Notable Books of 2018 From and About the Arab World

Each year, I put together a list of books of interest from and about the Arab world. The list contains personal favorites and also aims to give a sense of the breadth and diversity of literary and scholarly production in the region. But it is by no means exhaustive. I welcome readers’ comments and suggestions.

Modern Art in the Arab World: Primary Documents, edited by Anneka Lenssen, Sarah Rogers and Nada Shabout, distributed by Duke University Press. Part of a prestigious series published by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, this volume contains primary source materials ranging from 1882 to 1987, including manifestos, essays, transcripts of roundtable discussions, diary entries, exhibition guest-book comments and letters, many of them translated into English for the first time. There are also essays on different art schools and movements. The book is a unique reference for students of modern Arab art and a fascinating window into cultural debates in the region.

The Stillborn: Notebooks of a Woman from the Student-Movement Generation in Egypt, by Arwa Salih, translated from the Arabic by Samah Selim (University of Chicago Press). Written in 1991 and first published in Arabic in 1996, the book is both a personal and historical reckoning with what Salih regarded as the failures of her generation. The leftist student movement to which she belonged led large street protests in the early 1970s, but quickly found itself marginalized. Salih writes with fury, regret and eloquence, to draw lessons for future generations.

Loss Sings, by James Montgomery (Sylph Editions). Montgomery, a professor of Arabic at Cambridge University and an acclaimed translator of early Islamic poetry, weaves together personal reflections on tragedy, translation, trauma and memory with the work of the sixth century poet Al Khansa’, whose dirges for two brothers killed in battle made her famous.

Two books by Ahmed Bouanani: The Hospital, translated from the French by Lara Vargnaud, and The Shutters, translated by Emma Ramadan (both published by New Direction). The Moroccan filmmaker and writer Ahmed Bouanani was a major artist whose work dealt with personal and historical memory and was often censored, stifled and damaged during his lifetime. Now it is enjoying renewed and much deserved attention. The Hospital was already reissued in French in 2012 by DK Editions and Editions Verdier, and was translated into Arabic in 2016.

The sixth century poet Al Khansa (Image: Khaliil Gibran).

“Children of Our Alley”: The Story of the Forbidden Novel, by Mohamed Shoair (Cairo: Dar Al Ain). In Arabic. Shoair, a literary reporter and scholar, uses archival sources to situate Naguib Mahfouz’s novel Children of Our Alley in terms of Egyptian society and politics and the impact it had on Mahfouz’s life (it was the work that spurred the assassination attempt that wounded him in 1994). Shoair has said that one of his goals was to re-read Mahfouz’s work in light of his life. The reporter had his work cut out for him: Mahfouz, who won the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature, was famously reticent about his private life and often shredded his manuscripts once they were published. He died in 2006.

During his research, Shoair also discovered handwritten manuscripts that included 18 previously unpublished stories by Mahfouz. The stories are being published in a new collection, The Whisper of Stars (Beirut: Dar al Saqi), that is scheduled for release in Arabic on December 11, with an English translation forthcoming in 2019.

Pearls on a Branch: Oral Tales, by Najla Jraissaty Khoury, translated from the Arabic by Inea Bushnaq (Archipelago Books). During the Lebanese Civil War, playwright Najal Jraissaty Khoury traveled the country putting on plays and collecting oral tales as told to her by Lebanese women. What emerges is a collection that explores female ingenuity, agency and voice. An Arabic-language collection of the stories was published in 2014.

Casablanca, Nid d’artistes (Casablanca, Home of Artists),  edited by Leila Slimani and Kenza Sefrioui (Casablanca: Malika Editions). This book features interviews with writers and artists discussing the role played in their work by Morocco’s largest and most dynamic city.

The Journey: Memoirs of an Egyptian Woman Student in America, by Radwa Ashour, translated from the Arabic by Michelle Hartman (Northampton, Mass.: Olive Branch Press). This new English translation of a book by the acclaimed novelist Radwa Ashour documents the years she spent getting her doctorate in the United States in the 1970s. Ashour attended the newly founded W.E.B. Du Bois department of Afro-American studies and the department of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. In this memoir she reflects on the parallels between post-colonial and racial justice struggles, among other topics.

How to Mend: Motherhood and Its Ghosts, by Iman Mersal, translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger (Cairo: Kayfa Ta). Mersal is a renowned poet, essayist, literary scholar and translator. Kayfa Ta published this essay–a fluid combination of personal, academic, lyrical and intellectual reflections on the often difficult experience of motherhood—in Arabic in 2016.

The Naked Face Within the Dream, by Ahmed Saadawi (Baghdad: Dar El-Rafidain). In Arabic. Saadawi—whose award-winning 2013 novel Frankenstein in Baghdad garnered international attention—returns with this collection of short stories, set in the Iraqi capital in the years since the 2003 American invasion.


One Comment

  1. This is a great post! Thank you. As a Librarian, I was hoping to see some children’s, middle, and YA titles here. Where I am in the UAE, most of the educators are not local and don’t speak Arabic. It would be a real help to the education sector if someone would make recommendations for school libraries at all levels, books both in English and Arabic. While the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement in the US has created a small cache of Muslim-American books and Arab-American books, there are not many that are authentic stories from the Gulf/MENA area itself. Reviews of Arabic picture books might not only help schools but increase exposure for the publishers and authors.

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