Eugene Rogan, ‘The Arabs: A History’

A combination of job searching during a pandemic and the lengthy nature of Eugene Rogan’s The Arabs: A History has meant that I haven’t posted in over a month. But I’ve got a few hours free on a Tuesday morning and I thought I would write some words on Rogan’s study of the Arab World given how much I enjoyed it. The Middle East, North Africa and the Arab states have always fascinated me, but my knowledge of each has generally been limited to isolated articles found on BBC News or in The Economist. To really grasp the geopolitical complexities and understand how the modern Middle East came to pass, I wanted to read a comprehensive investigation, one spanning multiple centuries, empires and states: this is how I stumbled across The Arabs: A History

One thing that immediately stands out upon reading the text is its scope. It begins in the outskirts of Aleppo in 1516 with the Mamluk sultan, al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghawri, preparing to fight (and be defeated by) the rising star of the region, the Ottoman Empire, and culminates with the popular uprisings associated with the Arab Spring. Although Rogan’s history is predominantly a modern one – the 16th– 18thcenturies are treated quite briskly – his narratives moves swiftly across different decades, events and regions in a manner that is coherent and nods towards a ‘bigger picture’. Certain nations take centre stage – Egypt, Syria, Israel – but this is because they represent the major diplomatic and military players across the study. 

While Rogan occasionally digresses to celebrate Arab culture and achievement, his story of the Arab world is ultimately marked by unfulfilled dreams and struggle. The Israel-Palestine conflict is afforded the most attention in the book. It develops into a multi-faceted symbol that represents the failure of the Arab states to work together in order to stifle the influence of foreign powers. Other key themes include: sectarian conflict; pan-Arabism; the failings of secular nationalist governments; and the legacy of colonialism. Overall, then, it is a tale of determined rebellion and desire for self-rule, Arab unity but also disparity. 

“The Arab people are haunted by a sense of powerlessness . . . powerlessness to suppress the feeling that you are no more than a lowly pawn on the global chessboard even as the game is being played in your backyard. Unable to achieve their aims in the modern world, the Arabs see themselves as pawns in the game of nations, forced to play by other peoples’ rules”.

Light is shed not only central political figures – the likes of Yasser Arafat of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and General Nasser of Egypt – but everyday people inhabiting the towns and cities that constitute the Arab world. So, we hear of Ahmad al-Bayari ‘al-Hallaq (the Barber of Damascus) and study his diary, gaining his perspective on public morality and the strength of the Ottoman Empire in the mid 18thcentury. And we listen to the voices of women who risked their lives to shelter PLO members, and academics prompted to flee their homes for fear of retribution after criticising domestic regimes. 

The Arabs: A History is written in an accessible style that wouldn’t deter even the most inexperienced student of the Arab World. It is also a sympathetic and fair account of happenings in the region, with great impartiality shown towards the Palestine-Israeli conflict, and rightful criticism directed towards global superpowers like the US, Britain, France and Russia for their (often) miscalculated dealings in the Middle East. 

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.