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What to read this summer about the Middle East

- June 29, 2016
The Aleppo, Syria, skyline on March 11. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

It’s time for my annual summer beach week reading suggestions, where I reach beyond the political science literature to recommend books about the Middle East that I found well-written, informative and engaging. I fear this year’s list may be a bit depressing. After all, between multiple civil wars and failed states, botched democratic transitions and military coups, proliferating jihadist movements and overwhelming refugee crisis, much of today’s Middle East can be a profoundly miserable place. If you don’t feel like reading books during your vacation about Syria’s devastation or refugees struggling to reach safety, this might not be the reading list for you. For those looking to gain deeper insights into the current political and cultural landscape of the Middle East this summer, I have some suggestions.

I am obligated by the standards of online self-promotion to humbly suggest that you check out my own new book, “The New Arab Wars: Anarchy and Uprising in the Middle East.” It sets out to explain the failure of the once-hopeful Arab transition, surveying the region’s turmoil from the tragedy of Egypt’s military coup to the killing fields of Syria, Libya and Yemen. Tracing the deep interconnections among these cases, it tells the story of how a genuine popular uprising for peaceful change was overtaken by a cynical war for power and survival by the region’s regimes. In other words, a perfect beach book.

A number of gripping new books have recently been published that evocatively describe the grim trajectory of Syria’s uprising and war. Robin Yassin-Kassab and Laila al-Shami’s “Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War explores how Syria’s peaceful uprising gave way to armed insurgency and sectarian jihad. They offer a sympathetic portrait of a heroic uprising gone wrong, describing in all too painful detail the transformations wrought by armed groups and Assad’s brutality. Given that Yassin-Kassab and I have argued for years over the question of arming the Syrian rebels, I was struck by how closely “Burning Country’s” narrative arc and analytical conclusions align with my book, especially its portrayal of the armed groups’ corrupting role on the uprising. This is an important, honest and insightful book, well worth anyone’s time.

Dovetailing closely with that narrative of a Syrian uprising transformed by armed groups and foreign Islamists is Samar Yazbek’s intensely personal “The Crossing: My Journey into the Shattered Heart of Syria.” Yazbek recounts her repeated visits back to Syria over the long years of war and her mounting horror over what her country has become. Her gripping account of communities changing before her eyes offers a granular sense of the corrosive power of these wars. The western journalist Janine Di Giovanni’s “The Morning They Came For Us” tells a similar story from an outsider’s perspective, providing devastating witness from the vantage point of a veteran war correspondent. Each of these three books offers a personal account of Syria that would enrich the understanding of general readers, political scientists and policymakers alike.

For those of a more theoretical bent, Samer Abboud’s “Syria” offers a short but analytically rich account of the new social and political realities shaped by insurgency. Placing the new Syria within the theoretical framework of wartime political orders developed by scholars of civil war economies and new wars, Abboud helps contextualize the personal experiences recounted in “Burning Country” and “The Crossing.” His book helps make sense of the war’s duration, brutality, rapidly shifting alliances and complex interactions among local and international forces. Read together or individually, these books help situate the Syrian war in all its human context and geopolitical stakes.

Patrick Kingsley’s “The New Odyssey: The Story of Europe’s Refugee Crisis” offers a deeply reported account of the unprecedented flow of refugees driven from Syria – and many other war-torn countries – into Europe. Embedding with smugglers and with refugees on the move, Kingsley gives a sympathetic and often damning portrayal of the extraordinary risks and efforts that so many refugees have taken to find a new life. He puts a human face on the hyper-politicized refugee crisis while conveying the magnitude of the crisis.

After all this important but heavy reading, two wonderful new books about Egypt might help lighten the mood. Marwan Kraidy’s “The Naked Blogger of Cairo: Creative Insurgency in the Arab World” is a deep dive into the cultural politics of the Arab uprisings. While the occasional theoretical jargon may at times be off-putting to the general reader, Kraidy’s sharp insights and rich descriptions of a new Arab generation’s irrepressible creative urges will amply reward the effort. Reading Kraidy’s accounts of the politically charted cultural gambits of wired Arab youth rekindles some of the seemingly lost spirit of the early days of the Arab uprisings and offers hope for the future.

So too does Jack Shenker’s “The Egyptians: A Radical Story,” a sweeping look at the long trajectory of popular mobilization, local battles and political conflict, transcending the travails of the Jan. 25, 2011, revolution and the July 3, 2013, military coup. His deeply sympathetic look at the long struggles of ordinary Egyptians, outside of the spotlight of Cairo’s activist class, gives substance to the view that the military coup cannot long suppress the restless energy of Egyptians.

While I rarely have time to read novels, I try to make an exception for the annual beach week reading list. Three novels and a memoir caught my eye this year. I have not yet read Hisham Matar’s memoir “The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between,” which is set to be released next week, but if the book lives up to his writings for The New Yorker, it will be an exceptional read on Libya.

Moving into fiction, Saleem Haddad’s novel “Guapa tells the riveting story of a young gay Arab man in an unnamed country grappling with his personal identity in the midst of political crisis. “Chronicle of a Last Summer” is a wonderfully observed novel of personal awakening and politics in Cairo by Yasmine el-Rashidi, who covered Egyptian politics brilliantly for The New York Review of Books. Finally, for those who prefer surrealistic political Egyptian dystopia, Basma Abdel Aziz’s “The Queue” will fit the bill.

While these books may not be the typical beach reading, none are dry academic tomes. All will help to humanize anyone’s understanding of Middle East politics and help remind us what – and who – is really at stake.