The Arabs: A History

Nelida Fuccaro reads an accomplished narrative of five centuries of Arab history

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The Arabs: A History
Author: Eugene Rogan
Publisher: Penguin
Reviewed by: Nelida Fuccaro
Price (RRP): £12.99

That the Arabs form a cultural and historical unit from Morocco to the Persian Gulf is one of the main premises of this eloquent grand narrative of optimism and despair. Covering 500 years to the present, Rogan’s book traces the vicissitudes of the Arab peoples as subjects of history, imaginary (and imagined) nation and fragmented political community.

A number of themes familiar to Arab history are rehearsed. Arab resistance to outside interference and national sentiment feature as key elements propelling the Arabs into the modern world.

At the same time Dr Rogan demonstrates that the history of empire and nation state in the region is ultimately predicated upon divide and rule: before the First World War when much of the region was under the control of the Ottoman empire based in Istanbul; in the inter-war period as Britain and France became the Arabs’ colonial masters; and during the Cold War which transformed the region into the theatre of often bloody proxy wars between the two superpowers.

In the present age of Islamic activism, oil wealth and popular resurgence, the same trend can be observed when considering US attention on Saudi Arabia and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf.   

Rogan’s book is evocative, timely and illuminating for the general reader. The individual Arab voices that he uses to structure the narrative – ordinary people, intellectuals, activists and political leaders – provide a much needed insider perspective, which nuances stereotypical images of the Arab world in the media.

Moreover, The Arabs discloses unfamiliar and unsettling truths on the vexed and often over-simplified relationship between the Arab world and its historical ‘others’, Europe, the west and Israel.

Compelling as it is in its own right, this is indeed food for thought also for its relevance to world affairs at large.

Nelida Fuccaro, reader in the modern history of the Middle East, SOAS, University of London

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