Ask A Librarian: A Brief and Incomplete History of the Middle East

Recently, a friend asked me for books, preferably fiction, to help her understand the history of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I don’t think I can adequately cover that subject (ever, it’s just so big), but I can offer some suggestions regarding Israel, Palestine, Syria, and the changing face of the Middle East. I do want to offer a caveat that I had a hard time finding books by Arab authors, but I tried to include what I could. I also wanted to try to avoid books that came off as rabidly pro– or anti–Israel. I couldn’t find any fiction, but I did find some non–fiction that can hopefully offer some insight into what’s going on in an area that’s often misunderstood or underestimated.

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The Middle East in General:

Before you read any books, read up on the Sykes–Picot Agreement (the secret 1916 agreement over the division of the Ottoman Empire between Britain and France) and the Balfour Declaration of 1917 (when the British government endorsed the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine). I don’t think any discussion can be pursued without understanding the European political scheming that went on in the early 20th century.

Orientalism – Edward Said. This 1979 critique and examination of how the West views the Middle East is invaluable, exploring how our views of the region are inexplicably wrapped up in othering and imperialism. It’s not an easy read, but it’s important. Said is one of the great cultural critics for Palestine, coming from the unique place of a Palestinian and an American academic at Columbia University.

The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You A Happy Birthday – Neil MacFarquhar. The author grew up in Libya and was the New York Times’ Cairo bureau chief for years. In this, he documents his encounters with people across the Islamic Middle East, from an Egyptian photographer looking for a fatwa to accommodate his needs to a woman who is a well-known Kuwaiti sex advice columnist. Instead of focusing on the conflicts of the region, MacFarquhar seeks out the everyday, the humorous, and the universal.

The Dream Palace of the Arabs – Fouad Ajami. After World War I, there was a rise in Arab intellectualism, a movement of writers and scholars who hoped for a new world in the Middle East. Ajani explores how various poets, writers, and historians reacted to events in the area, from the stabbing of Naguib Mahfouz to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Time and again we hear about conflicts and events from a political or military viewpoint, this presents the dreams, hopes, and responses of the intelligentsia.


How can you write a book about something that’s still happening? I had a hard time finding books on the current situation in Syria, but these two look promising.

The Syrian Rebellion – Fouad Ajami. Ajami explores the historical events and situations that led to the current clash with the second generation of al-Assad rulers of Syria.

A Woman In the Crossfire – Samar Yazbek. A Syrian writer and filmmaker, she not only sympathizes with the revolution, she has actively engaged in and documented it. While this alone is not terribly unusual, she’s also from a well-known Alawite family, who have denounced her and her activities to the point where there’s a price on her head. As she and her daughter evaded the regime and assisted the revolution, she wrote about her experiences of watching her homeland be devastated by war.

Israel and Palestine:

This was hard. I wanted to present viewpoints from both sides without coming off as anti-Arab or anti-Semitic. I’m not personally or culturally connected to either side, but I am interested in the situation and would love your suggestions! There were some authors I definitely avoided based on reading reviews that mentioned hardcore bias or even outright racism, but some of these authors are well-respected historians whose theories have had serious real-life effects, namely Bernard Lewis and his theories’ connections to the Bush-Cheney actions towards Iraq.

1948 – Benny Morris. This is a history of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. I haven’t read it, but there’s a vigorous discussion in the Amazon comments that swings between accusing him of being a Zionist and of being anti-Israel. While Morris’ politics may be in question, this is considered one of the great books about the war.

Six Days of War – Michael B. Oren. Oren examines the 1967 Six Day War and how it has echoed and rippled through history to today. In the war, Israel began its occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, a decision that we see the effects of in the news every day.

Palestine: The Special Edition – Joe Sacco. Sacco was a journalism student at the University of Oregon when he became frustrated by mainstream American media portrayal of the Israel-Palestine conflict, so he traveled to Palestine to see the less-reported side. The result of over a hundred interviews with both Palestinians and Jews, this graphic novel is arresting and heartfelt.

Footnotes in Gaza – Joe Sacco. Sacco researched and investigated a 1956 killing of over 100 Palestinians, digging into archives and interviewing survivors and family members. While a graphic novel isn’t the easiest read when reading about a massacre, it drives the point home. Sacco’s graphic novels are fantastic rejoinders to people who say graphic novels are nothing but superhero comics – there are no superheroes here, only people.

City of Oranges – Adam Le Bor. The history of Jaffa, the ancient port slowly absorbed into its former suburb of Tel Aviv, told through interviews and memoirs. Jaffa had a multi-ethnic and multi-religious population for decades, dating back to Biblical times.

The Lemon Tree – Sandy Dolan. While researching and discussing this list, someone commented that there aren’t a lot of books about the Israel-Palestine situation that are peace-based, and mentioned this book. It came up in discussion over and over again, and, upon reading the description (and seeing how many holds were on it at my local library), I chose to include it. It’s the true story of a Palestinian man who returns to the house his family fled nearly twenty years earlier, now occupied (in 1967) by an Israeli college student whose family came to Israel fleeing the Holocaust. A friendship springs up between the two, one that lasts over 35 years. The book brings the vast scale of the conflict down to two individuals, one on either side, each with similar family histories, who found friendship in each other.

I would like to reiterate that I’m not a Middle East scholar, just a librarian with an interest in the area and one undergrad Middle Eastern History class under her belt. I would love to know who and what you’d suggest to someone who’s interested in the subject!

By Jessica Werner

Free-range librarian in Seattle. A sucker for happy endings, teen angst, and books that make me want to sell my possessions and travel the world. Incurable homebody and type A. Send love letters and readers advisory requests to

5 replies on “Ask A Librarian: A Brief and Incomplete History of the Middle East”

This is awesome! I will share with my partner this afternoon (like I said on facebook, grad student in Middle Eastern Studies) – Bri explained the Sykes-Picot & Balfour in bed a few nights ago after I mentioned that I had no idea what you were talking about, so I’m looking forward to adding some of these to my list. I also have the Sacco under our bed right now – clearly I need to yank it out and read it.

The extent of my ME history knowledge comes from one community college class on History of the Middle East in the Islamic Era that was taught by a guy who was supposedly the most republican member of the faculty, but had been raised in Saudi Arabia by his State Department dad and was incredibly respectful, realistic, and interested in the region. I never would have been as fascinated by it as I am if it wasn’t for that prof.

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