I’ve written a review of Eugene Rogan’s new book, for the Friday Review section of The National. The first couple of paragraphs are posted below, and you can read the whole thing on the newspaper’s website.
The Arabs: A History
There is something almost old-fashioned about the idea of a book-length history of the Arabs. Broad, all-encompassing narratives of this kind were popular in the 20th century, when historiography frequently intersected with pan-Arab nationalist projects, and when the sense of a common Arab identity was vividly felt both by the region’s inhabitants and the foreigners who observed and engaged them.
Today, the Arabs are increasingly viewed (and seem to view themselves) either as a small subset of a larger civilisation – the Muslim world – or as a collection of disparate and fractious entities whose differences often overwhelm their commonalities. Indeed, the notion of “Arabness” as a shared and distinguishing element seems to have lost its currency as a prism through which to study the region, just as it has lost its charismatic appeal in the political culture of the contemporary Middle East.
It is therefore suggestive to re-encounter a panoramic perspective in Eugene Rogan’s excellent new book, which, if we are being frank, is not so much a history of the Arabs as it is a political history of the Middle East and North Africa during the last 500 years – with an emphasis on the 19th and 20th centuries. The narrative begins with the Mamluk army’s defeat by the Ottomans at the battle of Marj Dabiq (in northern Syria) in 1516, the event that “marked the end of the medieval era and the beginning of the modern age in the Arab world”, and then flits through the main developments of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries before slowing down the pace upon arrival at the period of European colonialism.