Robert Fisk’s World: Try this reading list if you want to understand the Middle East

The greatest problem of writing historically is that the story has not ended

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If you want to understand al-Qa'ida, try this for size:

"The desert dweller could not take credit for his belief ... He arrived at this intense condensation of himself in God by shutting his eyes to the world, and to all the complex possibilities latent in him which only contact with wealth and temptations could bring forth. He attained a sure trust and a powerful trust, but of how narrow a field! His sterile experience robbed him of compassion and perverted his human kindness to the image of the waste in which he hid... There followed a delight in pain, a cruelty which was more to him than goods ... He found luxury in abnegation, renunciation, self-restraint. He made nakedness of the mind as sensuous as nakedness of the body. He saved his own soul, perhaps, and without danger, but in a hard selfishness."

That is from T E Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom – and what a cracker! I always think of this passage when I watch Bin Laden's videotapes. The narrow field. The abnegation. The cruelty. I don't necessarily agree with Lawrence, but with passages like this, I find myself reflecting on his words with ever deeper intensity.

I say this because several times a year, I'm asked by Independent readers for a recommended "reading list" of Middle East books in the English language. It's a tough one. The greatest problem of writing historically about the Middle East is that the story has not ended. The war goes on. And both "sides" – actually, there are rather a lot of sides – produce conflicting narratives. Yet I don't go along with the idea that you can produce a balance sheet of books. Here's the Israeli version. Here's the Arab version. Here's the madcap American version etc. The Middle East is about injustice. So who tells the story best?

When it comes to the Arab-Israeli dispute, the two incomparably finest books must be George Antonius's The Arab Awakening, and The Gun and the Olive Branch by my colleague and friend David Hirst. Antonius was writing in 1938, when Hitler had already been in power for five years – but 10 years before the dispossession of the Palestinians – when he stated: "The treatment meted out to Jews in Germany and other European countries is a disgrace to its authors and to modern civilisation; but posterity will not exonerate any country that fails to bear its proper share of the sacrifices needed to alleviate Jewish suffering and distress. To place the brunt of the burden upon Arab Palestine is a miserable evasion of the duty that lies upon the whole of the civilised world. It is also morally outrageous. No code of morals can justify the persecution of one people in an attempt to relieve the persecution of another. The cure for the eviction of Jews from Germany is not to be sought in the eviction of the Arabs from their homeland ..."

So here was the first truly eloquent warning of what was to come, and Hirst completed the narrative of Antonius's all too accurate predictions, the first author, I believe, to counter the trashy novel Exodus with which Leon Uris graced the Jewish state – much to Ben Gurion's delight, though he should have known better – by deconstructing "terrorism" without romanticising the Palestinian refugees and their "resistance" movements. In this same context, one must remember the work of Israel's "new historians", who created a complementary narrative. Benny Morris was the most prominent Israeli researcher to prove that it was indeed Israel's intention to evict the Palestinians from their homes in their tens of thousands in 1948 – the fact that Morris has since gone completely batty by claiming the Israelis didn't ethnically cleanse enough of them does not detract from his seminal work.

F R Leavis allegedly once began a sentence with the words: "As any fit reader of poetry will know ..." So I suppose we have to say that "any fit reader" of the Middle East must read Edward Said. One of his best books, by the way, is about music, although orientalism will always be on the set-book list. He did for the Middle East narrative philosophically – and historically – what Antonius did politically. I am not disparaging Said's political work when I say this, although doubts do creep upon me from time to time as critical scholars re-examine his work. I'm not talking of the loony condemnation by Al Dershowitz and his gang. But at least one of his supporters fears that Said did not take account of the vast "orientalist" literature of Italy, Germany and Russia.

The Soviet Union, of course, always had a problem with the Prophet, because Mohamed was a bourgeois merchant. At least Jesus was a worker's son, although just how much Stakhanovite endeavour his father Joseph actually performed we are not told. But I must say the fact that Joseph and Mary had to travel all the way to Jerusalem to be taxed is truly Ottoman in its bureaucracy. And that no hotel could find room for a pregnant woman has a special Middle Eastern flavour – but now I'm becoming an "orientalist".

And so to that brilliant Lebanese journalist and thinker, the late Samir Kassir – very late, for he was assassinated almost five years ago and the last I saw of him was the blood beside his blown-up car – whose monumental history of Beirut in English (I admit it, I am writing the preface) comes out this year. Everything you ever wanted to know about Beirut – and a lot, I fear, that you didn't want to know -- is here. He records how 100 years ago, a young Christian capo di capo – one Costa Paoli – had a habit of kissing the faces of newly murdered Lebanese Christians before they were buried. He was a well-dressed man – "a rose in his lapel and a perfumed handkerchief in his breast pocket", according to the scholar Edward Atiyah – and he was a qabaday, a gangster; who took his revenge on Muslims. In those days, there were militias and armed groups to support Christian and Muslim communities and there was sometimes street fighting. Just as my colleague David McKittrick discovered that 19th-century Belfast's first street riots occurred at exactly the same locations as the battles of the 1970s, so Beirut's 19th-century militia conflicts took place at the very spot where the Lebanese 1975 war would break out.

Kassir is the first author whose only human being is a city, in whose beautiful and gruesome history little men turned on their torture wheels. I never knew that the Hizbollah suburb of Ouzai took its name from the revered ancient divine Imam Ouzai; or that the Syrian Social Nationalist Party – a boring, pan-Arab society – was inspired to create its red, white and black banner (it enclosed crossed pens) from the Nazis; or that the present-day all-purpose Arab obscenity sharmut or sharmuta – meaning whore – was a derivation of the far gentler French word charmante. Lawrence and other authors, please note.

Robert Fisk is the author of The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East

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