Israel/Palestine

Help me make a Middle East reading list

This is a guest post by Matt Hill

Writing about the Middle East at Harry’s Place can feel like putting your hand in a pool full of flesh-stripping piranhas – and I mean that as a compliment. One of the milder criticisms I’ve received is that I may be unduly influenced by authors with a pro-Palestinian bias. Insofar as moderate Palestinians (like Sari Nusseibeh and Raja Shehadeh) and liberal Zionists (like Tom Segev and David Grossman predominate on my bookshelves, it’s true they display something of a leftward tilt.

I’m the kind of person who likes to stay home on Friday night and read (yes, I’m as exciting as I sound), but I still buy books faster than I can finish them. My bedroom looks a bit like a warehouse in a pulping plant. I half expect to end up like Leonard Bast from Howards End, killed by an exemplary avalanche of books.

So I’m planning to use an upcoming spell in Israel as a kind of study break. Fond as I am of my second home, Nazareth, it  offers relatively few distractions, barring a sudden outbreak of war (not, mind you, an altogether trivial caveat, as I discovered in July 2006). A few titles, as they say of footballers vying for a World Cup call-up, have already booked their seat on the plane. I’d be grateful if Harry’s Place readers could help me choose the rest by suggesting some of their favourites.

I have just two criteria as a reader: hedonism and promiscuity. My first loves were fiction and poetry, and while I no longer spend whole nights tangled in the bedsheets with Philip Roth, my undergraduate passion has ripened into long-term dependency. Meanwhile it’s usually history, polemic and biography that raise my pulse nowadays. Nonfiction may be less sexy and glamorous than its rival, but it has a worldly quality, a frisson of the real, that’s hard to beat.

So I’m looking for good writing of all kinds, especially history and political argument. My focus is on Israel-Palestine, but I’d like to read more about the wider Middle East too. I’m particularly interested in the ‘peace process’ up to the present day, and the status of Israel’s Palestinian citizens. And it’s axiomatic to me that some of the best books are those you can have a profitable argument with: there’s no point seeking out your own opinions repackaged between two covers. The only blacklisted books should be those that are hateful, or boring.

So, with those wide parameters in mind, what would you recommend I take to Israel? Which books on the subject do you consider indispensable; have changed the way you see the conflict; or have simply given you the most pleasure?  Feel free to explain why, in as much or as little detail as you like.

I’ll get the ball rolling with some titles that have already claimed a coveted place in the squad. Any views on the following?

Tom Segev,  The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust

Gershom Gorenberg, The Unmaking of Israel

Edward Said, Out of Place: A Memoir

Robin Wright, Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Arab World

George Packer, The Assassin’s Gate: America in Iraq

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