With Covid-19 still disrupting airports and borders, summer travel plans remain uncertain for many people around the world. Yet whether you’ll be reading a book on the beach or on your balcony, summer is still a time to enjoy fun, lighter literature.
There should be no shame in reading for fun! This list of ten good reads includes books that are fantastical, page-turning, and funny. Many of the fantasies are inspired by the deep, broad histories of the Middle East and North Africa.
Tales and Tales: Popular Stories from Lebanon, by Najla Jraissaty Khoury, in Arabic and English.
In the 1980s, Najla Jraissati Khoury co-founded a Lebanese theater and puppetry troupe that performed in venues around the country, including refugee camps and isolated villages. Because the shows were based around folktales, Jraissati Khoury was always in search of people who could remember a tale she hadn’t heard before. In Arabic, Khoury published 100 tales in two volumes. There is a shorter, one-volume version available in English, in delightful and light-fingered translation by Inea Bushnaq, titled Pearls on a Branch: Tales from the Arab World Told by Women. One story in English translation is available free at Tin House.
Mirage, by Somaiya Daud.
Somaiya Daud’s acclaimed debut novel, the first in a fantasy trilogy, won a number of awards when it appeared in 2018. Although the novel is set in a distant world called Cadiz, it is inspired by Morocco’s “Years of Lead,” or the repression that marked the reign of Hassan II, from the 1960s through the 1980s. The novel is particularly shaped, Daud has said, by poets who wrote resistance works during the period. The second book in Daud’s trilogy, Court of Lions, is set for an August 2020 release.
The Book of A Hundred and One Nights, edited by Bruce Fudge, in Arabic and English.
One Thousand and One Nights isn’t the only popular collection of medieval Arabic stories. After the scholar Bruce Fudge finished writing a book on Qur’anic hermeneutics, he wanted to take a break, he said, and “read all the things that religious scholars told you not to read.” After having plunged into a collection known as A Hundred and One Nights, Fudge translated it for the Library of Arabic Literature. Although similar in pace and tone, A Hundred and One Nights begins with a vain king who holds a beauty contest every year, essentially asking: Am I still the fairest of them all? For English readers, a paperback translation is available. For Arabic readers, the collection is available free online.
The Daevabad Trilogy, by S.A. Chakraborty.
Chakraborty’s Daevabad trilogy began with The City of Brass in 2017, as a con woman attempts to make a living in medieval Cairo. The final book, released in June 2020, follows the same con woman and a djinn prince as they attempt to save their world from civil war. The trilogy, Chakraborty has said, is “an homage to a broad, global Islamicate world of the past.” It is not inspired by any one conflict but borrows aspects from the lives of the warring Mughal brothers Aurangzeb and Dara Shikoh in the mid-1600s, as well as the Great Abbasid Civil War (811–819) between the forces of al-Amin and his brother al-Ma’mun.
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Wondrous Journeys in Amazing Lands, by Sonia Nimr, in Arabic.
This award-winning feminist fable also borrows broadly from medieval and early modern histories. It follows the wild journeys a Palestinian woman named Qamr who is born in an isolated village but has adventures all over the world. She helps the mad king of Egypt’s sister reign, studies with a polymath in Morocco, and disguises herself as a boy so she can fight among pirates. One story unfolds into another as we follow Qamr across continents and seas.
Siraaj, by Radwa Ashour, translated by Barbara Romaine.
Ashour is mainly remembered for her writings about social and political justice, such as in her novel set in Palestine, Tantoureya; the memoir of her time in the United States, The Journey; and her Granada trilogy about historic Andalusia. This short fantasy novel shows a different side of her work. Although, like all of her work, this book is interested in oppression and justice, it is also a fully rendered imaginary kingdom. The novel is set in the late nineteenth century on a mythical island off the coast of Yemen, where young Said and his mother Amina must decide what to do when there’s a slave revolt against the sultan.
Shubeik Lubeik, Vols. 1 and 2, by Deena Mohamed, in Arabic.
The first novel in this urban-fantasy trilogy won Best Graphic Novel as well as Grand Prize at the 2017 Cairo Comix Festival. It takes place in a parallel universe in which wishes are sold in bottles at supermarkets and kiosks. Naturally, the ones available to working-class Egyptians are the cheapest and most unreliable wishes. The books are by turns funny and heartbreaking.
Marrakech Noir, edited by Yassin Adnan.
Editor Yassin Adnan titles his introduction to this anthology “City of Joy and Grit,” and indeed, his approach to noir is neither dark nor hard-boiled. Among these 15 crime stories are some wonderful detective tales, such as Fouad Laroui’s “The Mysterious Painting,” translated by Katie Shireen Assef. In it, an exhausted and obsessive-compulsive police chief, Hamdouch, tackles crime with a sense of humor. There are also tragicomic stories such as Hanane Derkaoui’s “A Way to Mecca,” translated by Jennifer Pineo-Dunn, which follows two “reformed” criminal brothers.
Awards for Heroes, by Ahmed Awny, in Arabic.
This is Awny’s debut novel, and like many recent Egyptian novels, it is set around the January 25, 2011, uprising. But instead of being told by revolutionaries in the square, it’s told by a cynical, witty, upper-class narrator with his own view of what’s going on the city. There is an excerpt online in English translation by Zainab Magdy.
The Magnificent Conman of Cairo, by Adel Kamel, translated by Waleed Almusharaf.
Adel Kamel’s satiric Mallim al-Akbar (Mallim the Great) was rejected for publication by the Arabic Language Academy in 1942, but it gained an important fan: Kamel’s friend Naguib Mahfouz. Although Kamel’s two novels fell out of print for more than half a century, they were brought back by Egyptian publishing house Dar Karma in 2014. In 2020, Mallim al-Akbar appeared in Waleed Almusharaf’s English translation, with a new title: The Magnificent Conman of Cairo.