Guest post by book addict, literary consultant and blogger Sumaiyya Naseem! Sumaiyya is a bookworm and reading enthusiast from Jeddah and I’ve been following her awesome Sumaiyya books Instagram account for ages. I’m always in awe (and admittedly a bit jealous too) of how she has the time to consume all the great books she posts about. I asked Sumaiyya to share with us her top recommended books from the Middle East.
The following is her top 15 book choices written by authors from the Middle East region. I loved this list and found so many great book recommendations I can’t wait to get a hold of some of these gems. Have you read any of them? My personal favorite from the ones I’ve read on this list is A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. What’s yours?
Here’s Sumaiyyah’s tip for finding these books for readers living in Saudi Arabia: “Some of the books are available in Jarir bookstore and Virgin (usually), but it’s best to order them from Amazon (they ship to Saudi post where people can pick it up) or Book Depository (free shipping).
“Once in a while there are readers who realise they have limited themselves to a particular genre or literary comfort zone. So they decide to read diverse genres or explore various cultures through literature. In the middle of ‘Read More Books by People of Color’ what is often overshadowed is remarkable works by Arab or Middle Eastern authors.
So, here are some of the best books by Middle Eastern authors that you should definitely check out!
1. The Bastard of Istanbul
Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak
A mysterious family curse, a clairvoyant and her jinns, and two young women at the heart of it all. This is a beautiful, powerful book with strong female characters, a lot of history and family secrets. It also has its fair share of young intellectuals (in Café Kundera of all places) and the search for identity and heritage. The Bastard of Istanbul is definitely a must read and a wonderful introduction into the world of Elif Shafak.
“That was the one thing about the rain that likened it to sorrow: You did your best to remain untouched, safe and dry, but if and when you failed, there came a point in which you started seeing the problem less in terms of drops than as an incessant gush, and thereby you decide you might as well get drenched.”
2. The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi
Rumi lovers this is the book for you. It spans two eras in time – the time of Rumi and Ella’s story in present day England – connected through the story of Shams of Tabriz. You will want to take your time with this book and you will definitely enjoy it. The Forty Rules of Love is woven with Shams’ wisdom and Ella’s rediscovery of her Self and love.
“The words that come out of our mouths do not vanish but are perpetually stored in infinite space, and they will come back to us in due time.”
3. The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk
This is a beautiful book but it is filled with despair and sadness. Kemal falls in love with a shop girl while he’s engaged to be married. What follows is Kemal’s obsession with collecting anything that reminds him of her and their time together. Orhan Pamuk wrote this masterpiece after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. But the book doesn’t end with its pages. There is an actual Museum of Innocence curated by the writer which contains every item that is mentioned in the book.
“It was the happiest moment of my life, though I didn’t know it. Had I known, had I cherished this gift, would everything have turned out differently?”
This is easily one of the best books I’ve read, especially in terms of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. It spans four generations and five countries and it captures the sudden shift in the lives of the people of Palestinian and how it affected the generations to come. In the heart of it all there is love, loss and the struggle of living with memories of the past.
“We come from the land, give our love and labor to her, and she nurtures us in return. When we die, we return to the land. In a way, she owns us. Palestine owns us and we belong to her.”
5. An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine
Told through the eyes of an ‘obsessive introvert’ Aliyah, an old unmarried woman in a society that shuns women like her. Aliyah finds solace in her solitude and most of all through her love for the written word; every year Aliyah translates one of her favourite books intro Arabic. The book begins with an old woman turning her hair blue after she overhears her neighbours commenting about the whiteness of her hair, and when it ends it leaves us deeply satisfied and wiser than we were before. This is a must read and the book that made me feel like I was ignorant when it came to literature.
“No loss is felt more keenly than the loss of what might have been. No nostalgia hurts as much as nostalgia for things that never existed.”
6. The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf: A Novel by Mohja Kahf
Here’s another must-read for young Muslims, especially those growing up in the West and those who are unable to define their identity. It’s a powerful book that will help you understand the difficulties of living in a non-Muslim community, and it will also help you appreciate the beauty and diversity of our Muslim community. Never before was a book so powerfully close to home for me.
“…Her eyes sparkle like she’s about to cartwheel through a mosque.”
7. Secret Son by Laila Lalami
Youssef Al Makki lives in a one-room house with his Mom. His father is dead and he daydreams about leaving struggles behind by entering the world of acting and films. That’s until the day he comes face to face with the father he thought was dead. Now he is pulled into the world of the rich where his father is a powerful businessman. Youssef suddenly has everything he ever wanted but he is forced to choose between the comfort of luxury and the life that was once completely his. Another must read that exposes the search for identity in a tumultuous world.
“His anger took many shapes: sometimes soft and familiar, like a round stone he had caressed for so long that is was perfectly smooth and polished; sometimes it was thin and sharp like a blade that could slice through anything; sometimes it had the form of a star, radiating his hatred in all directions, leaving him numb and empty inside.”
8. Love in a Headscarf by Shelna Zahra Janmohamed
This a wonderful book that follows the story of Shelina who has decided to go for an arranged marriage the Muslim way. She has given up her hopes of marrying John Travolta and is now searching for the One and in her journey she ends up discovering herself and her faith. This book will answer your questions, speak for the troubles you might face and guide you towards your own faith.
“Poetry is designed to inspire love, and islam is about falling in love with the creator of the universe.”
9. One Thousand and One Nights: A Retelling by Hanan Al Shaykh
This is a bold retelling of the famous Arabian Nights tales of the One Thousand and One Nights. It’s dream-like, magical and yet aimed for adults. It’s quitean interesting read and definitely a must read considering it’s one of the first takes on the literary heritage by a woman.
“A truth once seen by a single mind ends up by imposing itself on the totality of human consciousness.”
10. Lyrics Alley: A Novel by Leila Aboulela
Based on the story of the writer’s uncle, Hassan Awad Aboulela a famous poet of the 1950s, this story follows the events that lead to a family in turmoil. It’s a great book that will introduce you to Sudanese history and culture, told through the love story of Nur and Soraya.
“The sweetest things in life were not necessarily what one strove for and grabbed. Instead, many many times the All-Merciful, the All-Generous would give His servants without being petitioned, without waiting to be asked.”
11. Coloured Lights by Leila Aboulela
The eleven stories in this short story collection will help you understand the struggles that Muslim immigrants face in Britain. It’s a wonderful book in which the writer puts difficult feelings into simple words and showcases the reality of life.
“And why is it that so many years later it is so easy to distinguish the bullies from their prey? Adult bodies surrounding the children of long ago. The years have changed nothing.”
12. The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami
This historical fiction is a Pulitzer Prize Finalist and definitely deserves to be on the list. It’s an imagined memoir of the first black explorer of American, a Moroccan slave Mustafa al-Zamori. Mustafa’s narrative gives a different perspective of the famous expedition across America.
“A name is precious; it carries inside it a language, a history, a set of traditions, a particular way of looking at the world. Losing it meant losing my ties to all those things too.”
13. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
Even people who don’t read books often know about this gem by Khaled Hosseini. Female solidarity, surviving under abusive patriarchy and an unstable political scene give this novel its voice. The book is an example of brilliant storytelling, memorable characters and amazing evolution of solidarity from the seed of hatred. Mariam and Laila will forever be the best female characters created by Hosseini.
“A man’s heart is a wretched, wretched thing. It isn’t like a mother’s womb. It won’t bleed. It won’t stretch to make room for you.”
14. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
This is another beautiful story by the famed Afghani author and it was also turned into a movie. It depicts the change in Afghanistan as a result of political conflict through the stories of two best friends who are pulled apart after a life changing incident during a kite flying competition.
“It’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out.”
15. The Map of Love: A Novel by Ahdaf Soueif
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, it’s the story about a divorced American journalist who falls in love with an Egyptian-American conductor. She goes to Egypt and into her past to understand and discover the story of her ancestors – Sharif and Anna – who had fallen in love nearly a century ago. This is a wonderful read about love across cultures.
“But things move on and by the time you’ve plotted your position the world around you has changed and you are running -panting- to catch up.”
See any of your favourites?! Here are a few more titles for your interest!
Other must reads by Arab authors:
1. The Blue Between Sky and Water by Susan Abulhawa
2. The Architect’s Apprentice: A Novel by Elif Shafak
3. Honor: A Novel by Elif Shafak
4. My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk
5. The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine
6. The Dove’s Necklace: A Novel by Raja Alem
7. Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi
8. And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
9. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi
10. Only in London by Hanan Al Shaykh
11. The New Belly Dancer of the Galaxy: A Novel by Francis Khirallah Noble