Arab readers digest: 18 must-read books on the Middle East

Published October 31st, 2013 - 13:38 GMT

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Edward Said, Orientalism
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Image 1 of 18: Edward Said, Orientalism - If you haven’t heard of Said, where have you been? Tackling the West’s superiority over Eastern civilisations, he rips apart Eurocentric misrepresentation of the ME and has enthralled undergrads ever since. If his writing isn’t for you, fear not - there are hundreds of essays and critiques on his seminal work.

Marguerite Van Geldersman, Married to a Bedouin
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Image 1 of 18: Marguerite Van Geldersman, Married to a Bedouin - If you have visited Petra and loved it, imagine falling in love with a local and living in a cave above the Treasury for the rest of your life. In Van Geldersman's eye-opening tale of her marriage to Petra guide Mohammad, the fascinating Bedouin traditions and way of life are explored.

Albert Hourani, History of the Arab Peoples
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Image 1 of 18: Albert Hourani, History of the Arab Peoples - Lebanese historian Hourani takes on the formidable task of tracking the history of the Arab world, starting before the advent of Islam and ending in the 20th Century. Bringing together the social and economic history of the Middle East over 13 centuries, Hourani’s authoritative text is a must-read.

Tom Segev 1967
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Image 1 of 18: Tom Segev, 1967 -This Israeli historian's book argues that fear of a second Holocaust was what prompted the Israeli army to launch their offensive against their Arab neighbors in the 1967 war. Although barely touching on the Arab narrative, 1967 is an insightful work that focuses on the year that has permanently changed the regional landscape.

Khaled Hosseini The Kiterunner
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Image 1 of 18: Khaled Hosseini, The Kiterunner/A Thousand Splendid Suns - If you spend 101 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, you’re doing something right! Hosseini’s beautiful books give you Afghani protagonists and the backdrops of Kabul and Herat to get stuck in to. Good news for non-readers - The Kiterunner has even been made into a film!

Mahbod Seraji Rooftops of Tehran
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Image 1 of 18: Mahbod Seraji, Rooftops of Tehran - No fiddler on this roof, but a view of life in Iran under the Shah through the friendship, love, and secrets shared between three pals in Tehran, Ahmed, Pasha and Zari, populate this panorama. Seraji's novel perfectly captures the turmoil of an Iran headed for revolution -- key reading for any Persian-phile.

Susan Abulhawa Mornings in Jenin
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Image 1 of 18: Susan Abulhawa, Mornings in Jenin - This epic book begins with the creation of Israel in 1948 and follows four generations of the Abulheja family through violence and oppression in their Palestinian homeland. This novel depicting living side-by-side, contiguous, with the Israeli state gives the Palestinian struggle a personal dimension.

Sayyid Qutb In the shade of the Quran
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Image 1 of 18: Sayyid Qutb, In The Shade Of The Quran/Milestones - The “godfather ideologue of Al Qaeda”, Qutb’s writings serve as an expose on the beginnings of radical Islam. A founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, his religious writings - In The Shade of the Quran and Milestones - will have even the most vehement atheist pining for Islam’s early days.

Anthony Shadid House of Stone
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Image 1 of 18: Anthony Shadid's House of Stone/Night Draws Near/ Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War: Shadid’s thoughtful books on Lebanon and Iraq are unforgettable. Of Lebanese nationality and a former foreign correspondent for the New York Times, his understanding and love for the region is exemplified by the fact that he died writing in Syria.

Alaa Al Aswany The Yacoubian Building
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Image 1 of 18: Alaa Al Aswany, The Yacoubian Building - Egypt's story is told through the tenants of an apartment block in downtown Cairo as Aswany masterfully blends fact & fiction in this best selling novel. His social commentary throws into relief everyday struggles leaving Egyptians victims of their own circumstances in the country's current calloused era.

Mourid Barghouti I Saw Ramallah
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Image 1 of 18: Mourid Barghouti, I Saw Ramallah - The story of a poet's return to his West Bank hometown after decades in exile blends happiness, frustration and sorrow, serving as a delicate reminder of the human and emotional elements of the Palestinian conflict that transcend the borders of the occupied territories and news headlines.

Simon Sebag Montefiore Jerusalem The Biography
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Image 1 of 18: Simon Sebag Montefiore, Jerusalem: The Biography - Master historian of the 20th Century, Montefiore retired from writing on Russia and focused on the epic and sprawling 3000 year-old history of the world's epicentre, Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, the current Israeli-Palestinian struggle for the holy city is put into a fascinating historical context.

Robert Fisk Pity the Nation
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Image 1 of 18: Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation - Middle East master Robert Fisk tackles the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war in an award winning book, now the definitive source on the conflict thanks to meticulous research and first hand experience. Fisk isn't a one-trick pony - he has show-boated on the wider region and was one of few to interview Osama Bin Laden.

Mahmoud Saeed Saddam City
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Image 1 of 18: Mahmoud Saeed, Saddam City - The author's personal experiences under the brutal police state of Saddam Hussein are explored through protagonist Mustafa as Saeed drives home the harrowing reality of Iraqi jails under the Hussein regime. That it's based on real-life experience makes "Saddam City" all the more compelling and hard-hitting.

Leila Abouzeid Year of the Elephant
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Image 1 of 18: Leila Abouzeid, Year of the Elephant - the first novella by a Moroccan female author to be translated into English, this book captures Morocco's struggle under the French occupation. Abouzeid reminds readers how the conflict between tradition and modernism in her North African country creates tensions that makes Moroccans not so "free" after all.

Suad Amiry Sharon and My Mother-in-Law
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Image 1 of 18: Suad Amiry, Sharon and My Mother-in-Law - The banalities of the Israeli occupation are explored in this memoir made up from letters written between 1981-2004. Amiry casts an original light on life in Ramallah through her witty observations, including the absurdity of her dog getting a Jerusalem ID card as thousands were denied citizenship.

Rajaa Alsanea Girls of Riyadh
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Image 1 of 18: Rajaa Alsanea, Girls of Riyadh - Written with an Arabian Nights-esque narrative, this novel exposes the hidden lives of Saudi Arabia’s upper-class women, following the stories of four girls in the capital. Immediately banned in Saudi for sexy content after it was published in 2005, the book has now become a hot Middle Eastern bestseller.

Rafik Schami The Dark Side of Love
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Image 1 of 18: Rafik Schami, The Dark Side of Love - Dubbed the First Great Syrian Novel, Schami’s love for Damascus shines through in his novel that captures the spirit of Syrian society. It’s been called “Tolstoyan” and at a time when Syria is being ripped apart by civil war, it is a perfect reminder of the artistic prowess the country is famed for.

So you, like every other strategic career planner, want to be become an expert on the Middle East? You’ve exhausted your net-learning -- Wikipedia is just not giving you that idiosyncratic edge you need to master the ME and conquer the hotbed of the world’s news diet. Have you considered turning back the pages of time to explore books?

2013 it may be, but sometimes you can come a cropper on the internet with all its red herrings and garden path treacherous tangents-- there’s no telling how far afield you can stray at the click of a diverting link...Time to get back to the basics and take the old school road to expertise, the bookish way!

We’ve trawled the shelves to turn up some pearls of wisdom on a complex region long on drama but sometimes short on understanding!  Al Bawaba’s library of best books on the Arab peoples and their tested territories can lend you some seminal reads and bibles on these holy and war-torn lands.

Get to good old-fashioned grips with the nations holding our news channels hostage by dusting off those tomes and hot-footing it over to the surviving bookstores in town. Or if you prefer to get re-’kindled’ with the world of books digital-style, then download your voyage of learning the classical way.  As the winter sets in and churns out dreary dust clouds and rainy days, curl up with our readers digest of stodgy to light reads, history books, novels and biographies, out of the Middle East  ---from the Atlantic ocean to the Arab Gulf -- and get your book worm on!

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