Recommended Reading, 2020: Books From and About the Arab World

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).

Each year, Al-Fanar Media puts together a list of recent books of interest from and about the Arab world. This list contains personal favorites, books we’ve covered on Al-Fanar, and those that have generated discussion throughout the year. 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. We welcome readers’ comments and suggestions.

Art and Architecture

A History of Arab Graphic Design, Bahia Shehab and Haytham Nawar (AUC Press). This book gives a much-needed visual overview of several generations of Arab graphic designers working in Arab countries and in different diasporas and exiles. It builds a history of Arab graphic design from the origins of printing through the 21st century, bringing the work of graphic designers across the region into conversation.

History and Memoir

Archive Wars: The Politics of History in Saudi Arabia, Rosie Bsheer (Stanford University Press). This accessibly written academic book creates a powerful shift in how we see the history of Saudi Arabia by looking at how archives were shaped, what was written, and what was erased. As Bsheer writes in her introduction, “Erasure is not simply a countermeasure to the making of history: it is history.”

A Rot of Evidence: A Journal of Reading and Writing in Prison (Haraz Mukamakum), Ahmed Naji (Dar Safsafa, in Arabic). In 2016, the Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji was sentenced to two years in prison for allegedly “violating public decency” when an excerpt from his novel The Use of Life was published in a magazine. In a new memoir, Naji writes about his time in prison, where he was forbidden from writing and where his reading material was strictly censored. He writes about this time with emotion and depth without ever abandoning his sense of humor. An excerpt is available in English translation in the Fall 2020 Michigan Quarterly Review.

Shifting the Silence, Etel Adnan (Nightboat Books). This meditation on aging, life, grief, learning, and lockdown startles at every page. Moving between Syria and California, Greece and Mars, the 95-year-old Lebanese writer and painter roams over the whole canvas of her life. “I’m telling you: we’re carried by tornadoes we barely notice, whirlwinds we barely feel, aggressions we barely acknowledge, because we’re half-awake. Things are translated into something alien.”

The Passengers’ Hall (Ghorfat Al-Mosafreen), Ezzat El-Kamhawi (Dar Al Masriah Al Lubnaniah, in Arabic). On the longlist for this year’s Sheikh Zayed Book Award, El-Kamhawi’s book is a nonfiction work about journeys, a perfect work to read during Covid-19 lockdown, taking us both through the author’s experience of travels and his reflections on travel literature.

[Enjoying this article? Subscribe to our free newsletter.]

The Book of Sleep, Haytham El Wardany (Seagull Books, translated by Robin Moger). What is sleep? As in his brilliant How to Disappear, El Wardany’s Book of Sleep moves between philosophy, anecdote, poetry, political analysis, and story to give us a portrait both of Egypt in the spring of 2013 and of the state of being we call “the little death.” Another recommended read of 2020 is El Wardany’s What Cannot Be Fixed (Ma La Yumkin Islahuh, al-Karma Books, in Arabic), a short-story collection that explores questions of animal life, language, and power.

In the Footsteps of Enayat al-Zayyat (Fi Athar Enayat al- Zayyat), Iman Mersal (Kotob Khan Books, in Arabic). Although this came out in November 2019, it’s worth mentioning again lest anyone miss out. This look into the life of the Egyptian writer Enayat al-Zayyat, who killed herself in 1963, illuminates the challenges of writing while female and life in mid-20th-century Egypt. It is part detective story, part biography, and part memoir, and will make any sensitive reader cry.

Novels and Short Stories

The Frightened Ones, Dima Wannous (Penguin Random House, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette). This brilliant, terrifying novel digs deep into the nature of fear with echoing portraits of two women in contemporary Syria who are trying to maintain their grip on history and reality. This novel crafts an eerie and sharp-eyed vision of love, anxiety, and family, and it is beautifully translated by Jaquette.

Minor Detail, Adania Shibli (New Directions, translated by Jaquette). Another excellent translation by Jaquette that also takes place in two alternating story lines: in the summer of 1949 and in the present, each on the tail of the other in a short, faced-paced, haunting novel.

Passage to the Plaza, Sahar Khalifeh (Seagull Books, translated by Sawad Hussain). Finally, this 20th-century classic is in English translation. Set during the early days of the First Palestinian Intifada (1987-1993), the novel is fast-paced, theatrical, and witty. Like many of Khalifeh’s novels, it brings us history through the eyes not of “important men,” but of ordinary women.

Straight from the Horse’s Mouth, Meryem Alaoui (Other Press, translated by Emma Ramadan). This witty, energetic Moroccan novel, published in French in 2018, appeared this year in Emma Ramadan’s vibrant translation to English. It follows 34-year-old sex worker Jmiaa on an improbable journey while never losing its footing in ordinary life.

Classics in New Translation

Impostures, al-Hariri (Library of Arabic Literature, translated by Michael Cooperson). Al-Hariri (1054-1122) was a poet and scholar who lived in Basra, Iraq, and was known for the brilliant wordplay of his maqamat (a literary genre that alternates verse and prose). In this new translation, Cooperson attempts not scholarly accuracy, but to answer wordplay with wordplay in a fencing match of English and Arabic.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button