Dilip Hiro, Inside the Middle East (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982).
Twenty years ago, Maxime Rodinson’s Israel and the Arabs (or in its original French edition, Israel et le refus arabe—Israel and the Arab Refusal) gave to many Western readers their first portrait of the Middle East that was not infused with a pro-Israeli bias. Never before had many readers studied and reflected upon what animated the Arab peoples, the “other side” in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Rodinson’s book presented a serious study of Arab politics and history which elicited a response sympathetic to the Arabs’ refusal to recognize and accept the legitimacy of Israel. Many readers suddenly discovered a human face on the other side of the conflict.
Dilip Hiro is from Pakistan, and his orientation is progressive. He sets out to provide an “inside” view of the region, and I came to his book hoping to find a study which might accomplish for the 1980s what Rodinson’s had performed in the 1960s. Inside the Middle East underlines the importance of the “socio-economic context” to an understanding of the internal composition of the Arab states. Hiro divides his section on the Arab countries into chapters on conservative forces, centrist forces and leftist forces. He gives equal consideration to the regional role of the Soviet bloc and the West. His sympathies, in the few moments where he lets them show, are clearly on the left.
Comparing Inside the Middle East to Rodinson’s study, though, does not work to Hiro’s favor. Hiro is concerned with rendering the surface accurately; he does that with a stream of facts and figures. He does not probe and analyze the societies and peoples of the region in a way that helps us understand or interpret the events and facts he presents. Reading Hiro’s book is like watching television—one is exposed to a series of incidents that relate to each other only in that one image precedes and follows another. He distinguishes, for instance, between the different Arab monarchies, but he doesn’t make the distinction meaningful. He uses categories chiefly to string together information. His movement from one country to the next is artificial and strained. Fact is strung after fact, but no sense is imparted.
Organizing a book that seeks to look “inside the Middle East” is difficult. The complex interrelationship of the states whose borders have been set by outside powers, and the fluidity of ideas and political movements among culturally similar countries, contribute to the difficulty of putting information into an intelligible framework. The general reader needs a handle on the material: subtitles, good cross-referencing, introductions, summaries. Hiro’s book lacks many of these assisting bits, or is skimpy with them at best. The book is not set up to facilitate the student’s task of getting simple answers, and it does not ease the effort to understand.
Journalists can provide a good deal of information, and Hiro does this. What he does not do is to assist the reader with synthesizing discussions of complicated historical developments and political trends. Speaking about Teddy Roosevelt, Bill Moyers recently remarked on television, “I don’t know what history will conclude, but as a journalist I can only say, ‘Good copy’.” Dilip Hiro’s Middle East is also “good copy,” but it does little to help us discern what history will conclude.