You often only get so much from the histories, and you frequently get even less from contemporary political tracts. Sometimes, in order to understand a place, you also need to get the insights of those who have lived there.
In the Middle East, this is fairly easy, because so many books have been written, and they all have something to add. But if you have time for only three, may I suggest Amos Oz’ “A Tale of Love and Darkness”, Sari Nusseibeh’s “Once Upon A Country” and Kai Bird’s recent book “Crossing Mandelbaum Gate”.
Oz, Israeli novelist and long time activist for co-existence with Israeli and neighboring Arabs, writes of his childhood and coming of age in this universally well received memoir. Nusseibeh, scion of one of the leading Arab families of Jerusalem and president of Al-Kuds University, writes of his many contacts with Jewish Israelis, and the difficulties of being a moderate in a polarized community. And now Bird, neither Arab nor Jewish, an American whose father was in the foreign service stationed in several places in the Middle East and who grew up there, tells his story.
Starting with his early days, before the 1967 War, when his father worked in the American consulate in Palestinian East Jerusalem, Bird talks of the days when he was one of the few able to cross the Mandelbaum Gate into Israeli West Jerusalem daily, to attend school. Like so many in the State Department, Bird’s parents seem to sympathize with the Arab cause, as Kai was trying to figure out what all this was about. As he grew older, living in such places as Saudi Arabia (where his family lived a constrained but comfortable life in an Aramco company town), in Cairo, and for a which in Lebanon, he grew up with an anti-Israel bias. Living for a while in India exposed him to a broader world, coming back to the United States, where he attended Carleton College and became a left wing activist provided him with more opportunities for change and growth, and meeting, falling for, and marrying an American Jewish girl turned him, it appears, from a person or strong black/white feelings into someone able to see and appreciate the complexity of human civilization, and to appreciate the many points of view which must necessarily be prevalent among those caught in seemingly intractable political situations.
I obviously am not beginning to do justice to these three wonderful books in this short note. I can only suggest that, when you put together your reading list for 2012, that these three books wind up your first reads In the non-fiction category.