Top Ten Books for Beginners on the Middle East

The Middle Eastern conflicts are protracted, complex and interwoven. For a newcomer on any topic, the names, cities, countries and histories of the peoples and regions can be mind-boggling at first. Somedays I still find myself mulling over how much I still have to learn and how much I still do not know about the Middle East and the particular frustrations of remembering names, the innumerable characters and diverse ideologies driving the region.  When Islamic State established a caliphate in 2014, I began to shift my interests and writing from Africa to the Middle East. The pieces at first, were embarrassingly simple, black and white and did not understand many of the subtleties and nuances of the geo-politics and cultural factors shaping the battlefields. However with time, I became hooked on the multi-generational conflict for the Greater Middle East. 

There are many books which I have read over the past five years on the Middle East and these key books are the ones which have given me a solid introduction to the region and the people who live and breath the historical events unfolding from the First World War to the Arab-Israeli conflicts to 9/11 to the Arab Uprisings in 2011. War diaries, war journalism, academic writing, interviews, secret documents, carefully crafted research and decades of dedication to their subject matter, the choices below offer a different range of perspectives on the causes of the cycle of violence, the politics and history of the Middle East.  

Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East


The Syrian War is tearing the Middle East apart and shattered millions of ordinary lives. However, assessing the current violence in Syria is difficult. Veteran journalists, including Patrick Cockburn and Robert Fisk, have described the carnage as one of the most difficult conflicts to accurately understand and report on as Bashar al-Asad and his loyalist wage war on the people of Syria and the diverse range of rebels arrayed against the government.  Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East takes the reader back into Syria's chaotic 20th century history and the rise of the Asad family.

Untainted by the events of 9/11 or Syria's civil war, the story of Bashar's father, Hafez al-Asad tracks his rise to power and how key ideologies, events and a wide-range of rich characters shaped his views.  Patrick Seale's book is a page-turner covering historical events including the humiliation of the Six Day War, the rise and fall of Abdel Nasser, the thrilling Yom Kippur War (arguably the world's deadliest moment since the Cuban Missile Crisis), the brutality of Lebanon's war, President Asad's confrontation with Israel and ultimately his confrontation the Western powers. It is engaging, fair, well-researched and, most importantly, offers a different perspective detached from the mainstream media and books being currently released in the maelstrom of a divisive and savage war. 


The 9/11 Wars


9/11 is not the definitive event which shapes the Middle East. However the most devastating suicide bombings in history acted as a catalyst for a region already in turmoil. New wars began, old conflicts and feuds reignited. In The 9/11 Wars, Jason Burke weaves together the conflicts between 2001 and 2010 which have impacted millions of lives across the planet. 

The systematic and methodical programs of detention and torture the United States unleashed on countless civilians at black sites, secret prisons and off-shore sites beyond the standard narrative of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay are particularly chilling. These events alongside the violence of the insurgents utilising suicide bombs and viral internet videos to broadcast their violence compounds the brutal, dark and twisted nature of modern warfare and "The Global War on Terror".  

Similar to Bacevich's work, Burke's analysis is balanced, well-sourced and a very well-written book. The intimate details and the perspectives of fighters and soldiers involved in these wars brings history to life as the theatres of war shift from Tora Bora in Afghanistan to the cities of Baghdad, Falluja and Najaf to the very streets of Europe. It is one of the world's most extended and bizarre global wars. Burke's work will prove invaluable to future generations looking to understand the consequences of 9/11 from an overarching, interconnected angle.

 America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military history


The United States' confrontation with the Arab Middle East and the Islamic world is a well-documented tragedy. Andrew J. Bacevich's assessment of U.S presence in the region is grim. The most significant accomplishment of this work is how it ties all the wars into a single multi-generational war for the region and carefully delves into the eighteen countries in which the United States has operated and the impact its military policies have had. 

From the Iranian Revolution of 1979 to the Siege of Mosul (2016 - current), Bacevich's narrative describes four decades of ineffective policymaking and military preferences over political, social and economic resolutions. From Mogadishu to Baghdad to Kabul, the author tells a depressing story of how the world's strongest military has consistently met failure at almost every turn in its attempt to pacify and shape the Middle East. The various architects of American policy and its catastrophic adventurism have produced grave consequences for the region and undermined America's own national security. It is well-researched, written simply and addresses the issues with passion and authority. 

Cursed victory: A History of Israel and the Occupied Territories

Dr. Ahron Bregman's book is invaluable for the secret documents and primary sources available to the reader. Cursed Victory details the nature of the occupation the Israelis have established over the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza since their stunning victory in the 1967 War. A large portion of the book is also dedicated to analysing the diplomacy which shaped the Middle Eastern Peace Process. 

The Palestinians have missed critical opportunities to form a state, particularly under the leadership of Yasser Arafat. However, Dr. Bregman does not shy from describing the draconian nature of the occupiers, the systematic settlement project eating away into the peace process as much as Palestinian land, and the precision of the Israeli military administration in establishing control from the moment it seized what remained of Palestinian territory in 1967. Considerable focus is also given to the question of the occupied Golan Heights and the process which led to a peace between Israel and Egypt in the 1970s and 1980s. Detailed, well thought-out and straight-forward and as a former Israeli soldier who fought in Lebanon, Mr Bregman knows his subject first-hand.

Salafi-jihādism: The History of an Idea

Salafi-jihādism: The History of an Idea is a treasure, albeit a frustrating one at times.  In many ways, it reminded me of my own thesis on Pan-Asianism: The History of an Idea when it became clear very quickly that Pan-Asianism, as with the roots of Salafi jihādism, has no singular source. Salafi-jihādism is a complex and misunderstood ideology which has sparked fierce debates within the movement between quietists, activists and violent groups. 

Pan-Asianism combined with Japanese Shinto-ultranationalism produced toxic results across Asia during the 1930s and 1940s. While different ideologies, similar results have occurred within the Salafi movement which has been moulded by a diverse range of historical and contemporary developments. The invasion of the Mongols, anti-colonial movements in India, the rise of Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab in Saudi Arabia, the 2003 Iraq War, and the complexity of modern warfare from the Balkans to the Arab Middle East to Central Asia have all played significant roles in nurturing the ultra-violent doctrine of organisations such as Al-Qa'ida and Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi's hybrid, Islamic State. The frustration, at times, lay in the difficultly of grappling with the complex terminology and the one fault I had with the book is that the writing style is too academic for its own good sometimes.

However, the book offered a challenge in a fantastic way. It delves deeply into the historical currents, ideologies and conflicts which have helped shaped militant Salafi-jihādism and explains the religious dimensions which shape jihādi thinking. Its main focus investigates the Salafi interpretation of the Islamic faith and the core themes such as jihād, takfir, al-walā' wa-l-barā, kufrtawhīd and the laws of equal retaliation. This was a refreshing reprieve from the strategy and tactics of violent jihādist organisations and their formation usually investigated by think tanks. The strength of Shiraz Maher's book is that he analyses Salafi-jihādism as a revolution and as an idea, not through the often distracting and divisive lens of terrorism. It is an objective and focused book and remains undistracted by the noise surrounding one of the most divisive and fascinating socio-political movements of the modern era. Read Salafi-jihādism slowly and re-read a second time (perhaps a third time) afterwards. 

The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World

Books on the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict tend to reflect the prejudices of the author more than they show what actually happened. However this book, although not perfect, is the closest thing I have read to a balanced view of the conflict.

This book is a comprehensive diplomatic account of the conflict that covers the period before the foundation of the state of Israel through to the 2008-2009 Gaza War. Shlaim believes in a two state solution to the conflict, and this comes across in his writing. He criticises both Israel and the Arab states when they squandered opportunities.In the 1920s, hard-line Zionists developed the doctrine of the 'Iron Wall': negotiations with the Arabs must always be from a position of military strength, and only when sufficiently strong Israel would be able to make peace with her Arab neighbours. This doctrine, argues Avi Shlaim, became central to Israeli policy; dissenters were marginalized and many opportunities to reconcile with Palestinian Arabs were lost. Drawing on a great deal of new material and interviews with many key participants, Shlaim places Israel's political and military actions under and uncompromising lens.

His analysis will bring scant comfort to partisans on both sides, but it will be required reading for anyone interested in this fascinating and troubled region of the world. A lengthy read, The Iron Wall is a sound, comprehensive analysis of the creation of the state of Israel within a historic and political context. But he goes further than that. He presents his views and criticises where necessary both the Israel politicians and the state. The use of language is understandable and simple. This enables the reader to focus on the content and avoid unnecessary complexity.



Pity the Nation is Robert Fisk's masterpiece. From the vicious militia wars of the 1970s, the dramatic invasion and occupation of Lebanon by the Israeli military through to the massacre at Qana in 1996 during Operation Grapes of Wrath, reading Pity the Nation requires patience and requires several sittings to complete. It is not just a history of Lebanon, but of the modern Middle East. It is a gritty yet immersive tale of the nature of war and a must read for anyone who wishes to understand the dynamics of the modern Middle East.

The beauty of the country is matched by Lebanon's descent into madness. In intimate and grotesque detail, the price exacted on participants, be they civilian, soldier, politician, journalist or militiaman, is bloody and damning. When this is combined with a gripping story spanning three decades with historical context, the narrative makes for a rewarding and enriching blend of history, drama, and war reportage. This read is not for the faint-hearted. Its detail of the violence and aftermath of it, is shocking and paints a harrowing picture of war. However, the passion and meticulous details of Fisk's life in Lebanon draws the reader into this compelling country and its history.

The Age of Jihad: Islamic State and The Great War for the Middle East


Patrick Cockburn's war diaries are an important chronology of events across the region stretching from the 1990s through to the current violence and Arab uprisings reshaping the Middle Eastern order. 

The diaries are broken up by contemporary reflections on what Cockburn experienced and what he believes happened during his time in the field covering the various conflicts. These are particular useful extracts and the book is structured to explain his thoughts on each conflict separately.

However, throughout he is careful to link the interconnected conflicts and his assessment of the seemingly permanent nature of the wars tearing apart eight Muslim countries is sharp. Cockburn writing style simplifies complex material in an effective way for readers. Throughout, the ineptitude of Western policymaking is laid bare, the repeated failures of military and political forces in Europe and the United States are identified with clarity and the devastating impact the wars in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya have had on civilians is horrifying. Many of the errors made by the West has been driven by the inability of governments to understand what the current conflicts are all about. The internal failures of Arab governments is also carefully analysed. 

This is to a major extent the result of wholly inadequate intelligence and an ignorance of historical factors driving the Middle Eastern Wars.  A perspective on the Russian intervention and Iran's role in the crisis would have been useful, but overall it is a somber and important read on the 'Somalianisation' and 'Lebanonisation' of the Middle East. 

Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS


With the sheer volume of books being released on ISIS, the authorship of Joby Warrick has thus far proven to be my favourite account of the rise of ISIS. For beginners, this is an immersive and positively thrilling account into the life and times of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who, along with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, helped create the foundations of the terror group, Islamic State.

His death has not brought peace to Iraq. If anything, Zarqwism is thriving in the Middle East and the roots of Islamic State's brutality were founded upon his extremely violent interpretation of Pan-Islamism and Salafi-jihādism. His rise from anonymity as a petty criminal in a Jordanian prison to leader of a major jihadist sub-cell in the Iraq War is brought together in a compelling narrative by Joby Warrick. The focus on Jordan and its role in the "Global War on Terror" as supposed to the standard actors associated with militant Islamism offers a new perspective to readers. Drawing on unique access to CIA and Jordanian sources, Warrick brings together heart-pounding, moment-by-moment operational details with overarching historical perspectives to reveal the long trajectory of one of today's most dangerous extremist threats. 

Muqtada al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq


Joby Warrick's book on Zarqawi focuses on how Zarqawism became the crucible for Salafi-jihādism and Sunni militancy in Iraq. At the other end of the spectrum is Patrick Cockburn's analysis of the Sh'ia of Iraq and the Sadr family from the Iran-Iraq War, through the ruthless suppression of the Sh'ia community under Saddam Hussein, the horrific crushing of the Iraqi uprising in 1991 and the occupation of Iraq by the Bush administration.  It is an invaluable and focused account of the Sh'ia's moment in Iraq and the Middle East. The author is quick to dismiss the narrative of Muqtada al-Sadr as a firebrand cleric, a misplaced perception conjured by mainstream media in the West. From Cockburn's work emerges a sharp, shrewd, conservative and careful politician who is critical to Iraq's future. 

The breakdown of intra-Sh'ia relations and the divisions between the working class and upper echelons of Sh'ia society are critical for also understanding the divisions within Sunni and Kurdish communities in Iraq. The monolithic nature in which many understand sectarian divisions in Iraq have led to misplaced policy-making. The picture Cockburn is one which is anything but black and white. Based on the complex nature of Sh'ia politics, let alone Iraqi politics, it is little wonder American and British soldiers found themselves sandwiched between multiple insurgencies and with few allies to be found on the Euphrates. A concise and brilliant book.