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Thursday, December 22, 2016

“A Concise History of the Middle East”, by Arthur Goldschmidt Jr., Lawrence Davidson

576 pages, Westview Press, ISBN-13: 978-0813342757

Be warned: while A Concise History of the Middle East is an extremely readable textbook by Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr. and Lawrence Davidson, it is still a textbook, NOT a popular history intended for a wide audience. While dry and unexciting at best, what this book is best at is background…and it certainly is a rich background, one that I knew little of before. In clear and descriptive (though still rather academic) language, the authors describe the Middle East both before and after Muhammad and the basic beliefs of Islam, describes the early Arab conquests and the differences between the many Islamic sects, the rise and fall of the various Islamic empires, the roles of European interests and Westernizing influences on the region, an excellent understanding of the various the countries of the region and their shifting borders, and finally brings us up to date on the causes and conflicts of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Gulf War (this is the eight edition, published in 2005).

The first half of the book, detailing the birth, spread and rise of non-Arab empires (the Mongol, Safavid and Ottoman empires) is a bit rushed; I wish greater attention was given the intellectual achievements of the era, but as the title states, it is a concise history. The book really hits its stride mid-way through, as Goldschmidt and Davidson discuss the politics of the Middle East in the 20th Century. The reasons behind Middle Eastern anti-Westernism are complicated, with the intersecting web of resentments, issues, past slights and misinterpretations being difficult to clearly explain. In a little over 100 pages, however, the main points are well laid out, and provide a solid foundation for further study. To summarize: the European “mandate system”, driven by British and French imperial designs in the region, in addition to the cultural and economic disparities between urban and rural parts of the Middle East and competing visions among Arabs themselves of what the region should look like (particularly a “pan-Arab” nation led by…whom? Egypt? Syria?) and missteps by the United States – added to, in my view, the inability of Arabs today to get over slights from centuries ago – all conspired to create a wide variety of competing and often hostile camps that perpetuate instability to this day. I was particularly impressed with Goldschmidt and Davidson history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and its relation to Arab power politics between Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The perspectives and attitudes between nations and their leaders were clearly and concisely laid out. In my view, this was the real strength of the book.

However, there are causes for misgivings. As a textbook it suffers by arguing with previous, unnamed historians about interpretations of certain events; without any clear references, these arguments add little to the narrative. Also, the authors mar the overall subject by maintaining a multiculturalist view of the Mideast; while Islam and Arabs did indeed produce marvelous science, mathematics, and philosophy, the authors continually extoll these over the accomplishments of Western Civilization. This bias isn’t merely a matter of viewpoint, but a conscious effort on the part of the authors to denigrate the accomplishments of the West in favor of those from the Mideast. This presentation, especially when dealing with current politics, turns a blind side to real understanding of contemporary events. Still and all, A Concise History of the Middle East is perhaps the most effective book you will find to learn about the Middle East. It is well written, concise (considering the breadth of time and geography covered), and informative, and makes a good starting point for anyone interested about the Middle East and Central Asia.

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