Eugene Rogan’s revised and updated edition of The Arabs: A History opens up with the conquest of the Mamluks of Egypt by the Ottoman Sultan, Selim the Grim. It recounts the story of the region—perpetually disquieted by wars great and small—up to the present day. It is a well researched and energetic book that holds one’s attention, and will be of value to readers who wish to understand the Arab world the way Arabs want to be understood. As history it is fabulous, but as analysis, it has a certain bias that I found frustrating as an Arab Christian.
Rogan, the director of the Middle East Centre at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, lived in the region for eight years while he was growing up, in Lebanon and Egypt. His love for it is evident, and appreciated. My reading of The Arabs, though, is informed by my experience as an Iraqi Christian who was born in Baghdad, lived in Greece as a refugee, and came to the United States at the age of nine. While I have been located outside of the Arab nations most of my life, I have always been in and around the Arab American subculture, hearing the stories and perspectives of immigrants old and new as each upheaval initiated a new wave of arrivals. Rogan is optimistic in his views of the Arab world, as am I; there is much in his book with which I agree, and I hope to enrich the dialogue on the Middle East by these reflections.
Reform and the Arab World
In the summer of 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte filled the Alexandrian harbor with his men o’war; the city surrendered within hours. He and his forces went on to conquer and occupy Cairo. During three years there, the French attempted to bring to Egyptians the ideas of the Enlightenment and French Revolution, and the technology of the Industrial Revolution. They were not impressed. “The gulf separating French Revolutionary thought from Egyptian Muslim values,” writes Rogan, “was unbridgeable. Enlightenment values that the French held to be universal were deeply offensive to many Egyptians, both as Ottoman subjects and observant Muslims.”
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