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A Quarantine Reading List: Escapist Nonfiction from the Arab World

In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic and quarantine, novels about infection entered best-seller lists. Books like Albert Camus’s The Plague (1947) and Dean Koontz’s The Eyes of Darkness (1981) saw a sudden resurgence of interest.

Yet as quarantine wears on, many readers have become more interested in topics beyond contagion. Indeed, many Arab publishers report that readers are looking for works with humor, romance, hope, and adventure. Below are eleven books from the Middle East and North Africa to help you take a break from the current reality.

Nothing to Lose but Your Life, by Suad Amiry (Bloomsbury Qatar, 2010).

Humor is one of the best literary escapes, and Palestinian writer-architect Saud Amiry has a keen eye for the absurd. She has written several funny books, including Sharon and My Mother-in-Law (2007) and Golda Slept Here (2015)In all of them, the subject matter is serious. In Nothing to Lose but Your Life, Amiry tags along with undocumented laborers on a dangerous border crossing. As they go from Ramallah, in the West Bank, to Petah Tikva, in Israel, Amiry’s wit and honesty illuminate the journey.

 The Prison of Life, by Tawfiq al-Hakim, translated by Pierre Cachia (AUC Press, 1992).

Tawfiq al-Hakim’s The Prison of Life is a classic of comic nonfiction. In the summer before his final year of law school, al-Hakim returns home to Alexandria. There, he finds the family home being torn apart. But his father, a judge, refuses to hire an architect: “Does anybody but a fool employ an architect? What will he do but draw on blue paper a few elegant lines with a ruler and a compass and say, ‘Here is a room, there is a hall.’” The absurdity spirals until it seems al-Hakim’s father will be rebuilding this house forever.

 Scents and Flavors: A Syrian Cookbook, edited and translated by Charles Perry, with a foreword by Claudia Roden (Library of Arabic Literature, 2020).

Two great literary escapes are cooking and time-travel, and Scents and Flavors offers both. This cookbook is full of delightful recipes from thirteenth-century Syria, and the recipes inside range from three simple asparagus dishes to dozens of complex methods for cooking sheep.

Treasure Trove of Benefits and Variety at the Table: A Fourteenth-Century Egyptian Cookbook, edited and translated by Nawal Nasrallah (Brill, 2020).

This wonderful work of medieval cookery is also now out in paperback. Nasrallah’s charming introduction immerses the reader in the streets and markets of fourteenth-century Cairo. She also has adapted many of the recipes to contemporary measurements.

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Coptic Cuisine, by Charles Aql (Kotob Khan Books, 2017).

Charles Aql’s debut food memoir takes the reader on a journey through Coptic cuisine. Here, he reflects on the dishes Coptic Egyptians eat at feasts, and the connection between these foods and Egyptian history. These anecdotes are woven together with Aql’s personal story. 

Two Arabic Travel Books: Accounts of China and India and Mission to the Volga, by Abu Zayd al-Sirafi and Ahmad Ibn Fadlan. Edited and translated by Tim Mackintosh-Smith and James E. Montgomery (Library of Arabic Literature, 2014).

These two great classics of tenth-century Arabic travel literature range widely across China, India, and Russia. In Accounts of China and India, the seafarer al-Sirafi relays fascinating sailors’ reports from the East. In Mission to the Volga, Ibn Fadlan gives a first-person narrative about his journey to the north.

Romanticisms, by Safynaz Kazem (Al-Helal Publishing House, 1970).

Here, you’ll find travel, adventure, and Kazem’s biting, sometimes terrifying wit. In it, Kazem chronicles her time in the United States in the 1960s. At one point, she reads a horoscope that tells her: “Hold your tongue and stop quarrelling.” But fortunately for us, she never does. 

In the Footsteps of Enayat al-Zayyat, by Iman Mersal (Kotob Khan Books, 2019).

This book—part literary history, part memoir, part detective story—follows the story of the Egyptian novelist Enayat al-Zayyat. The young woman, born in 1936, finished one novel before she killed herself in 1963. In Mersal’s hands, this one woman’s story unfolds to tell thousands of more stories about life in the twentieth century.

Room 304, or How I Hid from My Dear Father for 35 Years, by Amr Ezzat, translated by Yasmine Zohdi and Nora Amin (60pages Press, 2018).

This moving literary memoir begins on the day Amr Ezzat was born. It goes on to explore Ezzat’s complex relationship with authority through the lens of his bond with his father. Short, moving, and illuminating.

 Raya and Sakina’s Men, by Salah Eissa (Dar al-Ahmadi, 2002).

A compelling true-crime tale is always an excellent escape. This book tells the story of the most notorious killers in modern Egyptian history, and it includes humor, drama, and a sweeping social history of the nation. Robin Moger is at work on a translation to English; an excerpt is available at Sultan’s Seal.

 The Book of Sleep, by Haytham al-Wardany, translated by Robin Moger (Seagull Books, 2010).

This genre-weaving book is part story, part memoir, part philosophy. It was written in the spring of 2013, as former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s government was unraveling. Here, sleep is not just escape. It is also creative resistance, a space in which one truly finds the “self,” and where a person can be born anew. Once you’ve finished this book, escape into al-Wardany’s How to Disappear (Sternberg Press, 2020), beautifully translated by Jennifer Peterson and Robin Moger.


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