Great books, from bedtime stories to poetry, biographies and fiction, transform and stay with us even when we least know it. These five titles have shaped my understanding of politics, human relations and identity.
The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames by Kai Bird (2014)
An authoritative read on the Middle East, encompassing the difficult terrains of its many conflicts and history, through the fascinating journey of CIA operative and Arabist Robert Ames. Kai Bird takes you through the intimate details of Ames’s life, crisscrossing major events and personas that continue to shape the region’s upheavals today.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899)
This setting by the Congo River in Africa and Europe, exposes the dark, messy relationship between colonialist and colonised, “savages” and “civilised.” You are left with a sense that human nature is the same, with blurred lines between the oppressed who can become the oppressor, and the civilised who can be as barbaric as the so-called “savages”.
House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East by Anthony Shadid (2013)
This brings full circle the struggle for immigrants who do not fully belong anywhere. In a mission to repair his parent’s house, the late reporter (killed in Syria in 2012), went to Marjiyoun, Lebanon, only to rediscover a shaken history and identity outside the boundaries of an American in Oklahoma.
What’s the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank (2004)
This is an essential read for anyone trying to understand the twists and turns of American politics. It explains Trumpism 13 years before the 2016 election. Through the transformation of Kansas from the left to mostly conservative, it addresses voting behaviour and changes in society, and how religion, race and economics can tip the scales
Ta’amulat fi Shakaa Al-A’arab (Reflections on the Misery of the Arabs) by Samir Kassir (2004)
This book is on the mark in diagnosing the ailments of many Arab societies, from authoritarianism, fundamentalism, tribalism, nationalism and populations held hostage by their own history and military defeats. Kassir’s audacity and scathing criticism of autocrats cost him his life in 2005.
Joyce Karam is The National’s Washington correspondent
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