There’s no doubt the dark academia aesthetic is appealing to many intellectuals. But at its core, it includes mostly WASPs – White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant. However, the trend is moving towards inclusion, and with my love of all things dark and elite (in books), here’s a (short) list of Arab Dark Academia books, since the subgenre is so limited.
Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak
Peri, a married, wealthy, beautiful Turkish woman, is on her way to a dinner party at a seaside mansion in Istanbul when a beggar snatches her handbag. As she wrestles to get it back, a photograph falls to the ground–an old Polaroid of three young women and their university professor. A relic from a past–and a love–Peri had tried desperately to forget.
Three Daughters of Eve is set over an evening in contemporary Istanbul, as Peri arrives at the party and navigates the tensions that simmer in this crossroads country between East and West, religious and secular, rich and poor. Over the course of the dinner, and amidst an opulence that is surely ill begotten, terrorist attacks occur across the city.
Competing in Peri’s mind, however, are the memories invoked by her almost-lost Polaroid, of the time years earlier when she was sent abroad for the first time, to attend Oxford University. As a young woman there, she had become friends with the charming, adventurous Shirin, a fully assimilated Iranian girl, and Mona, a devout Egyptian American.
Their arguments about Islam and feminism find focus in the charismatic but controversial Professor Azur, who teaches divinity, but in unorthodox ways. As the terrorist attacks come ever closer, Peri is moved to recall the scandal that tore them all apart.
Karnak Café by Naguib Mahfouz
Three young friends survive interrogation by the secret police, only to find their lives poisoned by suspicion, fear, and betrayal. At a Cairo café in the 1960s, a legendary former belly dancer lovingly presides over a boisterous family of regulars, including a group of idealistic university students. One day, amid reports of a wave of arrests, three of the students disappear: the excitable Hilmi, his friend Ismail, and Ismail’s beautiful girlfriend Zaynab.
When they return months later, they are apparently unharmed and yet subtly and profoundly changed. It is only years later, after their lives have been further shattered, that the narrator pieces together the young people’s horrific stories and learns how the government used them against one another.
The Book of Mirdad: The Strange Story of a Monastery which was Once Called The Ark by Mikhail Naimy
Mikhail Naimy’s timeless classic, an allegory often compared to the works of his friend Khalil Gibran, presents the teachings of Mirdad, Abbott of a monastery that stands where Noah’s Ark came to rest after the Flood.
In a series of dialogues with his disciples, Mirdad offers lessons on themes such as love, obedience, borrowing and lending, repentance, old age, and the cycle of life and death.
In the Presence of Absence by Mahmoud Darwish
One of the most transcendent poets of his generation, Darwish composed this remarkable elegy at the apex of his creativity, but with the full knowledge that his death was imminent. Thinking it might be his final work, he summoned all his poetic genius to create a luminous work that defies categorization. In stunning language, Darwish’s self-elegy inhabits a rare space where opposites bleed and blend into each other. Prose and poetry, life and death, home and exile are all sung by the poet and his other.
On the threshold of im/mortality, the poet looks back at his own existence, intertwined with that of his people. Through these lyrical meditations on love, longing, Palestine, history, friendship, family, and the ongoing conversation between life and death, the poet bids himself and his readers a poignant farewell.