Access to books has long been a problem across much of the Middle East and North Africa. In the last half-century, book lovers have been plagued by distribution issues, high prices, and a shortage of neighborhood libraries. A recent decision by the Egyptian government further aims to limit the import of books. What’s more, as a result of closures aiming to slow the spread of Covid-19, many book fairs and shops have been shuttered.
So where to find good summer reads?
A surprising number of books have been made open access by their publishers in the last few years. Some publishers, such as Seagull Books in India, have done so recently in response to the quarantines and shutdowns. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina, on Egypt’s northern shore, made 200,000 titles from its Digital Assets Repository available open-access online.
For English readers, the University of California Press has made hundreds of works published between 1982 and 2004 available free online. Its Middle Eastern Studies collection includes both scholarly work and literary translations.
For Arabic readers, the Library of Arabic Literature (LAL) website makes Arabic-only PDFs of classic works free online, as does the Hindawi Foundation. A few other university presses, such as Edinburgh University Press, have also made key Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies texts available open access.
Here are fifteen works you can enjoy this summer—for free.
Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982, by Mahmoud Darwish, translated by Ibrahim Muhawi.
This is one of Darwish’s achingly brilliant prose works. It is set in a single day in Beirut, in August of 1982, when the city was under siege by Israeli forces, and it begins as the narrator awakes:
“Daybreak riding on fire. A nightmare coming from the sea. Roosters made of metal. Smoke. Metal preparing a feast for metal the master, and a dawn that flares up in all the senses before it breaks. A roaring that chases me out of bed and throws me into this narrow hallway.”
In this book, Muhawi says in his introduction, Darwish “puts the act of writing itself under siege.”
Rain Song, by Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, in Arabic.
Several of al-Sayyab’s hypnotic, incantatory collections are online at Hindawi. This 1960 collection, sometimes compared to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, is rich in myth and sonic echo.
Fifteen Poems by Golan Haji, in Arabic, with translations into English, French and German.
There are thousands of poems scattered across the Internet, but Lyrik-Line’s Arabic section is a notable oasis, with works by world-renowned poets translated into multiple languages. You can find work by acclaimed twentieth-century writers such as Abbas Beydoun, Mohammed Bennis, Mahmoud Darwish, and Qassim Haddad, and also younger writers, such as Ghayath al-Madhoun and Asmaa Azaizeh, in addition to Golan Haji. The section on Haji has 15 of his poems. As you follow the texts in multiple languages, you can also listen to the author himself recite the poem in Arabic.
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Comics and Graphic Novels
The collaborative, Beirut-based comics magazine Samandal helped spark a new movement in Arabic comics collectives. Its first fifteen issues are free to download online. They include work in Arabic, English, and French.
Qahera: Comics About a Muslim Egyptian Superhero, by Deena Mohamed.
Egyptian graphic novelist and comics artist Deena Mohamed wrote versions of this story-based online superhero comic both in Arabic and in English. In it, Qahera combats misogyny, Islamophobia, and foolish neighbors. (See a related article, “Finding the Words: Arab Writers on Queer and Feminist Expression.”)
Novels and Short Stories
Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery, by Bahaa’ Taher, translated by Barbara Romaine.
The action in this short gem of a novel takes place in a small village near Luxor, just before and after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. The novel’s events are set off by a killing, which leads to a feud, and to a young Muslim man seeking refuge in a Coptic monastery. Clearly and charmingly told, this is probably Taher’s most enjoyable book.
Shajarat al-Durr (Tree of Pearls), by Jurji Zaydan.
Jurji Zaydan wrote twenty-some historical novels chronicling medieval Arab and Muslim histories, starting with The Fleeing Mamluk in 1891 and ending with Tree of Pearls in 1914. This last novel follows one of the most prominent and powerful Arab queens.
Speak Bird, Speak Again: Palestinian Arab Folktales, ed. Ibrahim Muhawi and Sharif Kanaana.
As Muhawi and Kanaana write in their introduction, the forty-five tales in this volume were selected “from approximately two hundred tales collected on cassette tapes between 1978 and 1980 in various parts of Palestine—the Galilee (since 1948 part of the state of Israel), the West Bank, and Gaza.” One story, “The Old Woman and Her Cat,” opens: “Once there was an old woman who had a cat. One day she brought some milk home, and the cat came and lapped it up. Feeling angry, she cut off his tail.” Surprisingly, this story—which begins so violently—has a happy ending.
Nobody Mourns the City’s Cats, by Muhammad al-Hajj.
This Sawiris Prize-winning short-story collection—which gives a hot, loud, dizzy, thoughtful portrait of contemporary Cairo—has been put online in Arabic by its author and rights-holder. A translation of its long title story, “Nobody Mourns the City’s Cats,” is also online with the author’s permission, in Yasmine Zohdi’s perfectly pitched translation.
Twelve short stories by Zakaria Tamer.
These stories by pioneering Syrian short-story writer Zakaria Tamer are available online from different magazines. Three are available on Electric Lit, while “He Doesn’t Know” and “Why Does the River Stop Talking” are available from Banipal, and “The Flower” is available at ArabLit. Five more can be found at Words Without Borders.
Colonising Egypt, by Tim Mitchell.
The University of California Press has a wonderful selection of Middle Eastern Studies texts available online open access, including Beshara Doumani’s Rediscovering Palestine and Mitchell’s Colonising Egypt. Mitchell’s book begins with the curious experience of the Egyptian delegation to the Eighth International Congress of Orientalists, held in Stockholm in the summer of 1889.
Scents and Flavors: A Thirteenth Century Syrian Cookbook, edited by Charles Perry.
This historical Arabic cookbook, published online free by the Library of Arabic Literature, helps readers travel through time to the thirteenth century. You can learn to cook as medieval Arabs did, with layers and layers of spices and flavors.
Modern Art in the Arab World: Primary Documents, edited by Anneka Lenssen, Sarah Rogers, and Nada Shabout
This collection includes a range of Arab essays on art from the 1880s to the 1980s, with translations edited and overseen by Kareem James Abu-Zeid. It includes 125 texts that originated from more than a dozen countries and at least four languages. The editors write, in their introduction, that, “In assembling these documents, we have proceeded from an awareness that conversations and debates, as much as the fixed properties of finished art objects, gave meaning to the new art practices and theories of the twentieth century.”
In Performance: A Selection, edited by Carol Martin.
This collection of short plays includes a translation of The Gaza Mono-Logues, a performance text that grew out of thirty-one children’s stories about the 2008 Gaza War. Many of the children lay out war’s ordinary stories. In one, young Ahmad El Ruzzi recalls that “during the war, a lot of people had twenty bags of flour and never had a shortage of gas, while others didn’t have a piece of bread. … They were asking their neighbors for bread and they wouldn’t give them any.”
A Crime on Restaurant Street, by Wajdi al-Ahdal, translated by Katherine Hennessy.
This wonderful short satire by acclaimed Yemeni writer Wajdi al-Ahdal is set in Sana’a. Its sharp, witty dialogue is translated with Hennessy’s light touch, keeping it both dark and funny in English. Al-Ahdal’s work is one of a dozen short plays the website Arab Stages has made available online.