Seventh Sunday after Pentecost Preview
Four Freedoms: A Novel

What Has Shaped My Thinking on the Middle East


Yesterday when you came into my office to discuss the war in Gaza, I was in the middle of a chapter on the relationships between Jews and Arabs in the era during which the Prophet Muhammad arose. Since our interesting conversation, I've been pondering what reading has shaped my own understanding of this conflict. Besides a lifetime of reading the Bible and being immersed in the stories of that region of the world and being fascinated enough to read lots of magazine and newspaper articles, columns, and essays, there are a handful of books that have shaped my thinking. Here are those that come to mind:

  • It was John LeCarre's spy novel The Little Drummer Girl which gave me a greater appreciation for the Palestinian perspective.
  • In Emil Fackenheim's What is Judaism? there is a section on the 1967 war and the theological significance for Judaism of gaining control of the Old City of Jerusalem which gave me a deeper appreciation for that perspective.
  • The novel The Counterlife by Philip Roth, who is an American Jew, is set in the 1980's and tells a story from a wide range of perspectives, including that of the Jewish settlers, a perspective that Roth is critical of. So, it did not give me a deeper appreciation of their perspective. What it did do was make me realize that Israel must choose between being a Jewish state or being a liberal democracy, that the two cannot be held together.
  • Bruce Feiler's Walking the Bible is a travel narrative of his journeys through the ancient lands of the Bible, while encountering contemporary political and cultural issues.
  • Expanding beyond Israel/Palestine. For better understanding of the Muslim Brotherhood and Egyptian politics and history, I have appreciated the novels of Naguib Mahfouz, particularly Miramar and The Thief and the Dogs.
  • For better understanding Arab feelings towards the West and the complicated relationships and animosities between the people groups in the region, I appreciated Amin Maalouf's The Crusades through Arab Eyes.
  • V. S. Naipaul's Among the Believers is about his travels in non-Arab Muslim countries, seeking to better understand how this imported religion interacts with ancient cultures. The chapter on Iran was helpful, as it is still something of a surprise that the glorious and ancient Persian people have embraced Islamic fundamentalism.
  • I gained much greater appreciation for how Islamic fundamentalism has ravaged non-fundamentalist Islamic cultures and peoples from a couple of novels. The best was Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown, set in Kashmir. The other was Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, set in Afghanistan. Hosseini's other novels deal with the same concerns. The best one of his which I have read is A Thousand Splendid Suns from which I learned a lot about Afghan history since the 1960's and its impact on women. The startling conclusion I took from that book is that the best time in recent history for Afghan women was during the Soviet era. Which humbled my own opinions.
  • Currently I am reading Simon Schama's first volume of his two volume The Story of the Jews. That's where I was reading about the vibrant Judaeo-Arab culture that existed in the era during which Islam arose.
  • Geraldine Brooks' novel People of the Book gives some glimpses into those time periods when Jewish, Muslim, and Christian peoples lived well together. And glimpses into those times when we've fallen to fighting each other.


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