Friday, October 03, 2008

Review: A History of the Middle East

If one wants to understand the events that are making headlines in today's world, an understanding of the Middle Eastern region is perhaps a must - so much appears to lead back to it.

And to understand the Middle-East, you have to go back in time.

As home to some of the earliest human settlements, the Middle East has a very long history indeed, and while I'd read about it before in passing, I'd never really fully understood it. So when I saw "A Short History of the Middle East" at the Dubai airport bookshop, I figured it's time to remedy this.

406 pages later, am I better informed ? Quite definitely yes.

Peter Mansfield covers the region's history from ancient times all the way to the present (or at least to 2003 when this second edition was published) . I found his style to be knowledgeable and fairly well paced - though the narrative drags on a bit in places as he goes into considerable detail. But to be fair, it is this detail that made the book worthwhile for me as it highlights the personalities, events, and circumstances that shaped the destinies of regions like Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and more.

And what a story it is.

Hollywood drama, or best-selling thrillers cannot hold a candle to the fascinating twists and turns of real life events in this region. It is also a sobering story as one tries to absorb the sheer magnitude of factors and influences that impinge on the current state of affairs and contemplates what it might take to shed so much historical baggage and to bring a lasting peace that would be acceptable to all.

I particularly enjoyed the narrative from the eighties onwards as it delved into events that I faintly recall reading about in magazine articles at the time, but never really understood the significance of. Now, put in their true context they spring to life - and I had several Aha moments as pieces of the puzzle fell into place.

My review, I must admit, is that of a first time reader of this history, so I am in no position to comment on whether or not this account is biased in any way. But the general exposition seemed fairly well-balanced to me. The book even starts by emphasizing that the term "Middle East" itself is "Eurocentric" and that "the people of Indian subcontinent find it irritating. For them after all, the region is the 'Middle West'".

If you are genuinely curious about this part of the world, and really looking for historical perspectives to shed light on the world we live in today, then A History of the Middle East is definitely worth a read.

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