Saturday, February 27, 2010

Eugene Rogan,The Arabs: A History. A Critical Review.

I have been looking forward to this book by Rogan (seen above, to the left). Really. I like the sweeping histories of the Middle East--when they are good. I am still biased: I am not ashamed to admit that I like and enjoy Philip Hitti's classic. That volume is a work of art: the man read all that was available in every language and distilled the best nuggets. And with the pen, Hitti was an artist, methodological problems aside. Hitti's book has not been surpassed since, in my judgement. I also am a fan of Ira Lapidus' History of Islamic Societies. It is a majestic work: covering so much (too much perhaps) but meticulously researched and organized. I remember when Albert Hourani told us about his impending work on the history of the Arabs: I was most eager to read it. But was mightily disappointed when it came out. I felt it was rushed and casually assembled. It was probably least impressive of Hourani's work, and even lacked his captivating style. I can go on and on (I like the brief book on the Arabs by Maxime Rodinson but I like everything by Maxime Rodinson). Let us get to this one. I ordered it and carefully devoured it. Let me say some nice things about it before I begin. Rogan is a good writer: I like how he writes and he knows how to keep the reader interested. I also like the effort: that he wanted to write a book that could be of use by students. I like the ambition too. I also like that a book of this size does not have many errors: and that is rare. There are very few errors in the book (like referring to King Faysal as "committed Arab nationalist" (p. 367) when in reality he was a fierce opponent of Arab nationalism and proposed the Islamic bond instead: that is a major mistake I would say, or that Prince Nawwaf is a Minister of Interior (p. 448) when Prince Nayif held that position for decades, while Nawwaf was head of foreign intelligence until his "accident" in th Phoenicia Hotel suite in Beirut, when he was replaced with Prince Muqrin; his account of the `Ayn Rummanah massacre is largely derived from the official Phalanges account and does not conform to the official state account presented by then prime minister Rashid Sulh: there is no evidence that Pierre Gemayyel survived an assassination attempt that day (p. 382).) I like the selection of the pictures although there was much that was violent and destructive in some of them. But that may be about it, pretty much. The problem begins with the introduction. I was so annoyed by the introduction that I was determined that it not affect me reading of the book. Rogan, perhaps seeing something in the news and deciding to make his reader interested, decided to focus on Rafiq Hariri and the so-called Cedar Revolution. Now, to the problems.
1) The very first page of the book begins with an account--bizarrely--of Hariri's life and career. The account is fanciful, really. He has Hariri using his own money to fund reconstruction for Lebanon: I mean, not even Hariri family members make that claim, especially when Forbes estimates of wealth show Hariri's fortune more than quadrippling during Hariri's reign. And of all the Arab intellectuals who speak about Arab affairs, Rogan decided to pick Samir Qasir (a staunch Lebanese nationalist who was active in the Hariri-Cedar-Potato revolution before his assassination) as a voice of the ENTIRE Arab people. This is like when a Westerner picks a native who says what the Westerner wants to say about the native but is too afraid to say it in 2010. I mean, this is like when Fox News hosts blacks who speak about "backwardness" of blacks. Samir Qasir's little book cited by Rogan is an anthology of recycled cliches that can be found in the writings on the Middle East in any and every issue of Commentary magazine. Rogan is so impressed, for example, by this statement--that sums up the plight of the Arabs--by Qasir: "How did we become so stagnant? How has a living culture become so discredited and its members united in a cult of misery and death"? (P. 3) That impressed Rogan and he sets it as an introduction to his book. I braced myself although I must confess the introduction is worse than the rest. But at least, it gave me a clue as to the mindset of Rogan (a man I have never met, I must say).
2) The author decides that Arab history begins with the Ottoman control of the Middle East. Muhammad and Islam don't figure as part of the history of the Arabs and the author does not explain to us why he decided to write a book titled The Arabs: A History, that excludes, well, much of Islamic history. Unless the author is only interested in what is known as the age of decline. I do remember that Albert Hourani once told us that he heard Philip Hitti at his parents' house explaining that his history of the Arabs ended with the Ottoman because he did not believe that there was much history afterwards, so Rogan did the reverse.
3) the author with a bit of fanfare and flourish, promises the reader that he will rely on Arabic sources and accounts and criticizes others who did not do so. So I was looking forward to see what he will do in that regard only to find out that in fact, he did not really read that much Arabic sources and many of the Arab accounts' cited, were translated into English (Nawal Saadawi, Lina Mikdadi, Mikha'il Mashaqqash, Leila Khaled, Huda Shawrawi, and he even the famous account of Muhammad ibn Ahmad Ibn Iyas on the Ottoman conquest of Egypt is cited in translation.
4) The chapters are thinly researched. The author barely scratched the surface of research I feel. Each chapter is rather based on one source (in English) and supplemented by a memoir of an Arab published in English if available. He does not even get into the scholarly debates on the history of the period in question, not even in the footnotes. Does not use much of the published scholarly accounts in French or German or even English. One or two suffices, mostly memoirs. So if he is writing on the 1958 civil war in Lebanon, the memoirs of Sham`un suffices, or that of Kamal Jumblat for a later period.
5) The author is just awful when it comes to the French occupation of Algeria. I mean, the treatment of the Algerian war of independence in the chapter "The Decline of Arab nationalism" is pretty much pro-French. In this section, he was on France what Kershner-Bronner team is on Israel. For him, the French only killed in "reprisals" and in response, and only because the FLN dragged them into terrorism. He is very judgmental of the FLN when he was non-judgmental of the Israeli terror groups which he at one point refers to them as "resistance" groups. I am not saying that his treatment of the Arab-Israel conflict is bad: it is not, in fact, although he has that weakness toward King Husayn (or Khusayn, as Shimon Peres calls him) that his colleague at Oxford, Avi Shlaim, has, and he cites him in this regard.
6) The woman question is token and insulting. As if somebody told him that women were invisible in this book, so he ads token references to Nawal Saadawi's memoirs or Huda Shaarawi. It was more insulting that adequate, really.
7) This is not a people's history. This is an elite and palace history. Average regular Arabs, with their dreams and aspirations dont fit into the picture. He is interested in the higher level, although he makes that reference to the famous memoir of Al-Budayri (a barber in 18th century Damascus.
8) The class element also does not make it into the treatment. The classes are summed up by the ruling elite.
9) The story after the end of WWI, gets less interesting to read. He was much better at telling the story of Ottoman rule and control. Later, it became a typical blow-by-blow account of modern history with nothing new to add.
10) His views on Lebanon are shaped by the most right-wing versions of history of the civil war, and beyond.
11) He has no interest in ideas or in intellectual history. He has a chapter about Arab nationalism but it is rather superficial. He does not explain what the Ba`th is: he only translates its one motto. The story of Arab communism is barely told.
12) He is rather sympathetic to Western powers in their intervention in the Middle East. Again, when the British or French intervene in the Middle East, the story is told as if locals were engaged in a fight.
13) This may be unfair to say but I feel that he did not get to know Arabs or understand them, or be interested in understanding them. I compare that say to the book on the history of the Arabs by Peter Mansfield. Mansfield clearly got to know and understand Arabs. Rogan talks about them from a distance: and that is quite a handicap in a book of this kind.
14) Like he Lawrence of Arabia syndrome in Western culture, he has the habit of throwing in a Westerner into the story, to make it more palatable to the Western reader. The natives are not interesting in themselves.
15) There is no feel for culture of the Arabs in the book. Nothing about their music, literature, and cuisine. Philip Hitti always talked about Arab love for poetry, for example. It is not that Rogan ignored it; I get the feeling that he did not know about it. I mean, not even a passing reference to Umm Kulthum?
16) There is no passion by the author: you don't feel he is moved by struggles for equality, liberation, or justice. It is written with the passion of a government bureaucrat writing a memo.
17) Islam is not probed or even understood in a book of this size and this scope.

If you were to ask me, I would still tell you to read the little book on the Arabs by Rodinson, and the classic by Hitti. I would even recommend the very dated Karl Brockelmann's History of the Islamic Peoples.