Two months to lift off

I’m doing something quite unusual ahead of my study tour to the Middle East (I step on the plane exactly two months from yesterday) which is to try and do some detailed reading about where I’m going before I get there.

Usually I just book some flights, read Lonely Planet long enough to work out basically where I want to go within public transport distance of those flights, book three nights accomodation at Destination One, pack a bag, tell my family I’m off for a bit and pay too much to get to the airport.

This time however the kind folks at APHEDA are organising all the logistics, right down to people we’re going to meet, the food we’re going to eat, optional day trips and who we get to sit next to on the plane.

At first I was a bit worried because it sounded a bit like a Contiki Tour. I have been assured however that the travel time to actually experiencing things ratio is much higher than 10 to 1.

I could just put the fact I’m going out of my mind completely until it’s time to leave – it’s not like I haven’t over-committed myself about fifty billion times over and have enough things on my to do list to keep me warm through the next Ice Age, the Mayan Apocalypse, the fall of human civilisation and subsequent crawl out of savagery… with probably a couple of things left over – and then start reading about where I’m going once I step on the plane.

I am, however, working my way (albeit slowly) through a respectable (judgement) list of books which will actually give me a clue about where I’m going before I get there.

I asked Antony Loewenstein about a month ago to give me a list of books to read which would prepare me for the experience. He sent me a list about about seven – two of which are currently making their way from the internet to my mailbox. The first book on the list was his – My Israel Question – a piece of self-promotion I found cute and blatant in equal measures.

I actually started reading Ant’s book earlier this year when Fi borrowed it from the library for me, but after flying through the first third, the more intense part of the recent NSW state election campaign occurred and I found myself not particularly wanting to read right then about the Israel/Palestine conflict. Go figure…

All of the books Ant recommended look quite fascinating, and I’m sure I’ll get through most of them sooner or later – starting you’d assume with the two I’ve ordered – but being a total ignoramus I actually needed a grounding in the cultural and political history of the region.

So I’m starting off with The Modern Middle East: A Political History since the First World War, by Mehran Kamrava, to get up to speed with all these hyper engaged and intelligent people who know everything about everything political (but not so much about popular culture, alternative music from 1991-2011, or Vertigo comic books, so it’s kind of even).

I’m about 30 pages in but I haven’t got to the end of the First World War yet – which by the title is conceivably where the book should have begun – but am instead getting a crash course in the history of the Middle East since the beginning of Islam.

It’s fascinating learning about Muhammad and how he started off in Mecca but then went to Messina because the nobles in Mecca were tools, and how Islam was a religion which was intertwined with politics right from the very beginning.

I’ve learned who and the Caliphs and Viziers actually were (as opposed to the hapless fools and villains respectively in some comics I used to read – see picture) , what that Shiite/Sunni thing is all about, the expansion and fall of the Ottoman Empire and the secularisation of Turkey.

I’d forgotten how much I like history. It’s fascinating to connect the dots and draw the lines between the gaps in my knowledge to create a more sophisticated vision of the Middle East than the one I had before. Now that I’ve started, I couldn’t imagine going to the Middle East without having an idea about these things.

Recommendations of other books to read welcome please.

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