10 Arab novels every Westerner should read
In all modesty, which is to say none, I think of myself as a dedicated reader, with a wide range of books under my belt. But a column in The Guardian by Matt Rees, a Welsh writer who lives in Jerusalem, makes me realize how few novels set in the Arab world I have bothered to pick up.
This is not a small consideration, given the importance the region and its people have in today’s world. Yet we know so little about the Arabs, and understand less — from our top policy makers to intelligence agencies to frontline troops to the average citizen reading the newspaper or surfing the web.
Not to disparage nonfiction books–they are crucially important in providing information and analysis–but nothing matches the novel for its power to humanize what seems alien, to find the universal grounded in the personal. And yet, how many of us have read many — any — novels by Arab writers, or (apart from thrillers) even set in the Arab world?
For example, when I’m reading news from or about the situation in Afghanistan, my interior touchstones are sparse: Kim, a great novel written more than a hundred years ago by that old British imperialist, Rudyard Kipling. And The Swallows of Kabul, a novel by the retired Algerian army officer, Yasmina Khadra.
Yes, I am not such a stupid American that I think Afghans are Arabs, but you get my point. What few novels I have read set in the Arab region have primarily been by Israeli (Amos Oz), British (Barry Unsworth), French (Albert Camus) or American (Robert Stone) writers. We cannot hope to know Arabs, and to meet them as people, in this way.
So I’m grateful to Rees for supplying a list of Top 10 Novels Set in the Arab World. Not all these are by Arab writers — he includes a couple of Western classics — but most are. Some of the Arab authors I’ve heard of, and one, Khadra, I’ve actually read — but not any in an Arab setting.
Rees, for the record, has lived in Jerusalem since 1996. As a journalist he covered the region for The Scotsman, Newsweek and Time before becoming a novelist. He writes an award-winning series of crime novels featuring a Palestinian detective, Omar Yussef (The Bethlehem Murders; The Saladin Murders; The Samaritan’s Secret; and coming in March, The Fourth Assassin).
“I live in Jerusalem and write fiction about the Palestinians because it’s a better way to understand the reality of life in Palestine than journalism and non-fiction,” Rees says. “The books in this list, in their different ways, unveil elements of life across the Arab world that you won’t see in the newspaper or on TV.”
Rees’s list: Wolf Dreams, by Yasmin Khadra; Let It Come Down, by Paul Bowles; Shadows of the Pomegranate Trees, by Traiq Ali; Palace Walk, by Naguib Mahfouz; Cities of Salt, by Abdelrahman Munif; The Yacoubian Building, by Alaa al-Aswany; The Secret Life of Saeed (The Pessoptimist), by Emile Habiby; Mountolive, by Lawrence Durrell; Prairies of Fever, by Ibrahim Nasrallah; The Rock: A Seventh Century Tale of Jerusalem, by Kanaan Makiya.
If you’ve read any of these books, please tell us what you think. And if you have novels set in the Arab world that you can add to the list, I’d love to hear of them.