Eugene Rogan’s magisterial, though idiosyncratically selective, “The Arabs: A History” is a dense but worthwhile and illuminating read. Rogan, who spent his childhood in Beirut and Cairo, teaches at Oxford and is Director of the University’s Middle East Centre. He is a former student of Albert Hourani, whose seminal “History of the Arab Peoples,” published in 1993, this book successfully complements.
“The Arabs” is densely packed with facts and dates. It is a plum pudding of a book rather than a crème brulee; it took me about fifty percent longer to read than most books of comparable length. It is not, however, in any way tedious. The narrative has strong forward momentum and is organized (unlike Churchill’s celebrated Savoy pudding) around clear themes. While Rogan writes with a deadpan seriousness, he also enlivens his history with anecdotes (such as the story of the exasperated Algerian Pasha who could not resist striking the French Consul with his fly switch during a heated debate in 1827) and with quotations from contemporary diaries and memoirs. We thus hear directly from the likes of Budhari al Hallaq, an eighteenth century Damascus barber, Rifa’a al-Taktawi, an Egyptian imam who visited Paris in the early nineteenth century and was appalled to observe that “men are slaves to women here…whether they are pretty or not,” and Leila Khaled, a female Palestinian terrorist of the late 1960s.
Rogan begins his history in 1516 (the first example of his selectiveness), with the Ottoman conquest. He then divides Arab history into several phases: the Ottoman reign, the period of Western Colonial intervention, Arab Nationalism, the Cold War, the Rise of Oil, the emergence of Islamism, and the War on Terror. For the Arabs, Rogan observes, history has been one continuous “cycle of subordination to other people’s rules.” The colonial powers’ carve-up of the Arab map into ill-fitting states (especially the Jewish one) has had lasting consequences that will be difficult to untangle. This is his main theme, though he does recognize that “corrupt and authoritarian” indigenous regimes also play a role and that at some point Arabs need to assume greater responsibility for their own destiny if they are to overcome what Samir Kassir, the murdered Lebanese journalist, diagnosed as the “Arab malaise.”
Rogan is not merely selective in the period that he chooses to cover (two thirds of his book focuses on the twentieth century), he also dwells almost entirely on political and military history. There is little sociological exposition of who the “Arabs” are – what, for example, other than Islam and language, have Algerians in common with Syrians; there is little discussion of Arab society, the schism between Sunni and Shia, or indeed the nature of the tribal loyalties that we have witnessed in the recent conflicts in Iraq. The coverage of Saudi Arabia – surely a major factor not only in the region but in the world – is quite perfunctory as is that of Iran, which while not an Arab nation, is a major player – as much as some of the despised Western powers – in the region’s military and political balance and also demonstrates a prototype of the type of Islamic State which would likely appear, as Rogan asserts, if free and fair elections were held today. He does not extrapolate either on how his adverse cycle might be extended by the putative (or Putinative) resurgence of Russia, the emerging geopolitical projection of China, or even, possibly, of Turkey which is slowly re-engaging on the scene.
Does Rogan have an axe to grind? A critical examiner might argue that the tone of disapproval he applies to Israel and the United States (at least pre-Obama) is stronger than that which he directs at Arab strongmen and Palestinian terrorists (or “fighters” as he generally calls them), or that his distaste for British and French colonialism stands in contrast to his mild nostalgia for the Ottoman empire, but this is surely no partisan polemic. Rogan’s book is strongly fact-based, and he provides the reader with ample material and perspective from which to form his or her own judgment. It is part of his mission to explain the Arab point of view and he does this while upholding his professional objectivity.
If Rogan strikes any wrong note, it is surely in his conclusion. He claims to see grounds for hope, the “very beginnings of a virtuous circle.” This optimism is hardly supported by his portrait of precarious authoritarian regimes holding down the lid on latent Islamist takeovers, with outside powers continuing to toss banana skins into the mix and the Arabs themselves still subject to a sort of Al Sod’s law in their own efforts (witness the disaster of Dubai World). Nor is it consistent with his comment in his Introduction (admittedly some 500 pages previously) that “the Arab World views the future with growing pessimism.” This is especially true if one defines the goal, as Rogan does in his Epilogue, as “human rights and accountable government, security and economic growth.” Ha!
Arabs, The; Rogan, Eugene; Allan Lane; Penguin Press; £30.00