The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

The relaunched Middle East International

In 2003, Middle East International, one of my favorite publications on Middle Eastern affairs, shut down because of lack of funding. MEI was a dowdy, spare magazine with long articles and analysis from writers based in-country who knew what they talking about. Well, at least I would say that because I was one of them.

So it came as a great pleasure when I heard, a few months ago, that some former staff were reviving the magazine. It has now published its first new issue, with many of the same old contributors. MEI's editor, Gerald Butt, writes:

The ethos of the former MEI remain the same and a number of the key correspondents from the past are also regular contributors to the relaunched magazine (Haim Baram, George Hawatmeh, Michael Jansen, Jim Muir, Peretz Kidron, Nicole Pope, Graham Usher, Ian Williams, to name just a few).

The new Editor of MEI is Gerald Butt, a former BBC Middle East Correspondent and editor of Middle East Economic Survey. His Deputy is Najm Jarrah who was closely involved in the production of the previous MEI. They are advised by a group of distinguished Consultant Editors: Rashid Khalidi, Jim Muir, Zaki Nusseibeh and Patrick Seale.

I will be contributing to MEI about Egypt and elsewhere, and have no less than three pieces in the new issue: news analysis articles on Gamal Mubarak and the Brothers' crisis, and a review of Brian Whitaker sure-to-be-controversial new book, What's Really Wrong With The Middle East. You can read them all in the free PDF issue they are giving away for the relaunch.

The review of Whitaker's book was tough to write, and not only because his publisher (who had promised to send me the book) only gave me a PDF version. I read it on my ebook reader, which I find surprisingly usable to read but less friendly for taking notes. But I was also apprehensive that Brian, an acquaintance and a journalist whose work I respect, had bitten off more than he could chew. The provocative thesis of his book is that there is too much focus on how bad the Arab regimes are not enough of Arab societies' problems: patriarchy, intolerance, mysoginy etc.

I very much like the argument and think it needs to be made. I feared that Whitaker would immediately be attacked because he is not Arab, or that he could revert to culturally essentialist arguments like those in Bernard Lewis' work. He has already been attacked for this by the admittedly easily irritated Angry Arab (Whitaker responded here). I do not think that Whitaker fell into that trap (although I wish he did not approvingly quote such a flawed work as Mark Allen's Arabs) and his book deals with some tremendously difficult and sensitive issues. It's great that someone with a reputation for fair and sympathetic coverage of the region has broken these taboos. Whitaker's book also includes some great interviews with activists in the region who offer some really innovative ways to get out of the current predicament, which I agree is about more than the regimes, even if their role should not be underestimated. I did not agree with everything in it (who ever does when reading a book?), and think some parts could have been better. I also think Whitaker underestimates the amount of self-criticism in the region (I have in mind, for instance, Fouad Zakariya's critique of Islamist and other conservatisms in the 1980s). But this is a thought-provoking book, warts and all, on a subject that deserves wider attention.