On August 24, 1516, the Mamluk Sultan Qansuh inspected his army on the outskirts of Aleppo, in what is now Syria. He wears a light turban and a blue cape, the ax resting on his shoulders. Later, he saw his troops decimated by the cannons of the Ottoman hordes. Such is the horror of the Sultan that half of his body is paralyzed. He falls from his horse, dead, into the dust.
This is the scene that opens the book “The Arabs: A History” by the American Eugene Rogan, professor at Oxford. The volume finally arrived in Brazil in an edition of the Zahar label. Despite being one of the reference books on the Middle East, this 2009 text was still unpublished in these parts – leaving a void for scholars and students who cannot read in English.
Until then, the best option in Portuguese was “Uma História dos Povos Arabes”, by British Lebanese Albert Hourani, released in Brazil by Companhia das Letras. There is nothing wrong with the masterful work of Hourani, who was also Rogan’s mentor. But it’s a 1991 book, more dated. It is also denser to read, which distracts the reader.
Hourani, moreover, describes the history of the Arabs since the advent of Islam in the 7th century. He must therefore condense enough information to tell the story of centuries and centuries into a single book. Rogan, on the other hand, begins “The Arabs” much later, with Qansuh’s defeat in 1516. This approach allows him to describe in a more textured way some of the key episodes of the modern era.
The fall of the Mamluk Sultan is the starting point of Rogan because it marks the consolidation of the Ottoman Empire. The takeover of Syria in 1516 allowed the Istanbul-based Ottomans to rule the Middle East for four centuries, until their defeat in World War I (1914-1918). Today, what remains of the empire is known as Turkey. When Syrians and Lebanese immigrated en masse to Brazil from 1870, many of them carried Ottoman passports – which is why they were nicknamed “Turks” here.
Rogan’s cut changes the tone of the story he’s telling. Works like Hourani’s tend to get lost in the details of the early centuries of Islam, describing this period as a golden age never passed. These accounts end up reinforcing the stereotype that the Ottoman conquest led to an era of darkness in the territories of Arab culture.
In recent decades, historians have questioned this kind of simplistic, anti-Ottoman view typical of Arab nationalism. As the reader of “The Arabs” will notice, the Ottoman history of the Middle East is very flavorful, including such figures as Corsair Barbarossa, Prince Fakhr al-Din and Governor Muhammad Ali. It is also the powerful story of an empire which it rivaled and sometimes surpassed Western Europe.
In the first part of the book, Rogan describes the rise, consolidation and defeat of the Ottoman Empire in unexpected detail and careful analysis. One of its strengths is the choice of its sources, favoring the voice of those who have lived history. For example, he cites the diaries of a barber in Damascus in his chapter on the uprisings of the eighteenth century. It is through the voice of the barber, rather than that of Rogan, that the reader delves into those years.
In the rest of the work, the historian deals with the European empires which controlled the Middle East after the Ottoman defeat. He also talks about the creation of the State of Israel, the discovery of oil and the Cold War. The final chapter enters the 21st century, addressing themes such as Islam, extremism and, in the updated edition, the 2011 protests known as the Arab Spring.
The publication of “The Arabs” will not solve the shortage of books in Portuguese on the Middle East. The book, however, already lays a solid foundation for enthusiasts. It should be included in the list of required readings for university courses on the subject.