If you want to understand who the modern Arabs are and how their relationship with the western world has evolved, you will not find a better bookby Kishwer Falkner / January 27, 2010 / Leave a comment
Pictured: Gamal Abdel Nasser
The Arabs: A History By Eugene Rogan (Allen Lane, £25)
There are many myths about the middle east. And one that remains surprisingly popular in this country is that Britain still has significant influence there—a view often reinforced by Arab sentimentalisation of British power. For those still wedded to this view, Eugene Rogan’s The Arabs: A History will provide pause for thought. It sets the scene for understanding the contemporary middle east through a beautifully crafted tour d’histoire spanning five centuries. It marks the beginning of the modern age for Arabs as the point when the Ottomans conquered the Mamluk Empire in 1517. This watershed event began the first foreign rule of Arabs since the rise of Islam in the early 7th century. The Arab response to conquest was pragmatic. It focused not on their subjugation under foreign rule specifically, but on the administrative levers of Ottoman power such as levels of taxation and questions of law and order. Shared religion, and a view of Islamic universalism, most likely played into this.
Rogan’s reader is taken through the conquests and re-conquests of the major centres of Arab civilisation, culminating in two centuries of Ottoman rule from the Balkans around the Mediterranean across North Africa and extending to the Arabian peninsula. The first major reversal of Ottoman power comes about with Russian support for Balkan nationalists and the European powers moving to dismember the empire after its defeat. Both Britain and France do well out of the Congress of Berlin in 1878. Britain claims Cyprus so France is offered Tunisia to retain the balance of power. Yet the balance is not preserved as Britain finds itself occupying Egypt not from choice but necessity in the face of an uprising, thus precipitating the European powers’ “scramble for Africa.”
As we move from the age of empire into the 20th century, Rogan concentrates both on events and the voices of players on the ground who lend authenticity to the account: the 18th-century barber in Damascus, who meticulously records all going-ons around him, the early 19th-century Egyptian reformist cleric who sails for France to educate himself on Europe, or later the mixed heritage Lebanese interpreter who accompanies Yasser Arafat to his historic UN speech in 1978. The stories they bear witness to are at the same time unremarkable for the period covered yet unusual for the weaving of different narratives…