Recommended 2015 Books From and About the Arab World
For the end of the year, I have compiled a list of books of note from and about the Arab world published (or translated into English or French) in 2015. I was looking for as many books as I could that would be available to both English and Arabic readers of Al-Fanar Media. The list includes fiction, nonfiction, and scholarly works. It makes evident the outpouring of creativity in Arab countries, as well as some of the challenges the region faces. Readers will find comics, satirical and dramatic novels, works of history and political analysis. While translation of Arabic literature — from the ninth century to today — has been growing in recent years, with several new presses and awards, translations of scholarly work in Arabic seem limited (or not as well-publicized and distributed). The list contains some personal favorites but the suggestions are also culled from many helpful recommendations from friends, colleagues, readers and sources. I don’t view the list as definitive: It is intended as the beginning of a conversation, not its end point. Please feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments section. The hyperlinks are typically to English or French sources, but where available for fiction, we’ve included a link to an Arabic original in parentheses.
The Mersault Investigation by Kamel Daoud, Other Press, translated from the French by John Cullen. Daoud, a well-known Algerian columnist, has penned a stunning debut novel, in which he brilliantly riffs on Albert Camus’ The Stranger. The narrator is the brother of the unnamed Arab killed in Camus’ novel; the unsolved murder and its consequences haunt his failed life.
(“A very old friend”) by Ibrahim Aslan, El-Hiyya el-Masreyya el-Amma lel-Kitab. The literary journalist and writer Ahmad Naje recommends this posthumous work—a mixture of the biographical and the imaginary—from the Egyptian novelist who penned the classic “The Heron.” (This book is still in Arabic only, but is a strong candidate for translation.)
Kenza Sefrioui, head of the Moroccan publishing house En Toutes Lettres and a literary critic, recommends Le Castor (“The Beaver”) by Mohammed Hassan Alwan, Seuil, translated from the Arabic to French by Stephanie Dujols, “a hilarious novel about Saudi society” (you can read an excerpt in English here); and the award-winning Les prépondérants by the French-Tunisian author and literature professor Hédi Kaddour, Gallimard, “a magnificent panorama of colonial society in the Maghreb in the 1920s.”
The Bamboo Stalk by Saud Alsanousi, Bloomsbury Qatar, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright. The winner of the 2014 “Arabic Booker” explores the complex issue of identity in the Persian Gulf, and discrimination against migrant workers, through the story of the son of a Kuwaiti citizen and a Filipina domestic worker.
The Library of Arabic Literature—a press created by New York University with backing from Abu Dhabi—continues to put out some wonderful new bilingual editions of classics of Arabic literature such as The Life and Times of Abu Tammam, by Abu Bakr al-Suli, translated from the Arabic by Beatrice Gruendler. A defense of the famous poet, it plunges the reader into literary life in 9th century Baghdad. Humphrey Davies’ award-winning translation of Leg over Leg by Ahmad Faris Shidyaq came out in 2014, but the more affordable paperback edition was published last year. The digressive, subversive, unclassifiable work has been compared to Tristam Shandy. The New York Review of Books called it “the first great Arabic novel.”
The Arab of the Future, A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984: A Graphic Memoir by Riad Sattouf, Metropolitan Books, translated from the French by Sam Taylor. This graphic novel by a French-Syrian artist about his early childhood in Ghaddafi’s Libya and Bashar El Assad’s Syria has become a literary phenomenon in France. Two volumes of a planned four-volume series have been published in French by Allary Editions; the first volume is now available in English. The humor is dark and the portrait of a small village outside Homs in the early 1980s scathing. The book is a rueful indictment of authoritarianism and of the Arab nationalists, like the author’s father, who believed it was necessary for progress.
Jonathan Guyer, who blogs about cartoons in the Arab world at Oum Cartoon, also recommends the year-end issue of the embattled Lebanese comics anthology Samandal: “After a tolling blasphemy lawsuit that left the Lebanese comic collective $20,000 in the hole, Samandal strikes back with a visually provocative annual edition centered around the theme of Geographies. Editor Joseph Kai’s fine eye is apparent in the edition’s mix of divergent narrative and aesthetic styles, united by sophisticated design elements.”
Marcia Lynx Qualey of the blog Arabic Literature (in English) recommends Beirut Noir, edited by Iman Humaydan and translated by Michelle Hartman, from Akashic Books: “This short-story collection, filled with talented Lebanese writers, maps contemporary Beirut in its corruption, violence, and loss.” Qualey also suggests reading Ali and His Russian Mother by Alexandra Chreiteh from Interlink Books, calling it “a sharply funny, self-mocking look at sexuality, war, and identity in contemporary Beirut.”
What Is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic by Shahab Ahmed, Princeton University Press. This ambitious, original and wide-ranging scholarly work (whose author passed away last year) goes in search of “a new conceptual language for analyzing Islam” and “a new paradigm of how Muslims have historically understood divine revelation—one that enables us to understand how and why Muslims through history have embraced values such as exploration, ambiguity, aestheticization, polyvalence, and relativism, as well as practices such as figural art, music, and even wine drinking as Islamic.” You can read the first chapter online here.
Several books published last year offered histories and analyses of ISIS. One of them is The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State by William McCants, St. Martin’s Press. This well-written, well-researched account of the extremist group’s rise has been widely praised. ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror by Hassan Hassan and Michael Weiss, Simon and Schuster is another such book. This is also an informative account of the development of the group, and the staggering missteps of the U.S. occupation of Iraq that contributed to it.
From Deep State to Islamic State: The Arab Counter-Revolution and its Jihadi Legacy. By Jean-Pierre Filiu, Oxford University Press: This book offers a broad historical background to the region’s current troubles, tracing uprisings and forms of religious extremism to the untenable practices of repressive ruling classes. “A brisk, thorough and penetrating survey of how the Arab world got to its present sad state,” according to Max Rodenbeck, Middle East bureau chief for The Economist.
Imaginative Geographies of Algerian Violence: Conflict Science, Conflict Management, Antipolitics, by Jacob Mundy, Stanford University Press. Adam Shatz, contributing editor at the London Review of Books and visiting scholar at New York University, writes that “Jacob Mundy’s book on the Algerian dirty war of the 1990s is an intricate and engrossing reappraisal of one of the most horrifying—and least understood—chapters in contemporary history. It is also a cautionary tale, illustrating how misconceptions of that war influenced Western conflict management, from counter-terrorism to the responsibility to protect doctrine and transitional justice.”
Cycle of Fear by Leon Goldsmith, Oxford University Press. This book focuses on the Alawite community in Syria and the reasons behind its loyalty to the Assad regime. Goldsmith documents the sect’s persecution since its founding in the ninth century. Before Hafez Assad came to power, they were a downtrodden minority, isolated in mountain villages, who often sold their children into servitude in the cities. Goldsmith argues that many did not benefit much from the Assad family’s rise to power; but their fears of retaliation from the Sunni majority — unfortunately justified today — have led them to cling to the current regime.
Iskandar El Amrani, director of the International Crisis Group’s North Africa project, recommends The Arabs at War in Afghanistan by Mustafa Hamid and Leah Farral, Hurst. This account of the fight against the Russians in Afghanistan (and the early days of Al Qaeda) is based on the testimony of an Egyptian mujahid. “This micro-history focuses on the interpersonal relations of Arab mujahideen,” muses El Amrani, “and inhabits their perspective, before they became the larger-than-life monsters we know them as today.”
The Fall of the Ottomans, by the Oxford historian, Eugene Rogan, published by Basic Books. The author of The Arabs: A History is adept at writing engagingly about sweeping historical change. Extremists today swear to erase the borders of the modern Middle East that were set up by colonial powers with agreements such as the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement; this work revisits the moment at which the region took its current form.