Book Reviews

Whatever are they thinking?

Posted By January 2, 2008 No Comments

There is a school of optimistic thought which holds that all human conflict could be solved if we only understood each other. Mind you, police hate answering calls concerning violent domestic disputes and few wars are as vicious as civil wars. However, one thing is clear about the ongoing record of encounters between the Western and Arab worlds… we really don’t understand each other.

David Pryce-Jones is an exception, having lived among Arabs as a child, soldiering among them with the British Army, and having been a foreign correspondent in the Middle East for many decades. He tries to share what he understands of the Arab mind-set in The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs (HarperCollins, 1989, 2002). Essentially, he argues that the Arabs of the Middle East reverted in the early 20th Century back to their tribal and kin-folk social structures; with their only over-arching loyalty being to Islam.

This reliance on tribe and family is a significant causal factor in the numerous internal wars, repressive governments, and economic stagnation (once one discounts oil) that have plagued the Middle East for the last 85 years. As they define themselves by their tribal, religious and cultural traditions; there is resentment – based on both fear and jealousy – of the alternative forms of societal behaviour from the West. This is an interesting book; well furnished with anecdotes, a very detailed knowledge of Middle Eastern culture and history, and much practical experience.