Robert F. Worth is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine. His latest book is A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, from Tahrir Square to ISIS. (October 2020)


Syria’s Lost Chance

Prince Faisal and his delegation, including T.E. Lawrence (third from right), at the Paris Peace Conference, 1919

How the West Stole Democracy from the Arabs: The Syrian Arab Congress of 1920 and the Destruction of Its Historic Liberal-Islamic Alliance

by Elizabeth F. Thompson
On June 29, 1920, the Syrian envoy Habib Lutfallah stood before a committee of French senators in the Luxembourg Palace, that vast, baroque monument to France’s grand siècle. He had come to Paris to make a plea for an autonomous Arab state in the lands of the defeated Ottoman Empire.

The End of the Show

Indian troops under British command entering the Abadan oil refinery in Iran, 1941

Lords of the Desert: The Battle Between the United States and Great Britain for Supremacy in the Modern Middle East

by James Barr

Grand Improvisation: America Confronts the British Superpower, 1945–1957

by Derek Leebaert
The British did all they could to maintain their overseas empire and deeply resented American efforts to displace them. For their part, the Americans fought hard to evict Britain from its privileged global position even as they complained about British colonial arrogance. The rivalry was at its fiercest in the Middle East, where oil was at stake, and that is the focus of James Barr’s revelatory history Lords of the Desert.

Yemen Under Siege

Damage from bombing by Saudi-led forces, Sanaa, Yemen, November 2017

Yemen and the World: Beyond Insecurity

by Laurent Bonnefoy, translated from the French by Cynthia Schoch

Yemen in Crisis: Autocracy, Neo-Liberalism and the Disintegration of a State

by Helen Lackner
In about 570 AD, in the dry hills of what is now northern Yemen, the great dam of Marib collapsed. It had been one of the engineering marvels of the ancient world, with a mud-and-brick retaining wall fifty feet high and 2,100 feet long—twice as long as the Hoover Dam.

The Pillars of Arab Despotism

A militant Islamist fighter during a parade to celebrate the Islamic State’s declaration of a caliphate, Raqqa province, Syria, June 30, 2014

The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East

by Juan Cole

Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East

by Shadi Hamid
The educated youth who kicked off the revolutions of 2011 are not necessarily the vanguard of a new and more secular Middle East. They are one party in a bitter conflict over fundamental issues of identity and social order, a conflict whose outcome is far from certain.


Syria’s War on Screen: An Exchange

Ruined buildings in the village of Ma’arrat al-Nu’man after a weekslong regime offensive against rebel-held areas in Syria’s Idlib province, February 12, 2020

Idrees Ahmad: The author faults the filmmakers for only briefly condemning the jihadis. Their condemnation is, in fact, proportionate to their experience: the hospitals were being bombed by regime forces, not jihadis. Robert Worth: The filmmakers and their central characters could not have avoided coming into contact with rebel fighters; they would certainly have been aware of the abuses those fighters carried out and of the dungeons they operated. There are street scenes in both films, and plenty of footage of regime attacks, but no trace of the defenders. The filmmakers, in other words, made a deliberate choice to screen out certain inconvenient facts about their own daily lives and the cause they stood for.

And the Oscar Goes to… A Simplified Story of Syria’s Civil War

Two protagonists of the documentary The Cave, Dr. Amani and Dr. Alaa, working in their hospital operating room, Ghouta, Syria

The Cave and For Sama may also strike a nerve with US audiences because they flatter a penitential strain among many American liberals: the belief that what happened in Syria is a stain on the Western conscience. “I cannot believe the world allowed this to happen,” the filmmaker Waad al-Kateab tells the camera. It is perfectly natural for Syrians, who were desperate for help from any side, to talk like this. But the way Americans heard it often amounted to a kind of narcissism, a belief that whatever was happening out there was a result of our own failure to intervene decisively. Perhaps America could have played a better role. It seems equally possible that the world—America included—was far too involved in what happened in Syria, and that foreign guns and money have only prolonged the country’s suffering.

Crafting the Koran

Two folios from a Qur’an, Near East, Abbasid period, late ninth-early tenth century

Early manuscripts of the Koran are now on display, under glass, at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., together forming an ur-text in fragments. They are yellowed pages, splotchy at the edges, with lines of brown Arabic text in the stark, vertical script known as Hijazi. One of the striking features of the show is the visual progression of the Koran from the simplicity of early Arabian styles to ever more detailed and colorful traditions of graphic art, fed by Persian influences.

In the Attic of Early Islam

Inlaid metal basin depicting scenes from the Mamluk court, later known as the Baptismal Bowl of Saint Louis, by Muhammad Ibn al-Zayn, Egypt, circa 1320-1340

One of the most memorable moments in The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition, by Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri, comes in the section on lions, which were still indigenous to the Middle East in Nuwayri’s time. He could scarcely have imagined that his book, written with such confidence from the heart of a mighty empire, would one day appear to us like that lion: a vanished, near-mythical creature at the desert’s edge.