Modern History and Politics: Between Memory and Desire: The Middle East in a Troubled Age

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Between Memory and Desire: The Middle East in a Troubled Age, by R. Stephen Humphreys. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1999. xxii + 272 pages. Notes to p. 288. Bibl, to p. 292. Index to p. 297. $29.95.

Everyone who teaches, writes, or speaks about the Middle East or Islam expects to be asked to recommend a recent book that sums up their contemporary problems and places them in an historical context. Between Memory and Desire is aimed to meet the need of "that elusive creature, `the interested nonspecialist,"' to know more about the Muslim Middle East. Without any effort to reduce the complexities of the subject to the historical or topical order of a college textbook, Humphreys leads his readers through a series of focused chapters, starting with "Hard Realities: Population Growth and Economic Stagnation," in which he shows how the demographics of the region have frustrated every effort at development. The reader then learns about the long shadow of European imperialism which, although long departed, still shapes nationalism and the quest for a better future. "The Strange Career of Pan-Arabism" traces the evolution of Arab nationalism, an idea that seemed to come out of nowhere in the early 20th century and now may have lost its saliency. In "The Shaping of Foreign Policy," Humphreys shows how the most controversial actions of three political leaders widely dismissed as "madmen"Egypt's Gamal `Abdl al-Nasir, Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and Iraq's Saddam Husaynwere determined by a shrewd (if not always correct) calculation of the West's probable responses. As an established scholar of the middle period of Islamic history, he ably refutes the notion that modern military rule is somehow a recrudescence of the Mamluk system. "Military Dictatorship and Political Tradition" argues that army officers seize power because they have ready access to the means of coercion, are best-trained in the skills needed for running a modern state, and come from classes that articulate nationalist values. The civilian regimes that they replace are usually corrupt, unrepresentative of the people, and often tied to discredited foreign imperialism. …


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