Arab-x authors to read right now

It’s no secret that I love books by Arab or Arab-x* authors. It’s why I launched #YMERC, a Middle-Eastern reading challenge that features a book and graphic novel every month, written by an Arab or Arab-x author.

These past few months, I’ve been hoarding these sorts of titles, and plan on adding them to the 2021 YMERC. By the way, you can join this reading challenge at any time by clicking the 2021 YMERC link.

Here’s a list of some of my more recent Arab-x author reads, some of which will become future 2021 YMERC titles.

My First and Only Love by Sahar KhalifehAida Barnia (Translator)

A deeply poetic account of love and resistance through a young girl’s eyes by acclaimed writer, Sahar Khalifeh, called “the Virginia Woolf of Palestinian literature” (Börsenblatt)

After many decades of restless exile, Nadal returns to her family home in Nablus, where she had lived with her grandmother before the 1948 Nakba that scattered her family across the globe.

She was a young girl when the popular resistance began and, through the bloodshed and bitter struggle, Nidal fell in love with Rabie, a freedom fighter. He was her first and only real love―him and all that he represented: Palestine in its youth and spring, the resistance fighters in the hills, the nation as embodied in her family home and in the land.

Years later, Nidal and Rabie meet, and he encourages her to read her uncle Amin’s memoirs. She immerses herself in the details of her family and national past and discovers that her absent mother had been nurse and lover to Palestinian leader Abdel-Qader al-Husseini.

Set in the final days of the British Mandate, Sahar Khalifeh spins an epic tale filled with emotional urgency and political immediacy.

Damascus Nights by Rafik SchamiPhilip Boehm (Translator)

It is 1959, Damascus. The most famous storyteller in Damascus, Salim, the coachman, has mysteriously lost his voice.

For seven nights, his seven old friends gather to break the spell with their seven different, unique stories — some personal, some modern, some borrowed from the past.

Against the backdrop of shifting Middle Eastern politics, Schami’s eight characters, lost to the Arabian nights, weave in and out of tales of wizards and princesses, of New York skyscrapers and America.

With spellbinding power, Schami imparts a luscious vision of storytelling as food for thought and salve for the soul, as the glue which holds our lives together.

Love Is an Ex-Country by Randa Jarrar

Queer. Muslim. Arab American. A proudly Fat woman. Randa Jarrar is all of these things. In this provocative memoir of a cross-country road trip, she explores how to claim joy in an unraveling and hostile America.

Randa Jarrar is a fearless voice of dissent who has been called “politically incorrect” (Michelle Goldberg, The New York Times). As an American raised for a time in Egypt, and finding herself captivated by the story of a celebrated Egyptian belly dancer’s journey across the United States in the 1940s, she sets off from her home in California to her parents’ in Connecticut.

Coloring this road trip are journeys abroad and recollections of a life lived with daring. Reclaiming her autonomy after a life of survival—domestic assault as a child, and later, as a wife; threats and doxxing after her viral tweet about Barbara Bush—Jarrar offers a bold look at domestic violence, single motherhood, and sexuality through the lens of the punished-yet-triumphant body. On the way, she schools a rest-stop racist, destroys Confederate flags in the desert, and visits the Chicago neighborhood where her immigrant parents first lived.

Hailed as “one of the finest writers of her generation” (Laila Lalami), Jarrar delivers a euphoric and critical, funny and profound memoir that will speak to anyone who has felt erased, asserting: I am here. I am joyful.

A Map of Home: A Novel by Randa Jarrar

Nidali narrates the story of her childhood in Kuwait, her teenage years in Egypt, and her family’s last flight to Texas, offering a humorous, sharp but loving portrait of an eccentric middle-class family.

Nidali, the rebellious daughter of an Egyptian-Greek mother and a Palestinian father, narrates the story of her childhood in Kuwait, her teenage years in Egypt (to where she and her family fled the 1990 Iraqi invasion), and her family’s last flight to Texas. Nidali mixes humor with a sharp, loving portrait of an eccentric middle-class family, and this perspective keeps her buoyant through the hardships she encounters: the humiliation of going through a checkpoint on a visit to her father’s home in the West Bank; the fights with her father, who wants her to become a famous professor and stay away from boys; the end of her childhood as Iraq invades Kuwait on her thirteenth birthday; and the scare she gives her family when she runs away from home.

Funny, charming, and heartbreaking, A Map of Home is the kind of book Tristram Shandy or Huck Finn would have narrated had they been born Egyptian-Palestinian and female in the 1970s.

Minor Detail by Adania ShibliElisabeth Jaquette (Translator)

Minor Detail begins during the summer of 1949, one year after the war that the Palestinians mourn as the Nakba—the catastrophe that led to the displacement and exile of some 700,000 people—and the Israelis celebrate as the War of Independence.

Israeli soldiers murder an encampment of Bedouin in the Negev desert, and among their victims they capture a Palestinian teenager and they rape her, kill her, and bury her in the sand.

Many years later, in the near-present day, a young woman in Ramallah tries to uncover some of the details surrounding this particular rape and murder, and becomes fascinated to the point of obsession, not only because of the nature of the crime, but because it was committed exactly twenty-five years to the day before she was born.

Adania Shibli masterfully overlays these two translucent narratives of exactly the same length to evoke a present forever haunted by the past. 

Memoirs of a Woman Doctor by Nawal El SaadawiCatherine Cobham (Translation) 

Rebelling against the constraints of family and society, a young Egyptian woman decides to study medicine, becoming the only woman in a class of men.

Her encounters with the other students–as well as the male and female corpses in the autopsy room–intensify her dissatisfaction with and her search for identity.

She realizes men are not gods as her mother had taught her, that science cannot explain everything, and that she cannot be satisfied by living a life purely of the mind.

After a brief and unhappy marriage, she throws herself into her work, becoming a successful physician, but at the same time, she becomes aware of injustice and hypocrisy in society.

Fulfillment and love come to her at last in a wholly unexpected way.

The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria by Alia Malek

At the Arab Spring’s hopeful start, Alia Malek returned to Damascus to reclaim her grandmother’s apartment, which had been lost to her family since Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1970. Its loss was central to her parent’s decision to make their lives in America.

In chronicling the people who lived in the Tahaan building, past and present, Alia portrays the Syrians-the Muslims, Christians, Jews, Armenians, and Kurds-who worked, loved, and suffered in close quarters, mirroring the political shifts in their country.

Restoring her family’s home as the country comes apart, she learns how to speak the coded language of oppression that exists in a dictatorship, while privately confronting her own fears about Syria’s future.

The Home That Was Our Country is a deeply researched, personal journey that shines a delicate but piercing light on Syrian history, society, and politics.

Teeming with insights, the narrative weaves acute political analysis with a century of intimate family history, ultimately delivering an unforgettable portrait of the Syria that is being erased. 

The Girl with Braided Hair: A Novel by Rasha Adly (Author), Sarah Enany (Translator)

The lives of two women living centuries apart are connected by an enigmatic painting in this mesmerizing debut based on historical events

Art historian, Yasmine, is restoring an unsigned portrait of a strikingly beautiful girl from the Napoleonic Era, when she discovers that the artist has embedded a lock of hair into the painting, something highly unusual. The mysterious painting came into the museum’s possession without record, and Yasmine becomes consumed by the secret concealed within this captivating work.

Meanwhile, at the close of the French Campaign in Egypt, sixteen-year-old Zeinab, the daughter of a prominent sheikh, is drawn into French high society when Napoleon himself requests her presence. Enamored by the foreign customs of the Europeans, she finds herself on a dangerous path, one that may ostracize her from her family and culture.

Seamlessly merging fiction with history, art, and politics, modern day Cairo with its opulent past, this compelling story of two women caught between worlds and entangled in matters of the heart launches an entrancing new literary voice. 

Bird Summons by Leila Aboulela 

In her adventurous new novel, New York Times Notable author Leila Aboulela delivers a lively portrait of three women who embark on a journey of self-discovery while grappling with the conflicting demands of family, duty, and faith.

When Salma, Moni, and Iman–friends and active members of their local Muslim Women’s group–decide to take a road trip together to the Scottish Highlands, they leave behind lives often dominated by obligation, frustrated desire, and dull predictability. Each wants something more out of life, but fears the cost of taking it.

Salma is successful and happily married, but tempted to risk it all when she’s contacted by her first love back in Egypt; Moni gave up a career in banking to care for her disabled son without the help of her indifferent husband; and Iman, in her twenties and already on her third marriage, longs for the freedom and autonomy she’s never known.

When the women are visited by the Hoopoe, a sacred bird from Muslim and Celtic literature, they are compelled to question their relationships to faith and femininity, love, loyalty, and sacrifice.

Brilliantly imagined, thoughtful and wise, Bird Summons confirms Leila Aboulela’s reputation as one of our finest contemporary writers.

*I’m using Arab-x to refer to any individual who is of Arab origin but born/living elsewhere, such as being Arab-American or Arab-British.

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