6 books: all things middle east

Let me preface this “Book List” post with this- this is an incredibly multi-faceted area and as a result, it often seems like there is always more to uncover. I am a data-gatherer by nature, I scour news articles, travel blogs and books on a regular basis. (By the way, check out your local library-save money!) The “Middle East” and all things related—sit under an immensely huge umbrella, with so many possible sub-points it makes your head spin.

A multitude of nations, people, and languages lie here.

But, I do want to avoid that if at all possible… so here is a list of books I have accumulated, that I really enjoyed or think hold a lot of value in helping gain even just a bit of understanding and insight to this area. The search for understanding really never ends, but in my opinion, this is not a bad thing. This list is by no means an extensive list, it covers a few areas and a few topics.

6 Titles to consider:


The author and her family in Petra

The author and her family in Petra

1) Married  to a Bedouin,

by  Marguerite van Geldermalsen

This is a delightful, quick read about a New Zealand woman that visits Petra in Jordan and decides to stay. She marries a local Bedouin man named Mohammad. They raise their children in one of the cave dwellings amidst the ancient history, tourists and Bedouin tribal customs there. The author captures a lot of traditions that are dying out amidst the modernizing tribe. She also shares the perspective of a Westerner amidst a foreign environment and the unique challenges of “fitting in”. She raises her children and continues to integrate her values, with those of the tribe she has come to be a part of.


McAllester's experience in 2003 Iraq

McAllester’s challenging experience in 2003 Iraq

2) Blinded by the Sunlight: Surviving Abu Ghraib and Saddam’s Iraq– by Matthew Mcallester

This is a “raw” look at what happened in Baghdad when Coalition forces bombed it in 2003. The author is a British reporter that failed to evacuate and was then detained in the infamous Iraqi prison, Abu Ghraib. The author supplies history and personal accounts of Saddam’s Iraq in a way that highlights their role in a greater story.

King Abdullah with his children. This man is incredible.

King Abdullah with his children. This man is incredible.

3) Audio version* of Our Last Best Chance: The Pursuit of Peace in a Time of Peril- by King Abdullah II of Jordan

 *I recommend the audio version of this book because the voice actor is Nadim Sawalha and his voice is remarkably similar to the King’s. I just think you can “feel” this book as you listen to it.

 If you aren’t familiar with the King of Jordan, check out his appearance on Jon Stewart– his natural charisma is clear.

The King artfully weaves his story of growing up in Jordan, America, and England, with history of the area. He reveals how interconnected Jordan is with its’ neighbors, and his family’s role in working for peace in the area. He also focuses heavily on his (which was also his father’s, his grandfather’s and his great-grandfather’s) plan for what he considers, “the last best chance” for securing peace to the region.

I really enjoyed this book because it really gave me a new perspective on Jordan and Israel/Palestine from someone who can understand living in the region and the West. The book had me slightly frustrated as to how current talks/conflicts have been going, as it seems certain patterns repeat, and optimism and hope fades. Regardless, this book confirmed to me that if peace is to come out of this region that it will most likely come from within.  And those inside voices (such as King Abdullah’s) are highly qualified to see that peace come about.  

Tea with Hezbollah cover

4) Tea with Hezbollah: Sitting at the Enemies Table Our Journey Through the Middle East– by Ted Dekker and Carl Medearis


This book is an adventure in and around a few hot spots of the Middle East that two friends take. They are an unlikely pair- one filling the role of fearful newcomer to the area and the other the seasoned, trusting pro. They seek out all sorts of people, land very “hard to come by” interviews and ask people very simple questions in what I see as an attempt to point out the similarities between us and the people that we usually see as “different” or even “enemies”. There is an interwoven narrative throughout it that serves to draw you in and help you see this area in a different way.


The area of focus in the book.

The area of focus in the book.

 5)The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam by Eliza Griswold

This is a very worthwhile read. It examines the Tenth Parallel, (the line of latitude 700 miles north of the equator) around which it seems that Christian and Muslim (and indigenous religion) tensions are at an all-time high. The developing world is seeing a huge growth in each religion, and unfortunately the hostility continues. Griswold examines why and how and in what ways these interactions are taking place. She weaves history as needed with research and statistics to bring light to fuzzy topics. She personally travels to these places and gives her honest take on what she sees, allowing the reader to draw his or her own opinion. These are things we may hear about, but never really hear the whole story on, this book tries to change that.

And my final title…..

Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time 9780143038252

6)  Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time –by Greg Mortenson , David Oliver Relin

 This is an incredibly, beautifully written story about a man, Greg Mortenson, and his unlikely career change to humanitarian and educational activist in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Greg ends up in Pakistan to climb K-2, and ends up falling in love with the area, making it his personal mission to see one local village have its own school building. Basically, the book talks about his work over the 1990’s- early 2000’s, investing his life and all of his time, in seeing the school, and eventually many, many schools and other projects come to fruition in the area.

Let me touch on some of the controversy about this, although much of seems to have been resolved. Specifically in one essay, Three Cups of Deceit, written by Jon Krakauer, Greg and his organization are put under the microscope to see if he is telling the truth and stewarding money and resources properly. Krakauer found holes in a lot of Greg’s stories, especially some that were very “foundational” in why Greg was doing this specific work. That was a very hard pill for Greg’s devoted fans to stomach, especially those who had invested a lot of money in this organization over the years.

Greg has eventually responded to the claims, in Outside magazine, and in other interviews, but as you can imagine, this knowledge does put a odor over his work, and leaves some with questions. I have yet to read Three Cups of Deceit, but I plan on reading it next.

Overall, I thought the book, Three Cups of Tea was written beautifully by Relin, and therefore, it is a great book for that reason alone. The sheer enchanting imagery and the interactions it portrays between the people and Greg as well as just stories from villagers- is such a great insight into life in rural Pakistan. But, there are definitely a lot of questions, because humanitarian work- whether relief or developmental- is a very tricky thing to execute well.

Although Greg and his organization CAI may have the best intentions, sometimes the reality of his solutions- throwing money at problems (often disguised in the form of “building schools”, “setting up water-projects”, or “paying overdue teacher’s salaries”) as the end-all answer just didn’t seem right. This method leaves you wanting more and expecting more from a man so “entrenched” in the culture and place. Regardless, I recommend this book- not as a “how-to manual” on development work, but as a great conversation starter as to what the solutions could be as well as a great testimony of a man’s life work and love for a people and area.

I hope you will consider reading some of these books as a stepping-off point to gain new insight into the region. Have you read any of these titles? What did you think? Do you have any suggestions for me to check out?

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