The Middle East Channel’s Best of 2013
The essential books, articles, posts -- and hip hop performances -- of the year.
It’s that time of year again: my annual picks for the best books, articles, Middle East Channel posts, and — of course — hip hop albums of the year. While my distaste for lists is well documented, I love this opportunity each year to recognize the high quality work of so many of my colleagues.
In past years, my year-end awards have been a purely solo enterprise, but this year I reached out to a group of 40 Middle East politics specialists for nominations. Ultimately, though, what you’ll find below are just my opinions: books and articles that I read and liked, on topics that I find interesting, evaluated by my own idiosyncratic criteria. And so, without further ado, here are my selections for the best of 2013 in four exciting categories: Best Books, Best Academic Journal Articles, Best Middle East Channel Articles … and Best Hip Hop Albums.
Best Books on the Middle East
This year, I read all or part of about 65 books that could potentially qualify for this award. My criteria here are fairly straightforward: I lean strongly toward books from university presses; my personal interests incline toward the Arab world rather than Iran, Turkey, or Israel; and I tend to approach books from the perspective of my home discipline of political science.
This year’s top five books:
1. Carrie Wickham, The Muslim Brotherhood (Princeton University Press). Wickham’s examination of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood received the most votes from the panel of experts, and I agree. Wickham’s earlier book, Mobilizing Islam (2001), had perhaps the best-published analysis of the Brotherhood’s recruitment and mobilization strategies. The Muslim Brotherhood presents an authoritative, deeply informed analysis of the organization’s political strategies, internal cleavages, and ideological debates. It is strongest on the decades of political engagement from the 1970s through the 2000s, but struggles to explain the Brotherhood’s failure in power over the last few years. Here, you can read my extended review, where I termed Wickham’s book an "epitaph for the Brotherhood which might have been."
2. Raphael Lefevre, Ashes of Hama: The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria (Oxford University Press). Lefevre has produced a richly detailed, well-written, and sober analytical account of the history of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood. He does an outstanding job of bringing together a wide range of English, French, and Arabic sources to convincingly place the Syrian Brotherhood within its local political context. Ashes of Hama is without question the best available comprehensive English-language work on Syrian Islamist politics.
3. Madawi al-Rasheed, A Most Masculine State: Gender, Politics, and Religion in Saudi Arabia (Cambridge University Press). I thoroughly enjoyed A Most Masculine State’s eclectic but comprehensive reading of gender politics in Saudi Arabia. Rasheed moves comfortably across literature, politics, education, religion, economics, and social issues to provide a masterful overview of her subject.
4. Frederic Wehrey, Sectarian Politics in the Gulf (Columbia University Press). Wehrey’s new book offers a theoretically sophisticated and empirically rich overview of the politics of Sunni-Shiite relations across the Gulf. His extensive research on the ground across the Gulf comes through powerfully, as does his balanced analytical sensibility. It should be required reading for anyone interested in Sunni-Shiite relations or in the regional politics of the Gulf. (Full disclosure: Sectarian Politics in the Gulf was published in the series Columbia Studies in Middle East Politics, which I edit.)
5. Adria Lawrence, Imperial Rule and the Politics of Nationalism: Anti-Colonial Protest in the French Empire (Cambridge University Press). Lawrence does a fascinating job of unpacking the emergence of nationalism as a unifying form of protest in the French Empire, with a particular focus on Morocco and Algeria. This is historical comparative political science done right — an engaging read, extremely well researched, and both poses and answers a question which few would even think to ask.
Online-Only Bonus EP: Nicholas Seeley, "A Syrian Wedding." Seeley, an Amman-based journalist with long experience reporting on refugees in Jordan, has written a short, sharply observed, and beautifully written account of everyday life in the Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan.
The Best Academic Journal Articles
This year, for the first time, I want to acknowledge the best academic journal articles on the Middle East, even if they are too often locked behind pay walls. (Hey publishers: this would be a good time to ungate them!)
1. Lisa Wedeen, "Ideology and Humor in Dark Times: Notes from Syria" (Critical Inquiry). Wedeen, author of the highly influential book about the former Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad’s cult of personality, Ambiguities of Domination, was living in Damascus researching a new book when the Arab uprisings broke out. "Ideology and Humor in Dark Times," the first article from that project, dissects Syria’s public culture and the regime’s ideological project during the early uprisings. It received the most votes from the expert panel for this category, and deservedly so. Theoretically incisive and brilliantly written, from the opening bars this is clearly a Lisa Wedeen joint.
2. Salwa Ismail, "Urban Subalterns in the Arab Revolutions: Cairo and Damascus in Comparative Perspective" (Comparative Studies in Society and History). Ismail draws on her years of research on the popular quarters of both Cairo and Damascus to explain the variation in participation in the uprisings in the two contexts. She does an outstanding job of presenting the everyday concerns of the marginalized populations of these informal sectors without romanticizing them.
3. Hesham Sallam, "The Egyptian Revolution and the Politics of Histories" (PS: Political Science and Politics). In this short essay, Sallem lays out the wildly divergent historical narratives about the Egyptian uprising. While political scientists might want a sin
gle, clear coding of the case, Sallem shows that the data most certainly does not speak for itself. The article has become only more relevant with the escalating public political battle over the legacy of the revolution following Egypt’s military coup.
4. Wendy Pearlman, "Emotions and Microfoundations of the Arab Uprisings" (Perspectives on Politics). Pearlman challenges prevailing rationalist theoretical accounts of the Arab uprisings by focusing on the role of emotions in political mobilization. This well-written and theoretically innovative essay pushes political scientists to rethink the tiny building blocks of political behavior, and helps us to understand both the early surge of political mobilization in 2011 and the subsequent disillusionment, polarization, and turn to the dark side.
5. Jason Brownlee, Tarek Masoud, and Andrew Reynolds, "Tracking the Arab Spring: Why the Modest Harvest?"(Journal of Democracy). This broad analytical overview seeks to explain the provisional outcomes of the Arab uprisings, with access to oil wealth and hereditary succession as the key explanatory variables. Their argument won’t convince every scholar of the region, but it’s a very useful opening gambit for the important theoretical arguments soon to unfold in the political science journals.
Best Middle East Channel articles
It’s always a pleasure to go back and read through a year’s worth of Middle East Channel articles. I’m proud of the consistently high quality, diversity of perspectives, rich empirical detail, and theoretical sophistication of the contributors. I’d also like to take this opportunity to give a shout out to Mary Casey, MEC’s assistant editor, who has done an extraordinary job both editing these essays and producing the widely-read Middle East Channel Daily Brief.
Egypt and Syria were the dominant stories of the year, naturally, and the Middle East Channel published more than 50 articles on Egypt and more than 40 on Syria. We significantly expanded our coverage of Turkey this year, with 14 articles on Turkish politics. We kept a close eye on Iran (17 articles) Iraq (15), Yemen (13), and Tunisia (10) — and ran at least five pieces each on Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Libya, Palestine, and Saudi Arabia. (Next year, like every year, we hope to get more on Morocco and Algeria.)
I’m also very proud of several special projects which the Middle East Channel and the Project on Middle East Political Science produced this year. Last week, I wrote about "The Political Science of Syria’s War," a collection of 18 short memos by leading civil war and insurgency scholars based on a workshop at George Washington University (download the collection here). And back in March, we put together the "Egypt Policy Challenge" (download it here) asking a range of scholars and policy analysts for suggestions about how to deal with difficult pre-coup Cairo.
It was hard to choose 10 articles out of some 200 high-quality contributions this year. I based my choices on a highly scientific methodology combining page views, social media shares, originality, quality of writing, enduring value, and other sciency things.
1. Nathan Brown, "Egypt’s Wide State Reassembles Itself" (July 17) and Daniel Brumberg "Resurgence of Egypt’s state" (July 8). Amid the enormous number of great articles about Egypt this year, Brown and Brumberg’s pieces stood out for how clearly and quickly each understood the role of the Egyptian state in the military coup.
2. Charles Lister, "Syria’s Opposition Beyond Good Guys and Bad Guys" (Sept. 9). Lister’s sharply observed, no-nonsense look at the distribution of military power among the various Syrian opposition factions came at a particularly crucial time in the policy debate.
3. Elizabeth Dickinson, "Syria’s Gulf Brigades" (Dec. 8) and "Shaping the Syrian Conflict from Kuwait" (Dec. 4). This series of articles, co-sponsored by MEC and the Brookings Institution, broke important new ground in reporting the role of private groups and individuals in the Gulf in financing the Syrian insurgency.
4. Toby Mathiessen, "Sectarian Gulf vs. the Arab Spring" (Oct. 8). This article, based on Mathiessen’s excellent short book, Sectarian Gulf, sharply analyzed the place of sectarianism in the survival strategies of the Gulf monarchies.
5. Jeremy Shapiro, "The Qatar Problem" (Aug. 28) and "How the U.S. Saw Syria’s War" (with Miriam Estrin, Dec. 8). Since leaving the State Department for Brookings, Shapiro has written some really outstanding analytical pieces for the Middle East Channel. "The Qatar Problem", a remarkably frank critique of Doha’s ambiguous policies, was the single most read MEC article this year. Meanwhile, "How the U.S. Saw Syria’s War" concludes with perhaps the best advice I’ve seen in a while for academics hoping to influence policy debates.
6. Fanar Haddad, "The language of anti-Shi’ism" (Aug. 9). Haddad, author of the outstanding book, Sectarianism in Iraq, masterfully laid out here the historical evolution of sectarian language in Iraq and across the region. A highly original and really compelling essay.
7. Lisel Hintz, "The Might of the Pen(guin) in Turkey’s Protests" (June 10). Hintz’s discussion of the political culture of the Turkish protests this summer was one of the most entertaining and informative of all the fascinating pieces I read about the Gezi Park clashes.
8. Stacey Philbrick Yadav, "Best Friends Forever for Yemen’s Revolutionaries?" (March 19). Yadav’s essay offered a really fascinating discussion of the changing perspectives, relationships, and experiences of Yemen’s young protestors.
9. Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar, "Iran’s Pragmatic Turn" (Sept. 12). Tabaar does one of
the best jobs I’ve seen of linking Iran’s fluid domestic political scene with President Hassan Rouhani’s foreign policy gambits.
10. Alanna van Antwerp, "Post-Soviet Lessons for Egypt" (July 2). At a time when many Egyptians insisted that their experience was unique and defied comparison, van Antwerp demonstrated the value of cross-regional comparison by considering which of the Color Revolutions Egypt most resembled … and how those cases turned out (hint: not well).
Hip Hop Performances of the Year
And finally, for those who care, every year I take this opportunity to step out of my Middle East politics lane and offer my thoughts on the year in hip hop. Kendrick Lamar indisputably owned 2013, with his year-defining verse on "Control," his BET Cypher follow-up slap tucking a certain sensitive rapper back into his pajama clothes, and his commanding series of guest spots showing up everybody from A$AP Rocky and Big Sean to Eminem and Jay-Z. As promised, Kendrick raised the bar high and murdered his competition. He did not, however, release an album this year (a chronological misfortune which the Grammy Awards happily decided to ignore, but I can’t).
If not King Kendrick, then who earns album of the year? A lot of the highly anticipated albums by the heavyweights disappointed: Kanye West’s Yeezus made a brash, original statement but was just too abrasive and ultimately just not very good; Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail was better than most reviewers allowed, but had a "by the numbers" feel to it; Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP II felt stale despite its entertaining wordplay (I prefer his competitive guest spots with Slaughterhouse). Nor did the next tier do much better: Drake’s Nothing Was the Same was actually exactly the same as his other work, instantly forgettable; Lil Wayne’s I Am Not a Human Being II mercifully disappeared without a trace; Big Sean’s sophomore effort Hall of Fame only showed how little he has to say at this point; and I’m not interested in trying to learn what a Macklemore is.
There were a few decent albums that I wanted to like more than I did. A$AP Rocky’s Long Live A$AP just slipped into the 2013 window, and had two of the year’s standout tracks ("Train" and "F***ing Problem"), but tellingly both of those songs were made by the guests. Prisoner of Conscious by Talib Kweli and The Gifted by Wale were smart but inconsistent, and I had a hard time remembering a single distinct track or turn of phrase five minutes after listening to them. I was excited about B.o.B’s Underground Luxury when he promised on "Paper Route" to get political and say things which might piss off his publicist and get him in trouble with the government … but instead he spends most of the album treading water with endless love letters to his money.
J. Cole’s Born Sinner therefore beats out those three contenders out to be my 2013 runner-up. Born Sinner was an improvement over his rookie album, and had flashes of real brilliance. It had too many tedious stretches, though, and would have done better to replace some of the filler with tracks he offloaded to the mixtapes (plus, he messed up big time by not giving Kendrick a verse on "Forbidden Fruit"). Cole did provide the best non-Kendrick moment of the year, though, when Nas jumped onto his "Let Nas Down" beat to offer some career advice and a strong co-sign. He also pulled off a near-perfect head fake by dropping an agonizing "Control" response track which seemed to threaten war against Kendrick … only to show up in L.A. a few days later joking around backstage with his buddy.
And so, somehow, my choice for the best overall album of the year goes to Pusha T for My Name is My Name. Pusha T has been a monster for years, from the early years with the Clipse to his emergence as the ace in Kanye’s GOOD Music posse. My Name is My Name took a long time to complete, like seemingly all of his projects, and not every track worked. But My Name is My Name stood out from the competition this year with its consistency, intensity, and sharp lyrics. It featured really standout tracks like "Numbers on the Boards" and "King Push." Plus, on Nosetalgia he became the only rapper all year to hold his own on a track with Kendrick. Congratulations, King Push!
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).
He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark