At a time like this, when events in the Arab world dominate the headlines, there must be many news followers who would like to be able to stretch out a hand and reach for a book that would explain the history and background of the complex conflicts raging in the Middle East. A Concise History of the Arabs by British lawyer, Arabic linguist and Middle East specialist John McHugo might be just the book for them, and for those with some knowledge of the Arab world who need a refresher course or detailed reference source.
The publication by London-based Saqi Books of a paperback, updated, edition of A Concise History of the Arabs is timely, when news bulletins are routinely studded with references to such matters as the roots of the Sunni-Shia divide; the days of the Ottoman Empire; Sykes-Picot Agreement; Balfour Declaration; the Kurds; Christian minorities; Arab Spring, and so on.
It is often more challenging to write a concise account than a lengthier record. In 368 pages McHugo succeeds in producing a clear, elegant and fully-sourced account of the sweep of Arab history from the birth of Muhammad in around 570 AD to the military coup in July 2013 that overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi.
Saqi first published A Concise History of the Arabs in hardback last year. It met with a highly-favourable reception, and the cover and inside page of the paperback carry accolades from leading specialists in Arab history, politics and journalism.
The late Patrick Seale dubbed the book "brilliant and erudite", while author David Gardner of the Financial Times says it is "brilliant and poignant...an effortless read". Charles Tripp, SOAS Professor of Politics with reference to the Middle East, finds it "a lucid and highly-readable history of the Arab peoples up to the present day."
He has worked as a lawyer in several Arab countries, notably Egypt, Bahrain and Oman. He is a board member of the Council for Arab British Understanding (CAABU) and of the British Egyptian Society. McHugo, who lives in London, also chairs Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine.
The titles of his chapters point to the broad themes he tackles. Chapter Four is aptly titled "Sharing an Indigestible Cake". It covers the First Word War and the carving up of Arab-speaking provinces of the Ottoman Empire: "Britain and France had sliced up the cake and shared it out, but it was indigestible." In the chapter McHugo provides an admirably succinct account of events whose repercussions are felt some hundred years later in Syria, Iraq and Palestine/Israel.
The final chapter is "Something Snaps: The Arab Spring and Beyond." Although the Arab revolutions have seen a swing from initial euphoria to turmoil and sometimes conflict, McHugo assesses the process within a wider historical framework.
He draws comparisons with the French Revolution, which "could not be rolled back" and the 1848 "Springtime of the Peoples" with various uncoordinated uprisings in different European locations. Over the following decades, rulers increasingly acknowledged that they needed to government by consent "and that it was better from their own point of view to make concessions to popular demands than to be engaged in a cycle of endless, and fruitless, repression." McHugo considers that "a similar process has started with the Arab Spring. It has only just begun."
The value of McHugo's book is enhanced by the richness of its references and fullness of its bibliography. He also has a section for those who are new to the history of the Arabs, giving pointers as to how they can begin to explore further the matters covered by his book.
As well as publishing A Concise History of the Arabs, Saqi Books is publisher of McHugo's latest book Syria: From the Great War to Civil War. On 3 July at 7 pm the book will be launched at an event at The Mosaic Rooms in London. McHugo will be in discussion with Jonathan Fryer, freelance writer, lecturer and broadcaster on international affairs and part-time SOAS lecturer. His publications include histories of Iraqi Kurdistan and Kuwait. McHugo and Fryer will talk about the history of Syria from the First World War to today, and how this relates to the greatest political and humanitarian tragedy of the 21st century so far, in which an estimated 190,000 people have died and nine million have fled their homes.
Susannah Tarbush, London