The calm before the storm in the Middle East

The mere mention of the Middle East conjures thoughts of religious conflicts between Muslims, Christians, and Jews. But as Heather Sharkey argues in her new book, “A History of Muslims, Christians and Jews in the Middle East,” focusing only on conflict obscures a fascinating and complex history of the region’s diverse people as they lived together.

In the book, Sharkey, a professor of Near Eastern languages and civilizations, examines societies in the Ottoman Empire before World War I, when there were more substantial Christian and Jewish communities in most of the Middle East than today. For example, only a handful of Jews now live in Egypt, whereas the Jewish population in that country peaked in the 1920s and 1930s at over 85,000.

Sharkey considers how people mingled in their daily lives, “in shared Arabic songs or stories, sung or recounted by Muslims, Christians, and Jews; in the remembered smell of jasmine blossoms, threaded and sold on strings after dusk,” and in memories of food, “like a particular bread sold on street carts during Ramadan.”

Sharkey says that writing the book required a process of “un-learning” what she thought she knew about how religion worked, as a mode of belief and as a shaper of laws and government policies, in the Islamic Middle East. 

Read the full story at Omnia magazine. 

Heather Sharkey, a professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. Photo courtesy of Omnia magazine.