Why you should care
Dramatic headlines often miss the true undercurrents of culture sweeping through nations embroiled in revolution and war. These writers bring it home.
The Diwan bookstore in Cairo has a reputation as a Barnes and Noble of the Middle East. They don’t just sell book translations—in a way, they translate entire cultures by being a source of literary knowledge bridging English-speaking and Arabic worlds.
Not everyone can hop a plane to Cairo to learn firsthand about Syria, Palestine, Egypt and other Middle East hotspots, so we asked the booksellers at Diwan: What writers should we be reading to broaden our understanding of modern Middle Eastern culture?
If you want to dig beyond the media headlines, and bypass the non-fiction policy tomes, we’ve got some authors for you:
Alaa Al Aswany
Home country: Egypt
Best known for: The Yacoubian Building, Friendly Fire, Chicago and On the State of Egypt
The reviews: Aswany may be the closest thing Egypt has to a runaway bestselling author in the American sense, thanks to the popularity of The Yacoubian Building, which was also turned into a blockbuster film and shown around international festivals in 2006. Critics called the book a guilty pleasure – but one that lends insight into Egyptian culture, showing how Cairenes across an economic spectrum struggle to live their lives. Aswany stands alone not just for his prose, but his alter ego—he’s also a dentist (and unbowed before authority).
Home country: Libya
Best known for: In the Country of Men and Anatomy of a Disappearance
The reviews: The Libyan Matar was born in the U.S. and returned to his homeland as a child, but fled after his father, a Qaddafi oppositionist, mysteriously disappeared. Matar currently teaches at Cambridge. Reviews of his work say his books offer the truest sense of the desperation felt among North Africans that lead to the Arab Spring uprisings. ”He seems uniquely poised to play the role of literary ambassador between two worlds that have long been locked in mutual suspicion and ignorance,” wrote the New York Times.
Home country: Palestine
Best known for: I Saw Ramallah and I Was Born There, I was Born Here
The reviews: “The issue of Palestine is a tough one for Western audiences,” says Christopher Stone, an associate professor of Arabic and head of the Arabic Division at Hunter College in New York. I Saw Ramallah is ”one of these books that presents the predicament of the Palestinians in a literary and kind of human way… Particularly since 9/11, there’s been a tend to equate Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation as terrorism,” says Stone, insinuating that are fundamental differences in the motivation of, say, an al-Qaeda cell aimed at a Western target, and Palestinians caught in the West Bank. “If someone’s interested in the Palestinian perspective,” he said, Barghouti offers enlightening options.
Home country: Algeria
Best known for: Memory in the Flesh, Chaos of the Senses, and Art of Forgetting
The reviews: “You could make an argument that she seems to be writing for a Western audience,” Stone says. “She’s not held in high regard in the Arab world,” he says, although she has won a host of honors in the Arab world. But that could be less about her writing then about what she represents. “You could argue that she’s a woman writing about controversial subjects,” he says. “She’s read in the Arab world as a risque writer dealing with taboo subjects like sexuality.” Memory in the Flesh is lauded by the publisher as the first Alegerian novel penned by a woman in Arabic—and one that focuses on an affair.
Home country: Egypt
Best known for: Gazelle Tracks, Tent, Brooklyn Heights, and Blue Aubergine
The reviews: A Bedouin by birth, born into an extended nomad tribe, Al-Tahawy broke with Egyptian tradition to receive higher education, eventually landing in the U.S. to teach and write. The former member of the Muslim Brotherhood also credits time in Brooklyn on a fellowship for helping her find her voice as an adult in a foreign land. She’s won several high-profile literary awards, and was nominated in 2011 for the Arabic Booker Prize. Brooklyn Heights, for example, tells of an Egyptian single mother and her child struggling to realize her creative dreams in New York City.