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Recommended Reading, 2019: Books From and About the Arab World

Each year, I put together a list of recent books of interest from and about the Arab world. The list contains personal favorites, books I have written about, and books I am eager to read. Most titles are available in translation. The list aims to give a sense of the breadth and diversity of literary and scholarly writing in the region but is by no means exhaustive. I welcome readers’ comments and suggestions.

Sentence to Hope: A Sa’dallah Wannous Reader (Yale University Press, translated by Robert Myers and Nada Saab). The first such comprehensive anthology of the great Syrian playwright’s works to be published for a general audience in English. An introduction to an influential artist who believed theater could be “the ideal forum in which man can ponder his historical and existential condition.”

Celestial Bodies, Jokha Alharthi (Catapult, translated by Marylin Booth). This multi-generational saga by the Omani writer Jokha Alharthi weaves together different voices and times to chronicle the modern history of Oman and the unhappy marriages of several women from the same family. It won the 2019 Man Booker International Prize and has been translated into many languages and widely acclaimed.

The Book of DisappearanceIbtisam Azem (Syracuse University Press, translated by Sinan Antoon). This slim, powerful novel unspools from a simple premise: What would happen if all the Palestinians in Israel disappeared one day?

Egyptian novelist Muhammad al-Haj’s short story collection Nobody Mourns the City’s Cats was actually published in 2018 but it won the 2019 Sawiris Award, and I discovered it only recently. A translated excerpt, which perfectly captures the melancholy, brutality and camaraderie of life in the Egyptian capital, is available in the Summer 2019 issue of ArabLit Quarterly.

Our Women on the Ground (Penguin Books, edited by Zahra Hankir) is an anthology of essays by female reporters in and from the Arab world. It is an honest and compelling account of the choices and quandaries these correspondents have faced in the course of their careers. Their voices are wonderfully varied, moving between anger, guilt, recklessness, loss and determination.

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Palestine as Metaphor, Mahmoud Darwish (Olive Branch Press, translated by Amira El-Zein and Carolyn Forché). This book features four wide-ranging interviews with the great Palestinian poet, who died in 2008. He reflects with acuity and eloquence on his life, his craft, his vocation and the complex question of how to write about his homeland.

Youm El-Sabaa Articles, Mahmoud Darwish (Institute for Palestine Studies, edited by Hassan Khadr, in Arabic). This anthology of articles Darwish wrote for the Youm El-Sabaa newspaper covers the period from the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon through the first intifada and the declaration of Palestinian independence in 1988.

Cairo Since 1900: An Architectural Guide, Mohamed Elshahed (American University in Cairo Press). This book, by the creator of the essential cairobserver blog, promises to be  “the first comprehensive architectural guide to the constructions that have shaped and continue to shape the Egyptian capital since the early twentieth century.” In other words, to highlight a heritage that all too often is neglected, if not destroyed.

Arabicity: Contemporary Arab Art (Saqi Books, edited by Juliet Cestar and Rose Issa). For those interested in the question “What are the concerns of Arab artists today?”, this anthology offers a panorama of influential contemporary artists from the region, and of the creative ways they have found to engage with the major social and political questions of the day.

Shubeik Lubeik, Deena Mohamed (Cairo, Dar El Mahrousa). This award-winning graphic novel is a contemporary fantasy set in Cairo, at a time when wishes are literally for sale. The second and third volumes are forthcoming in Arabic; translations of the three-part series will be published in English in 2021.

Islam, la part de l’universel, Abdelwahab Meddeb (Casablanca: En Toutes Lettres, translated into Arabic by Mohammed Zernine). The work of the renowned late Tunisian professor of literature and public intellectual Abdelwahab Meddeb, originally published in French in 2003, is available in a new bilingual (French and Arabic) edition from the Moroccan publishing house En Toutes Lettres. In this work Meddeb focuses on the humanist dimension of Islam, celebrating its assimilation of other cultures and its contributions to world knowledge.


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