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Sunday, April 21

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In this installment of 22 Books I turn to two areas of the world which are linked by history and culture: South Asia and West Asia.

South Asia

Geographically, the boundaries of South Asia are easy to establish: to the south lies the Indian Ocean, and to the north lie the super-humongous ranges of the Himalayas. In between lie the four countries that I group under the "South Asia" -- Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and India (Bhutan could go either in Central Asia or South Asia as you like). There are cultural differences, to be sure. With Islam in the north, non-Indo-European cultures in the south, and India's internal diversity and indigenous people, South Asia is hardly in the thrall of some sort of mystic, homogeneous Buddhism as some tourists there may believe. Still, the region shares a common history of cultural mixing and migration, enriched occasionally by squirts of people and ideas entering the area through the Himalayas or Southeast Asia to the south. And finally, no account of the region today could be complete without an account of Britain's role as an imperial power for more than two centuries. Here are my picks:

India: A History, by John Keay Oof.
Writing a one-volume history of India's 5,000-year history is a task in itself, given the enormous variety of histories and countries that make up the place. Choosing among them is not easy either. But I've got to go with John Keay's superbly written book. Keay, like John Reader, is not an academic, but he's written many books on India and his erudition is obvious. This volume benefits from being up-to-date (it's only four years old) and drawing not just on history but on the literature on everything from archeology, anthropology and art history. At roughly a century a page, Keay is forced to be schematic, but the flip side of this is that you don't get lost in a welter of detail. And with its history-through-architecture approach, it makes a fine volume to take with you to India if you ever get a chance to go.

Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India, by Lawrence James
You really can't understand South Asia got to be the way it is today without understanding the British Empire in India. From tea to partition, Britain's time in South Asia is crucial to the region more generally. After Keay's whirlwind tour of history, James's 640 page tour through 200 years of colonial history seems almost leisurely. Detailed and lucid, it provides much more detail about the British in India than Keay does, particularly the independence period. This book sets the scene for South Asia's contemporary history in wonderful detail. You can see why it's considered one of the most definitive popular histories of the Raj available today.

West Asia

"Western Asia" -- better known as the "Middle East" -- is really a misnomer by either name. The region stretches from North Africa's western tip, though Egypt's heartland on the Nile, across the fertile crescent and through Iran to but up against the western fall of the Himalayas. What unites these regions, of course, is Islam. At the center of the world's geopolitical spot light ever since the European powers decided to switch their navies from coal to oil it is, obviously, our central preoccupation today.

A Brief History of Islam, by Karen Armstrong
A popular religious writer, this book is Karen Armstrong's second foray into the history of Islam. Sweeping and short, Armstrong also has a point to make -- this is a book that seeks to convey the full range and scope of Islamic history, rather than focusing on the "Arab Mind" or the fundamentally violent nature of Islam or that sort of poppycock. Not everyone appreciates Armstrong's take on the matter, and some would call her revisionist. Still, the book is balanced and careful. There are other general histories of "the Arab People" and the "Islamic World," but (at least as far as I know) these are either dated, hopelessly slanted towards explaining contemporary politics, or simply too academic. This is not the last word on Islam from the straits of Gibraltar to the Hindu Kush, but it's a great and accessible place to start.

A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, by David Fromkin
Like The Scramble for Africa, which I recommended in the last installment, this book is not for the faint of heart. Clear, detailed, and comprehensive, it tells the story of the rise of European power in west Asia. If you've read Scramble and Raj, you won't have much difficulty keeping up with the welter of British administrators, because they've become old hat to you. Fromkin's account of the occupation of Iraq -- including Churchill's use of poisonous gas -- and the origins of Palestinian-Israeli conflict will help keep you interested even if you aren't detail oriented. My advice? Watch Lawrence of Arabia first and then dive in -- you'll be glad you did.

That's it for this week -- come back in a fortnight for North and South America!

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Onid / May 21, 2004 1:28 PM

I keep going back to the Fromkin book because it is a great resource. When I watch the news and realize that they are talking about the same cities and town and regions that the book was talking about it really blows my mind.


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