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Recommended Reading, 2021: Books from the Arab World

As 2021 draws to a close, Al-Fanar Media presents its annual list of some of the most prominent books from or about the Arab world published during the past year. We do not say these are the “best” books of the year, as publishing houses keep issuing more and more worthy titles. Instead, the list reflects personal favorites and interesting titles on significant topics. We are happy to share our selections with you and welcome your comments and suggestions.

Ibrahim Nagi: An Intimate Visit That Was Long Overdue

By Samia Mehrez (Dar Al-Shorouk)

In this book, the Egyptian critic and scholar Samia Mahrez traces the life of her maternal grandfather, the late poet Ibrahim Nagi (1898–1953).

Mehrez draws on family documents, including letters and handwritten drafts of some of his poems, to present a personal narrative of one of the Arab world’s most renowned modern poets.

The biography is based on a remarkable paradox: Nagi’s poem “The Return” is taught in schools, and Mehrez did not enjoy studying it. In fact, it caused her alienation from Arabic. Many years later, however, she specialised in Arabic literature. In 1985, she earned a doctorate in comparative literature from the University of California, Los Angeles.  Modern novels became her gateway to Arabic literature, returning her to Ibrahim Nagi after many years.

The book is Mehrez’s first work in Arabic. She is a professor of Arabic literature and former director of the Center for Translation Studies at the American University in Cairo. Her titles in English include “Egyptian Writers Between History and Fiction: Essays on Naguib Mahfouz, Sonallah Ibrahim and Gamal Al-Ghitani”, and “The Literary Atlas of Cairo: One Hundred Years on the Streets of the City“.

The History of Self-Teaching and Al-Jarba’a: Critical Reflections on Modern Political Sociology

By Muhammed Naim (Al-Mahrousa Center for Publishing)

The book explores Egyptian society since the early nineteenth century through two concepts: self-teaching, or the continuous quest to improve one’s living conditions based on fundamental virtues, and the jarba’a, which embodies authoritarian social relations. The latter, Naim argues, has contributed to instilling mediocrity, decadence, nihilism and contempt for self-made values.

The book affirms the role historically played by self-education in achieving great leaps in Egyptian society. It also studies social fluidity and ends with a review of recent history since the last quarter of the 20th century. The author says “social and political re-establishment” are responsible for recent crises in the Arab world and calls for dominant ideology to be dismantled.

“The History of Self-Teaching and Al-Jarba'a: Critical Reflections on Modern Political Sociology”, by Muhammed Naim (Al-Mahrousa Center for Publishing)
“The History of Self-Teaching and Al-Jarba’a: Critical Reflections on Modern Political Sociology”, by Muhammed Naim (Al-Mahrousa Center for Publishing)

The Husk and the Basil — Memoirs (1981–2015)

By Mohamed Salmawy (Dar Al-Karma Publishers)

This second volume of memoirs from Mohamed Salmawy is a window on Egypt’s recent cultural and political history based on the author’s experiences as a writer, journalist and close friend of the Nobel Prize winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz.

Apart from writing many plays and short stories, Salmawy held the presidency of the editorial office of Al-Ahram newspaper, was elected a member of the Council of Journalists’ Syndicate, and then head of the Egyptian Writers’ Union. His career placed him in an excellent position to observe the difficult relationship between the Egyptian intelligentsia and the authorities in the 35 years the book covers.

The memoir spans the period over the last years of former President Anwar el-Sadat, the transition of power to Hosni Mubarak, and the shift in the author’s position from a supporter of the ideas and policies of the late Gamal Abdel Nasser (Egypt’s president from 1956 to 1970) to an active writer  who helped shape the current era.

The Novel Is a Journey of Space and Time: Memoirs of Moustafa Elfeki

(The Egyptian-Lebanese Publishing House)

In this memoir, Moustafa Elfeki, director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, discusses his experiences in diplomacy, academia, politics, the media, and parliament.

The memoir s an honest account of Elfeki’s long journey from observing the era of former presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar el-Sadat to actively participating in the government of former President Hosni Mubarak. Between 1985 and 1992, he worked as Mubarak’s minister of information. Elfeki viewed the so-called “Arab Spring” as a “huge scenario, for artificially constructed events.”

Elfeki also describes his attempts to succeed Amr Moussa as a secretary-general of the Arab League after the 25 January Revolution in 2011. He relates how Qatar and Sudan opposed his candidacy, prompting Egypt to withdraw his nomination.

Al-Daheeh: Behind the Scenes

By Taher Al-Moataz Billah (Dar Al-Shorouk)

The science series “Da7ee7” (“Al-Daheeh”) is one of the most popular Arabic-language programmes on YouTube, with more than 300 episodes and more than one billion views.

In this book, Taher Al-Moataz Billah, who was one of the first to write episodes of Da7ee7, presents an inider’s view of the programme’s beginnings and development, and the way it has enriched Arabic content online.

The book tells how Da7ee7’s founder and host, Ahmed Al-Ghandour, became one of the most prominent YouTube content creators through his ability to explain scientific concepts in an entertaining way and relate them to everyday life.

The book follows Al-Ghandour’s early education and his university studies at the American University in Cairo, where he met Eric Lander, an American geneticist and mathematician. Al-Ghandour was fascinated by Lander’s way of explaining scientific theories by linking them to contemporary social and economic conditions. This inspired Al-Ghandour to create content that links science and storytelling.

An audio version of the book, read by Al-Ghandour, is available on the “Storytel” platform.

“Al-Daheeh: Behind the Scenes”, by Taher Al-Moataz Billah (Dar Al-Shorouk)
“Al-Daheeh: Behind the Scenes”, by Taher Al-Moataz Billah (Dar Al-Shorouk)

Cafe Riche: Eye on Egypt

By Maysoon Saqr (Nahdet Misr Publishing House)

This book follows Cairo’s urban development, from the late nineteenth century to the present day, through the  story of the famous Cafe Riche in downtown Cairo.

A huge volume of 654 pages, the book is filled with dozens of photos and documents showing modern Cairo. The author, Maysoon Saqr, is an Emirati poet, painter, novelist and researcher, and a longtime resident of Cairo. She portrays downtown Cairo as a cultural, political, economic and social centre  and an ethnic and cultural  melting pot.

Ghorbat Al Manazil” (“Strangers at Home”)

By Ezzat El-Kamhawi (The Egyptian-Lebanese Publishing House)

In a world besieged by Covid-19, Ezzat El-Kamhawi’s new novel places its main characters in a fictional world dominated by isolation and obsessions, where people are forced to surrender to a crushing flood of memories.

The novel brings together residents of a multi-story building, including a musician, historian, and entomologist, as well as the concierge and his wife.  Alongside this fictional world, the novel reflects the turmoil that social media creates during the long hours of curfew.

Notebooks of the Bookseller

By Jalal Barjas (The Arabic Institute for Research and Publishing)

This novel won the 2021 International Prize for Arabic Book Fiction. The author, the Jordanian novelist Jalal Barjas, weaves a world of psychological and existential conflicts in the life of his protagonist Ibrahim, an intellectual bookseller who one day finds himself homeless with his books.

Ibrahim enters a schizophrenic world divided between his homelessness and the worlds of his favourite novels. He begins to take on the identities of characters in the novels, and his behaviour in real life starts to change. He plots a series of mysterious crimes in a narrative that takes place between Amman and Moscow.

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Blind Sinbad: Atlas of the Sea and War

By Buthaina Al-Issa (Tanmiyat Misr Publishing House / Dar Takween in Kuwait)

The novel is set around two time periods, the years of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the Covid-19 pandemic. The characters of the novel constantly confront mysterious fates.

At the beginning, Nadia, the novel’s heroine, is full of dreamy perceptions of love and of writing her first novel as she turns forty. But as the narrative unfolds her dreams are destroyed, leaving a family grief inseparable from the larger grief of her defeated homeland.

The Heirs of Al Sheikh

By Ahmed Al-Qarmalawi (The Egyptian-Lebanese Publishing House)

This novel won the 2021 Katara Prize for Arabic Fiction. Ahmed Al-Qarmalawi constructed his novel across generations. As the central character hesitates over whether to emigrate, he increasingly dwells on a legend about a treasure under the family house.  His discovery of a biography of the “Al-Sheikh” family that reveals to him the extraordinary similarities of his relatives’ lives across the generations.

Previous Years’ Lists

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