Over the last 20 years, I’ve regularly visited the Educational Bookshop in East Jerusalem, the city’s finest bookstore. Its Palestinian owner, Mahmoud Muna, is a humane and witty man.
It was therefore a treat to read his recent piece in the London Review of Books, mostly questioning the understanding and knowledge of Western journalists arriving in the country, and his kind reference to my recent book:
I was shelving some books when the American journalist walked in. Many international reporters have come to Jerusalem since 7 October, staying in the hotels near our Educational Bookshop on Salahadin Street in East Jerusalem. The book in my hand was Avi Shlaim’s autobiography, Three Worlds: Memoirs of an Arab Jew. It has been doing well for us; it traces the historian’s life from his childhood in Iraq, through his immigration to the newly founded state of Israel in the early 1950s, to his work as an academic in the UK, where he still lives.
The journalist asked me for the best book I had on the Middle East. I generally try not to judge people who ask such questions: it often comes from a tourist, on a one-off, long-planned trip or pilgrimage to the Holy Land. But coming from a journalist, it was unsettling.
I wearily suggested he try T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. He earnestly replied that he was looking for a book about the current situation. I was struck by the word ‘current’ – after all, we’ve been going through this for 75 years – but I proposed either Hamas Contained by Tareq Baconi or The Palestine Laboratory by Antony Loewenstein.