By Anne Alexander
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The Arabs

This article is over 12 years, 7 months old
Eugene Rogan, Penguin Books, £25
Issue 343

This is an immensely readable history of the Arab world from the 16th century Ottoman conquests to the present. Rogan’s narrative is packed with vivid images, such as the battlefield at Marj Dabiq in August 1516, where the medieval splendour of the Mamluk Sultan’s army was obliterated by Ottoman troops armed with European muskets.

Others include the raging crowds at the funeral of Palestinian guerrilla leader Sheikh Izz-al-Din al-Qassam in 1935 and Colonel Abd al-Salam Arif, nervously pacing the floor as he announced the overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy during the revolution of 1958. Drawing on eyewitness accounts captured in diaries, memoirs and newspapers, this account – unlike many others written by Western historians – is full of Arab voices reporting and reflecting on these tumultuous events. It is often the powerful whose stories are best preserved, but Rogan has also included the voices of ordinary people such as the barber Ahmad al-Budayri, whose diary brings 18th century Damascus to life.

A thread running through the book is the impact of foreign intervention on the region, although Rogan stresses that “to say that the Arab world has been subject to foreign rule does not mean that the Arabs have been passive subjects in a unilinear history of decline”.

Instead, each colonial invasion – from the French seizure of Algeria in 1830 to the attack on Iraq in 2003 – has sparked fierce resistance. Rogan also captures the devastation wreaked by the vengeful European powers on those who dared to oppose them, such as the destruction of Damascus in 1925 by French artillery as the Mandate authorities crushed a nationwide uprising. “Hellish instruments opened their mouths and belched their ashes upon the finest quarters of the city,” wrote one Syrian nationalist leader. “We will never know the precise number who died under the rubble.”

One of the strengths of the book is its geographic sweep. Few other histories of this period have even attempted to cover the entire Arabic-speaking world from Morocco to Iraq. As Rogan points out, despite their differences, Arabs were brought together by shared experiences of colonialism and resistance, at the same time as rapid social and economic change began to build an increasingly interconnected world. So not only did French colonial administrators import techniques for managing the “natives” from Morocco to Syria, but Syrian nationalists were directly inspired to fight for independence by the example of the uprising in Morocco’s Rif Mountains.

Rogan is scathing about the idea that change can be forced on the Arab world by foreign intervention: “Democracy cannot be imposed without the messenger killing the message.”

He ends his history reflecting on the “grounds for hope” in the emergence of a new generation of liberal intellectuals campaigning for social change through writing the Arab Human Development Report. But I find the lines by Palestinian poet Abu Salman – quoted in the chapter on the Palestinian revolt of 1936-9 – a more inspiring manifesto for change from below in the Arab world.

“You who cherish the homeland
Revolt against the outright oppression
Liberate the homeland from the kings
Liberate it from puppets.”

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