Empires of the Mind: Society Suggestions from Cambridge MENAF

Molly Bolding 16 February 2019
Image Credit: Ed Ince-Jones

The Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum was first established in 2015 in order to provide a space for students from the region to discuss, debate and share their stories on the most important issues of the day. Almost four years on, CMENAF has hosted dozens of speaker events and panels and continues to offer the students of the university a chance to discuss everything from politics and economics to arts and law in the Arab world. This list of literary recommendations was created in collaboration with committee members Jay Mens and Patrik Kurath.

Image Credit: Cambridge MENAF

Henry Kissinger – World Order

Former US Secretary of State Kissinger’s 2015 masterpiece is a summation of his life’s work and experience in international law and statesmanship. This book explores the quadrasystem of historical world order: the 17th Century European Westphalian Peace; China’s imperial philosophy; Islam’s sociopolitical regional dominance; and the idealist democracy of the USA. It serves as a history book, a geographical exploration, and a note to future generations about the diverse circumstances to come.

Marshall G.S. Hodgson – The Venture of Islam

This three-volume series explores every element of the Islamic faith: from its history to its roving geography, to the diverse religious and cultural practices. Heralded as a precursor to modern world history and as a revolution in Islamic studies, Hodgson’s posthumously published work was one of the first to challenge Western exceptionalism and bring to light the wonders of the Islamic world.

Albert Hourani – A History of Arab Peoples

Born in Britain to Lebanese parents, Hourani’s book relies on the structure and conventions of asabiyyah (meaning social cohesion) writings to construct a dynastic, social and economic history for the people of the Arab world from pre-Islamic history to the 20th Century, and accounts the rise and fall of several major empires.

Michael Axworthy – Iran: Empire of the Mind

In just 300 pages, Axworthy transforms 3,000 years of complex Iranian history and politics into a readable and engaging piece on the strength of Iran’s central cultural and artistic identity and its relationship with its own past.

David Fromkin – A Peace to End All Peace

Pulitzer-prize finalist David Fromkin unpacks the events leading to the fall of the Ottoman Empire and links the events of Arab history since World War One together into what he sees as another grand war that rages on to this day. It explores the uncomfortable realities of Britain’s expectations of the newly formed countries and has been widely praised for its frank and comprehensive description.

Stephen Kinzer – All The Shah’s Men

Otherwise known by it’s full title of All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, this 2003 epic by US journalist Kinzer sheds considerable light on the 1953 Iranian coup d’etat backed by Britain and the CIA.

Philip Mansel – Levant

Professing to explore the ‘Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean’, Levant is physical geography married to intellectual history. Using private family writings, Mansel reconstructs the hey-day of the great cities of the Mediterranean world in all their glory: wealth, hedonism, culture, and an escape from the constraints of nationality.

Peter Frankopan – The Silk Roads

Also entitled A New History of the World, this book attempts to challenge the conventional loci of historical study by re-calibrating our understanding of the core staples of global movement, focusing on the ‘silk roads’, a term coined in 1877 by von Richthofen. Frankopan, who is Director of the Centre for Byzantine Research at Oxford University, appears set to right the imbalance of our understanding of world history by putting the Arab world and its connections to other civilisations at the forefront of the narrative.

Ibn Khaldun – Al-Muqaddimah

This text, reportedly written in 1377, deals with almost everything under the sun: sociology, geography, politics, economics, theology, biology, chemistry and early Darwinist theory. Considered one of the first texts to truly deal with the idea of a universal history, it documented the significance of asabiyyah and deals with early versions of complex and nuanced issues, such as conflict theory, the Laffer curve, and systemic bias.

Ari Shavit – My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel

Winner of the Natan Book Award, the National Jewish Book Award, and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, Shavit’s narrative history of one of the most hotly debated issues of the modern world is a deeply personal and interconnected work – featuring interviews and personal testimony from the people who are as inseparable from the history of Israel as the name itself.


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