Gospels. The commentary is general and therefore not particularly insightful. But, obviously, given the times in which we live, the holy book of Islam is a necessary read. Now that I think about it, the Bible is, too.
On the subject of popular literature and "first person" books with Middle East settings: Read the classics. Mafouz. Rushdie. Hikmet. Pamuk.
The only "less than the first rank" book I recommend is Acts of Faith by Philip Caputo. This novel, set in the Sudan during the first decade of civil war between North and South, beautifully if sadly sets forth why westerners and aid organizations, with the best of intentions, fail to do much about ethnic cleansing. Also, Caputo is the only novelist I know who inhabits the skin and soul of a Muslim jihadist character and makes him human and sympathetic. A literary achievement. (The book did win the Pulitzer Prize.)
If you read some of the books on the above lists, you will see why the following popular books are not-so-good:
1. Nine Parts of Desire by Geraldine Brooks. A first-person account all-the-more scary because the author is a journalist, for heaven's sake. She of all people should be able to inhabit the skin and soul of a contemporary Muslim woman and understand why so many such women have taken up the veil. Brooks writes fatuously about King Hussein and Queen Noor: "Behind the king's resolve, I was sure I saw the queen's quiet influence at work, and his world view gradually becoming identical with hers." Read Leila Ahmed to understand the veil. Read Fisk to get the real story on King Hussein. Brooks's account could hardly be farther from the truth.
2. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. Generally speaking, if a book re-inforces impressions you already had about the Middle East, you should beware. As many Iranian women have pointed out, Nafisi indulges in easy stereotypes (the wife abuser, for example, whereas, as Ahmed says, the incidence of wife abuse is the same East and West). From Nafisi's book, a reader might assume all too-easily that for educated Iranian women novels originally written in English are their standard for literature, instead of the Persian writers who inhabit the current literary scene--women like Parsipur, Behbahani, and Danishvar. More importantly, it is all-too-easy to jump from an embrace of a writer's creation of imagination, here a reading group in Tehran, to an assumption that Iranian middle class women want a different society than the one they now have.
3. Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez and Kristin Ohlson. Afghani women have already challenged the veracity of this "memoir." Now it seems likely that Ms. Rodriguez fabricated some, if not most, of her stories--always a warning sign when the publisher notes on the copyright page that "some personal, place and organization names have been changed, and some chronological details adjusted." This is another popular work that gives American readers what they already believe to be true.
Since I'm beginning to sound like the book police, I will moderate my comments on the last two bestsellers because both are well-written and, frankly, I enjoyed them. Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel is a compelling story of her Somali family and upbringing. Also, Ms. Ali makes clear why Holland and the rest of the EU are having second thoughts about their 14 million Muslim immigrants. On the other hand, even as we understand why Ms. Ali personally abhores Islam, her argument against the faith of her forebears does not withstand scrutiny. When she says that Islam is evil and perverting, for example, she does not account for the many fine people in the world who are Muslims and have good family lives within the Muslim faith. Again, I fear that she is "preaching to the choir" in much of her audience, who already are too disposed to demonize Islamists.
My last caveat is about Khaled Hussein's Kite Runner. He is a marvelous storyteller. In the end, however, his novel is not really about Afghanistan--it has a picturesque setting that happens to be Afghanistan. Hussein's sensibility is profoundly western in its appreciation of individuality, its vision of causality as a result of human choice, and its relegation of religion to the sidelines. If you want to read a novel with a non-western sensibility, read any of Orhan Pamuk's. Snow is my favorite.