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10 Arab novels every Westerner should read

January 13, 2010

Yasmina Khadra

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.

32 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    January 13, 2010 2:02 pm

    I love Paul Bowles and have read “Let it Come Down” and “Sheltering Sky.” I was led to Bowles by the Beat writers. Don’t forget that William Burroughs spent a lot of time in Tangier where he wrote “Naked Lunch” and “Interzone.” He also has a book of letters he wrote while he was there that is very descriptive of the place.

    I’ve been so fascinated by Northern Africa/Middle EAst (whatever you choose to call it)–magic carpet, Oriental carpet and patterns, Jeannies in bottles, the desert, the sheer beauty of the people, the cuisine– that my husband and I traveled to Morroco during the first George Bush’s first Persian Gulf War. Loved the people!

    THis region of the world was once a favorite vacation spot, especially during the 1960s. Jimi Hendrix had a home in Merrakech,I think. And we all know the Crosby, Steels, Nash & Young Marrakesh Express song.

    My point is: we have been much more influenced by the Arab world than we recognize or admit. Remember the bible too takes place in the Arab countries–the Cradle of Civilization.

    Thanks for reminding us of that, Chauncey Mabe.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 13, 2010 2:35 pm

      That’s a fact. Indeed, Western civilization would not exist if not for the Arabs, who preserved the writings of the Greeks and Romans while Europe was mired in the Dark Ages. It was the rediscovery of those works — Aristotle, etc. — by Europeans that engendered the Renaissance. And Arabs gave us even more: They introduced us to the the zero (which originated in India) — remember, we use “Arabic numerals” in our math. They developed algebra. They gave us coffee. “Sofa” is derived from an Arabic word. So is is “orange,” “sugar,” “coffee” and “satin.” Arab culture gave us backgammon, race horses, the guitar. And on and on. Here’s a link to a primer on Arab contributions to Western civilization at Salon.com: http://archive.salon.com/books/feature/2002/01/08/alphabet/index.html

      • January 13, 2010 4:23 pm

        Mmhmm, Chauncey. Such a historical gaze collapses superficial differences of us/them, and reminds us ultimately of our deep similarities and indebtedness to one another throughout Time…

      • June 4, 2014 5:47 pm

        In fact not all of what you mentioned came from arabs. You should say Muslims. Backgammon, Sugar, Orange are Persian. A lot of mathematicians, philosophers were in fact Persian e.g. Khorazami, Avecina, Khayyam, etc. They wrote in Arabic but were Persians.

  2. Connie permalink
    January 13, 2010 2:04 pm

    I have read precisely one: Mountolive. Shameful!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 13, 2010 2:36 pm

      I feel your shame, Connie. That’s the only one I’ve read, too. I read the rest of the Alexandria Quartet, though. That counts for something, right? Right?

  3. January 13, 2010 2:33 pm

    Thanks for this, Chauncey

    I think when we dream we are most alike… Which might account for the novel’s power “to humanize what seems alien, to find universal grounded in the personal” as sustained dreams.

    Few important (Egyptian) names/titles missing from the fine list you include might by anything by Youssef Idris (The Arab Chekhov, and a master short story writer), also any of the many fine works by giants of Arab literature: Tawfiq el-Hakim or Taha Hussein. More recently there is Sonallah Ibrahim ( The Committee is a good point of entry, Kafkaesque) as well as Ibrahim Farghali’s (Mahfouz influenced, novel-of-the-moment) Sons of Al-Gabalawi.

    Naturally, there are glaring gaps in this list, but it’s a start. Also, attached is a list of Arab writers under 40 y/o, to reckon with. Happy discoveries!

    http://www.hayfestival.com/beirut39/authors39.aspx?skinid=6

    Yahia

  4. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    January 13, 2010 2:38 pm

    Thanks so much for this addition, Yahia. I was hoping maybe you’d weigh in on this discussion. You’ve given us much to choose from, an entry point even more informed that what Rees is able to provide. You remain my dearest Egyptian friend. Okay, my only Egyptian friend, but even so.

  5. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    January 13, 2010 2:59 pm

    Allow me to recommend Yahia Lababidi to my correspondents, too. An Egyptian poet now living in Washington, DC, he’s also an outstanding aphorist whose work is included in The Encyclopedia of the World’s Aphorists, compiled by Time (Europe) magazine editor James Geary and published in 2007. Here’s an example of a Lababidi maxim: “The thoughts we choose to act upon define us to others, the ones we do not define us to ourselves.” I wrote a story for the Sun Sentinel when Yahia, who lived in Fort Lauderdale at the time, published his book of aphorisms, Signposts to Elsewhere, in 2006.

    Here’s a link to that story: http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/2007-03-11/news/0703070580_1_aphorisms-writers-book

  6. Tommy permalink
    January 13, 2010 3:21 pm

    Chauncey Mabe!

    Your blog has recently got me “all hopped up” on Clarice Lispector which has turned me on to South American authors.

    And Now!

    You get me interested in authors from the Middle East (sorry if I sound euro-centric). Have some compassion. I only have two eyes to read with and one mind to take it all in with. So many books, so little time and such a big world. (despite what they sing on the shores of Lake Buena Vista)

    Thank You Ms. Lababidi for the link. I have bookmarked it and will explore some of these authors in the near future.

    Also, Thank You, Mr. Mabe for helping me to discover new authors. Now, can you assist me in getting an extra 12 hours in my day to devote to recreational reading?

    • Tommy permalink
      January 13, 2010 3:24 pm

      My apologies for the Miss , Mr. Lababidi.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 14, 2010 12:15 pm

      I’ve been working on a time displacement renewal machine in my basement for several years, Tommy, and I’m nearing the end of the first round of preliminary tests, and while I have not yet quite been able to squeeze more time from the quantum wave tachyon flow holding the passing nanoseconds in linear sequence, I have run into a technical glitch. The fan belt broke and the squirrel died.

  7. January 13, 2010 4:07 pm

    You are ever curious, and generous, Chauncey. *Low, Oriental bow* I don’t know how good of an Egyptian/Arab I am, in that I write in English… Plus, to complicate matters further, I have mostly been influenced by German thinkers and poets (in translation). But, I suppose that is the point of World Literature, this cross-fertilizing of ideas. Thanks for sharing your review which I’m very proud of & here’s a link to 2008 revised/updated edition of my book:

    http://www.janestreet.org/press

    Tommy, I agree with you about the need for additional hours in the day, and perhaps a spare set of eyes to keep abreast of all the valuable books Out There. Nevermind about the Ms/Mr Lababidi. Call me Yahia…

    Cheers

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 14, 2010 12:16 pm

      I’m pleased to recommend your book, regardless of your bona fides as an Egyptian/Arab writer.

  8. rachel permalink
    January 13, 2010 4:47 pm

    I haven’t read any. Shame shame shame.

    Just gives me things to look forward to?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 14, 2010 12:17 pm

      Blow up your TV, move to the country…

  9. DeeBishoff permalink
    January 13, 2010 8:46 pm

    Shame on me too, I haven’t read any either but as always, Mr. Mabe has given me some good choices. Even more for my reading list!!

  10. January 14, 2010 3:00 am

    hi Chauncey, Glad you picked up on the list, and I agree with Yahia about the supplementary Egyptian writers — was quite difficult to narrow things down to 10. I’d also liked to have found room for “Season of Migration to the North,” by Sudanese writer Tayib Saleh, which many people in the Arab world believe is THE best novel in their language. best, Matt

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 14, 2010 12:21 pm

      Thanks for joining the conversation, Matt — after all, you started it! I’m pretty sure, once we pry open the door of Arab literature, we’ll find a wealth of good books and writers. Many Americans had this experience in the 1980s, when we suddenly discovered Latin American literature. I, for one, am looking forward to your next book, too.

  11. January 14, 2010 5:41 pm

    Hello, Matt

    Enjoyable as sifting process must have been, I don’t envy you task of whittling them down to only 10… Yes, Tayib Saleh is another whose work is worth unearthing; and not sure if you mentioned this or not, but Yahya Haqqi’s Saint’s Lamp is a modern classic in the relatively short history of the Arabic novel (released in mid 1940’s when form attains its perfection).

    Cheers, Yahia

  12. infloox permalink
    January 14, 2010 10:29 pm

    I had heard about how George Bush had apparently read “L’etranger” (presumably it would’ve been in English) while he was on vacation ages ago, and subsequently read an article by one political journalist wondering at whether Bush identified with Merseault over the killing of Arabs. ouch! Have a look at the Camus post on my blog, I’ve written a bit more about him, as well as the unfortunate Bush incident… http://infloox.wordpress.com/

  13. January 27, 2010 2:35 pm

    There are many other novels for Naguib Mahfouz (other than the Palace Walk) that is really worth reading too… I would recommend you read the rest of Cairo Triology (Desire Palace and Sugar Street). Also Children of Gebelawi is a very controversial novel that I would say a must read too.

    Check this out on Naguib Mahfouz Literature

    http://theegyptianproject.wordpress.com/2010/01/25/naguib-mahfouz-nobel-prize-in-literature-1988/

  14. Fourcade Hoda permalink
    March 7, 2010 1:36 pm

    Hello,

    i would like to add to your list the marvellous book of Mohamed El-Bisatie, Drumbeat, translated by Peter Daniel…

    my best regards,
    Hoda

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 7, 2010 4:42 pm

      Thanks for that one, sounds worthwhile.

  15. January 24, 2011 10:47 am

    The Arab Writers Union in Damascus, Syria defined a list of the best 100 Arabic novels
    But I think the whole list isn’t translated to English
    http://arablit.wordpress.com/2010/04/23/the-best-100-arabic-books-according-to-the-arab-writers-union-1-10/

  16. May 15, 2011 6:15 am

    I am happy to say i have read most of the books on the list🙂

  17. August 16, 2011 5:34 am

    I think my novel should be added to the list😀 Okay, it’s not what you’d call ‘literary’ fiction – more like chick-lit with cultural undertones but it’s been getting good reviews so far. It’s called Desperate in Dubai and tells the tales of four women in Dubai. Looking forward to your thoughts!

  18. Emile! permalink
    October 25, 2011 3:57 pm

    hello! First of all, thank you very much for this great informative blog! It really helps in being introduced to such great Arab writers and Novelists.

    I am working now on my seminar which its main concern is Travel books or in a way or another diaries written about Jerusalem by American writers. I am studying now Bertha Spafford Vestar’s book “Our Jerusalem” and I intend to compare to another book to show the differences in representations of Jerusalem! Any help!

  19. mlynxqualey permalink
    January 19, 2012 7:17 am

    I’ve seen Matt’s list. It wouldn’t be mine (which two readers would pick the same list?)

    Two don’t-miss books off the beaten path from Egypt are Waguih Ghali’s “Beer in the Snooker Club” and Sonallah Ibrahim’s “Stealth.”

    And the Arab Writers Union list mentioned earlier, in a one-stop list (instead of the one I spread out to 10 separate pages):
    http://arablit.wordpress.com/for-readers/top-105/

    Also my best of 2011:
    http://arablit.wordpress.com/2011/12/30/a-best-of-arabic-literature-in-english-2011/

    And best of 2010:
    http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/node/282159

    • mlynxqualey permalink
      January 19, 2012 7:19 am

      Although I’d add there’s no particular reason a “Westerner” should read any of these books, vs. an Easterner or a Northerner or a Southerner or an upside-downer…

      I guess for Westerners, I’d suggest Ali Bader’s “The Tobacco Keeper,” since it’s one of the exceptionally few Iraqi narratives of the 2003-2011 Iraq war available in English.

  20. Zainab permalink
    January 25, 2013 2:42 pm

    Ghassan Kanafani, `rajal fi al-shams.`Or Men in the Sun. It`s a brilliant short story. Enjoy!

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