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A Middle East 'Reading List' Chosen By Our Experts


Here is a Middle East reading list culled from recommendations of Washington Institute experts that will help make purgatory an educational experience.

You may be familiar with some of these titles; many will be new to you (as they are to me), especially the novels. Some are classics but many are hot off the press. I suggest you vary your reading, between topics you already know well but want to know better and topics that stretch your comfort zone in new directions.

This is not an exhaustive list, of course. But there is more than enough here to get you started. (Every book cited is linked directly to its Amazon listing so you can learn more about it and to simplify ordering.)

Don't miss our additional recommendations of Middle East-related films, documentaries and television shows from our TWI experts!

- Robert Satloff, Executive Director and Howard P. Berkowitz Chair in U.S. Middle East Policy

Outstanding fiction on or from the Middle East

Etel Adnan, Sitt Marie Rose: this classic of war literature and winner of the France-Pays Arabes Award in Paris is the story of a woman abducted by militiamen during the Lebanese civil war.

Jokha Alharthi, Celestial Bodies: the first novel originally written in Arabic to ever win the Man Booker International Prize, and the first book by a female Omani author to be translated into English, a beautiful novel of daily life in a changing Oman

Sinan Antoon, The Corpse Washer: celebrated in the Arab world for its vivid portrait of Iraq, this heartbreaking novel confronts the war-torn nation’s horrifying recent history.

Iman Humaydan and others, Beirut Noir: this collection of short stories by a number of Lebanese writers tells the story of Beirut, a city of contradiction and paradox, violence and forgiveness, memory and forgetfulness.

Sayed Kashua, Second Person Singular: A great novelistic exploration of middle-class Israeli Arab life, especially timely, given the growing role of Israeli Arabs in national politics.

Phil Klay, Redeployment: short stories by an Iraq war veteran. Recommended as the best of the Iraq war fiction genre.

Kanan Makiye, The Rope: A Novel:  perhaps the only English-language novel that describes how/why some Iraqi Shia joined militia groups during the time of the U.S. occupation, wrapped in an easily-understandable narrative.

Shahad al-Rawi, The Baghdad Clock: winner of the Edinburgh First Book Award, this is a heart-rending tale of two girls growing up in war-torn Baghdad.

Boualem Sansal, The German Mujahid: this provocative, riveting saga of totalitarianism then and now lives at the intersection of Nazism in the 1940s and the violent jihadism that plagued Algeria in the 1990s.

Elif Shafak, The Bastard of Istanbul: an Armenian-American living in San Francisco transports back to the genocide that defined her identity.

Meir Shalev, A Pigeon and a Boy: a mesmerizing tale of two love stories separated by a half-century, born in the 1948 war that gave birth to Israel.

Hanan al-Shaykh, The Locust and the Bird: My Mother’s Story: perhaps the Arab world’s greatest living female writer, al-Shaykh – born into a conservative Shia Lebanese family – recreates the dramatic life and times of her mother Kamila.

On contemporary Middle East politics and society

Fouad Ajami, Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation's Odyssey: a compelling account of how a generation of Arab intellectuals tried to introduce cultural renewals in their homelands through the forces of modernity and secularism only to face disappointment, exile, and, on occasion, death.

Joumana Haddad, Superman Is an Arab: On God, Marriage, Macho Men and Other Disastrous Inventions: examining the patriarchal system that continues to dominate in the Arab world, Haddad reflects upon the vital need for a new masculinity in these times of revolution and change in the Middle East.

Robert Worth, A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, from Tahrir Square to ISIS: excellent overview of the Arab “Spring” and what it wrought.

Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins, The Nuclear Jihadist: The True Story of the Man Who Sold the World's Most Dangerous Secrets...And How We Could Have Stopped Him: revealing portrait of Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan and the terrible threat of nuclear proliferation.

Ramita Navai, City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death, and the Search for Truth in Tehran: an intimate portrait of Iran’s capital city, where survival depends on an intricate network of falsehoods.

Ben Hubbard, MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammad Bin Salman: a new (and not flattering) assessment of the brash, ambitious, rules-breaking prince who is upending Saudi life and society, producing real if uncertain change.

Sam Dagher, Assad or We Burn the Country: How One Family's Lust for Power Destroyed Syria: By drawing on his own reporting experience in Damascus, Dagher takes readers within palace walls to reveal the family behind the destruction of a country and the chaos of an entire region.

Frederic Wehrey, The Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for a New Libya: the most readable book on the uprising against Moammar Qadhafi and its aftermath.

Kim Ghattas, Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East: This new book details the cross-Gulf, intra-Muslim clash between Riyadh and Tehran that has defined Middle East politics for a generation.

Cemil Aydin, The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History: The world’s 1.5 billion Muslims don’t constitute a single religio-political entity, but why do so many believe that’s true? In this important book, a professor of history searches for the intellectual origins of a mistaken notion and explains its enduring allure for non-Muslims and Muslims alike.

Grant Rumley and Amir Tibon, The Last Palestinian: The Rise and Reign of Mahmoud Abbas: Palestinian politics get a lot of headline space but very few accessible book-length treatments by experts who know their stuff. This is an exception.

On America and the Middle East

Kai Bird, The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames: compelling portrait of the remarkable life and death of one of the most important operatives in CIA history and an accomplished “Middle East hand” by a Pulitzer Prize-winning  biographer.

William Burns, The Back Channel: a new memoir by the former deputy secretary of state and longtime Middle East expert (as well as former ambassador to Russia and current president of the Carnegie Endowment) that elevates the genre because it draws on numerous declassified documents from his time in office.

David Crist, The Twilight War: The Secret History of America's Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran: an eye-opening look at a generation of often-violent competition between Washington and Tehran by an historian (and former Washington Institute visiting fellow) who currently serves as an advisor at U.S. Central Command.

Jay Solomon, The Iran Wars: Spy Games, Bank Battles, and the Secret Deals That Reshaped the Middle East: in this fast-paced account, an accomplished journalist (and a former TWI visiting fellow) takes us deep inside the Bush and Obama administration’s contest with Iran, leading to the negotiation of the Iran nuclear deal.

Jerold S. Auerbach, Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism, and Israel, 1896-2016: a Wellesley historian plows through more than a century of the Gray Lady’s Middle East reportage to demonstrate its infamous bias. (An essential companion to Laurel Leff’s Buried by the Times, on how the paper botched its coverage of the Holocaust).

On terrorism and the fight against it

Matthew Levitt, Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon's Party of God: a TWI senior fellow and former FBI/Treasury official’s definitive look at the international activities of a group that has killed more Americans than any terrorist organization except al-Qaeda.

Aaron Y. Zelin, Your Sons Are at Your Service: Tunisia's Missionaries of Jihad: how did sleepy Tunisia become the source of an enormous number of jihadi “foreign fighters” in ISIS’ takeover of eastern Syria and western Iraq? In this new book, TWI’s own Richard Borow fellow takes a deep dive at this fascinating question.

Omar Nasiri, Inside the Jihad: My Life with Al Qaeda: a double agent who worked for French and British intelligence while infiltrating jihadi networks in Europe and Afghanistan in the years running up to the 9/11 attacks tells his story.

Thomas Heggehammer, Caravan: Abdullah Azzam and the Rise of Global Jihad: a long, detailed but excellent read on the Palestinian who gave birth to al-Qaeda, ISIS and the emergence of Sunni jihadism.

Yaroslav Trofimov, Siege of Mecca: Forgotten Uprising in Islam’s Holiest Shrine: the first winner of TWI’s prestigious book prize reminds us of the jihadist shot heard round the world, the takeover of the Mecca mosque that was the opening salvo in the Sunni extremists’ war on the status quo.

Farah Pandith, How We Win: How Cutting-Edge Entrepreneurs, Political Visionaries, Enlightened Business Leaders, and Social Media Mavens Can Defeat the Extremist Threat: the title says it all! A veteran of both the Bush and Obama administrations offers practical solutions to the great battle of ideas against Islamist extremism.

On Middle East history

Bernard Lewis, The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years: Read any Lewis book and you will be smarter for the effort. This is a great place to start.

David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East: a classic telling of the larger-than-life story that made the map of the modern Middle East.

James Barr, Lords of the Desert: The Battle Between the United States and Great Britain for Supremacy in the Modern Middle East: debunks the notion that Nasser’s Arab Nationalism evicted Britain from the Middle East; it was American policy, he argues.

Amin Maalouf, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes: how and why the memory of this greatest and most enduring victory ever won by a non-European society against the West still lives in the minds of millions of Arabs today.

Caroline Finkel, Osman's Dream: The History of the Ottoman Empire: a very informative, if a bit dense, review of the 400-year empire that controlled the Middle East, full of new scholarship and insight.

Yoav Alon, The Shaykh of Shaykhs: Mithqal al-Fayiz and Tribal Leadership in Modern Jordan: a bit niche but a well-written history of early Jordan as seen through the life of a leading tribal sheikh, filled with enough anecdotes about such fascinating topics as tribal relations with early Zionists and navigating the Hashemite-Saudi feud to keep it interesting.

Martin Kramer, The War on Error: Israel, Islam and the Middle East: an outstanding historian (and TWI visiting scholar) takes aim at bad scholarship and bad reporting that worms its way into conventional wisdom. An invaluable corrective to much that passes for expertise.

On Russia – the Middle East’s new wildcard

Steven Lee Myers, The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin: a fascinating look at who Putin is, where he came from, what he wants and how he acquired the immense power he wields today.

Arkady Ostrovsky, The Invention of Russia: The Rise of Putin and the Age of Fake News: how did Russia go from glasnost, perestroika and the heady days of Yeltsin’s democratic experiment to the authoritarian, kleptocracy under which it suffers today.

On Turkey

Soner Cagaptay, Erdogan's Empire: Turkey and the Politics of the Middle East: the third of a trilogy of outstanding books on Turkey’s ambitious sultan-du-jour by the director of TWI’s Turkish research program.
Andrew Mango, Ataturk: The Biography of the founder of Modern Turkey: an antidote to Erdoganism. A classic.

On Israel

Dennis Ross and David Makovsky, Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel's Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny: outstanding new book by TWI experts that describes four leaders – Ben Gurion, Begin, Rabin and Sharon – whose decisions, some decades old, still define the contours of Israeli politics, society and national security decision-making.

Daniel Gordis, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn: an excellent, sympathetic introduction to understanding modern Israel.

Tom Segev, A State at Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion: an admiring treatment of Israel’s George Washington by a prominent former critic.

Matti Friedman, Spies of No Country; Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel: the riveting story of Jews from Arab lands who came to mandate Palestine, where pre-state Zionist intelligence then recruited them to go back as spies.

Shimon Peres, No Room for Small Dreams: Courage, Imagination, and the Making of Modern Israel: though he was never a big victor at the ballot box, this last of Israel’s founders certainly thought big, from nuclear weapons to nanotechnology to regional cooperation.

Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness: a beautifully written, often agonizing autobiographical novel of the author’s childhood during Israel’s early years, over 500 pages but hard to put down.

Micah Goodman, Catch-67: The Left, the Right, and the Legacy of the Six-Day War: a balanced, informed, even pained account of the complicated legacy of Israel's near-miraculous victory in 1967.

Ronen Bergman, Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations: the definitive history of how Israel’s security agencies defended the state by executing its most vicious enemies.

Yossi Klein Halevi, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor: a leading Israeli public intellectual extends an outreached hand to Palestinians, explaining himself and appreciating the other.

Yaakov Katz, Shadow Strike: Inside Israel’s Secret Mission to Eliminate Syrian Nuclear Power: it’s amazing just how much information this Jerusalem Post editor collected on one of Israel’s most secretive operations: its discovery and 2007 bombing of Syria’s al-Kibar nuclear reactor, then under construction.