Our literature columnist Marcia Lynx Qualey, who also runs the popular blog Arablit, has listed five must-reads for the cold season.
Tree of Pearls, Queen of Egypt
By Jurji Zaidan (trans. Samah Selim), Syracuse University Press
It’s taken more than a hundred years, but Jurji Zaidan’s fast-paced tale of political intrigue is finally available in English. Set in thirteenth century Egypt and Iraq, during the downfall of the Ayyubids and the upsurge of the Mamluks, Tree of Pearls traces the brief reign of Egypt’s first Muslim queen, the “Tree of Pearls.” Sexual politics, intrigue, social climbing, and love are set against a sweeping change of empire. This wonderfully fun book is rendered into beautiful, Sir-Walter-Scott-accented English by Samah Selim.
In Praise of Hatred
By Khaled Khalifa (trans. Leri Price), Transworld
This dense and wide-ranging family drama calls to mind the novels of Honoré de Balzac, but with an incisive exploration into a lesser-examined part of the human heart: hatred. In Khalifa’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction-shortlisted novel, hatred is not relegated to the mere shadow of love, but is explored as a motivating factor in its own right. Most of the action takes place in the early 1980s, when Islamist Sunnis led an uprising against the primarily Alawi Syrian regime. But sectarian strife is not taken as a given. Instead, hatred is shown as an emotion that can be cultivated—and, one hopes, suffocated.
The Girl Who Fell to Earth
By Sophia al-Maria, Harper Perennial
Writer and filmmaker Sophia Al-Maria makes her debut with a memoir about her coming-of-age as it spanned Washington state (USA), Qatar, Riyadh (KSA), Cairo, and beyond. The aim, as Al-Maria says, is to “flip the Arab-woman-memoir genre on its head.”
Days of the Diaspora
By Kamal Ruhayyim (trans. Sarah Enany), American University in Cairo Press
Days of the Diaspora is set amongst the Jewish Egyptian community in Paris. It’s narrated by a young Muslim man whose father has died and who is raised by his Jewish mother, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. The family is exiled from Egypt, and although the narrator is free to return, he has difficulty deciding how to see himself. The book is engaging, sometimes troubling, skillfully translated by Sarah Enany, and tugs the reader into questions of identifier and identity.
The Grub Hunter
By Amir Tag Elsir (trans William Hutchins), Heinemann
This “book about writing a book” begins as a former security agent decides to write a novel. The agent, known as Abdallah Harfash and Abdallah Farfar, was retired from service after his leg was blown off, and hobbles around on a wooden leg. In retirement, he decides that writing a novel couldn’t be that hard, and sets off in pursuit of a narrative. The translation is a bit flat-footed at times, but the dance between security agent, novelist, creative writing, and spying is both engaging on its surface and thought-provoking below.