5 Arabic Books (in English) to Read ‘Before You Die’

Well, perhaps this one was a bit morbid:

The “Five Before You Die” was a feature we ran back in the summer 2010; by now, there are now many more great Arabic books available in translation, but this remains a strong list from translators, authors, critics, and publishers.

Shakir Mustafa

Although he might not put it on his resume, Mustafa was perhaps the first supporter of this blog.  He teaches at Northeastern University, translates, and is the editor and translator of the excellent Contemporary Iraqi Fiction: An Anthology. His picks:

Mahmoud Saeed

Saeed is the acclaimed and award-winning author of Saddam City, among many other works. We have since run an interview with him here. He currently lives, writes, and teaches in Chicago. His picks:

1 – One Thousand and One Nights by Mohammed bin Sakkra Alhashemi
2 – Hayy Ben Yadhan by Iben Tufail
3 – Maqamat Al Hamdani by Bad’ie Azzaman Alhamadani
4 – Children of the Alley by Naguib Mahfouz
5 – Life Full of Holes by Driss Chraibi

Sinan Antoon

Antoon was shortlisted for this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his third novel, Hail Mary, currently being translated. His second, Pomegranate Alone, is coming out in translation later this year from Yale University Press. His first was I’jaam, which Katrina Weber lists as one of her picks further down the list. He also has published a collection of poems in English, titled Baghdad Blues, in addition to being a filmmaker and award-winning translator, and is currently an assistant professor at NYU. More on Antoon here. His five:

  1. Mahmoud Darwish, Fi Hadrat al-Ghiyab ( In the Presence of Absence
  2. Abdelrahman Munif, Cities of Salt
  3. Sonallah Ibrahim, The Committee
  4. Elias Khoury, The Kingdom of Strangers
  5. Hanan al-Shaykh, The Story of Zahra

Elias Muhanna

In 2010, Muhanna was a PhD student in Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations at Harvard University, a writer, and the maintainer of Qifa Nabki. He still blogs at Qifa Nabki, but has since become a comp lit professor at Brown University. His five:

  1. Al-Jahiz, The Book of Misers
  2. The Mu`allaqaat in the Arberry translation
  3. Night, Horses, and the Desert (not a single work, but an excellent anthology of classical Arabic literature by Robert Irwin)
  4. Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddima, in the Rosenthal translation
  5. The Poems of al-Mutanabbi, also in the Arberry translation

Youssef Rakha

Rakha is a poet, journalist, literary critic, and a member of the Beirut39 cabal. He writes about Arabic literature and other things at http://yrakha.wordpress.com/. His first two novels, Sultan’s Seal and Crocodiles, are forthcoming from Interlink and Seven Stories Press.

Rakha’s five books:

Nouri Gana

Gana teaches in the department of comparative literature at UCLA; he also writes about Arabic literature, cinema, and culture. Gana’s five (plus one not yet available in English):

  1. Salih, Season Of Migration To The North
  2. Choukri, For Bread Alone
  3. Kanafani, Men in the Sun
  4. Mahmoud Massadi, The Dam (Al-Sudd)
  5. Mahfouz, The Beggar
  6. Barghouti, I Saw Ramallah

Laila Lalami

Lalami is the award-winning author of Secret Son.

Maia Tabet

Tabet is a literary translator; her translation of Elias Khoury’s White Masks won a citation from the Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation.

Tabet’s five:

R. Neil Hewison

Hewison is a writer, translator (City of Love and Ashes by Yusuf Idris, and Wedding Night by Yusuf Abu Rayya), and associate director of editorial programs with AUC Press. Hewison’s five:

  • Hoda Barakat, The Tiller of Waters (Lebanon) — an absorbing, enlightening, multi-layered novel set in the empty war-ruins of Beirut, as a man struggling to survive and retain his sanity among packs of feral dogs reconstructs his history and the histories of those close to him through the metaphor of fabric (in which he used to trade), and slowly reveals the secret meanings of linen, cotton, velvet, silk. This is simply one of the best Arabic novels I have read, and it is beautifully translated by Marilyn Booth.
  • Mourid Barghouti, I Saw Ramallah (Palestine) — a poetic revelation of what it means to be an exile, and what it means to return. This is one of the most powerful — because it is told so calmly, without rancor — indictments of the great injustice that is Israel. Translated perfectly by Ahdaf Soueif.
  • Ibrahim al-Koni, Gold Dust (Libya) — a great desert novel that is simple and universal at the same time. You will feel the heat and the sores and the thirst and the pain. In an elegant translation by Elliott Colla.
  • Naguib Mahfouz, Miramar (Egypt) — everybody must have their favorite Mahfouz novel, and this is mine. It is the story of Egypt and its Revolution, brilliantly told by four very different men staying in an old-fashioned pension in Alexandria, as they hover around the country girl who works there.
  • Ahmed Alaidy, Being Abbas el Abd (Egypt) — weird, funny, unconventional in form and content, short but effective and memorable.

Humphrey Davies

Davies is the celebrated translator of, among other works, Bahaa Taher’s Sunset Oasis, Alaa El Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building, Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun and Yalo, Ahmed Al-Aidy’s Being Abbas el-Abd. You’ll certainly want to pick up his translation of Ahmad Faris Shidyaq’s Leg over Leg when it comes out later this year. Davies’ choices:

Hosam Aboul-Ela

Aboul-Ela is associate professor of English at the University of Houston; he teaches courses in postcolonial literature literary theory, Arab studies, and world lit. He also translates, most notably Sonallah Ibrahim’s Stealth, Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid’s Distant Train, and Soleiman Fayyad’s Voices. He is co-editor with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak of “Theory Around the World”, a new publication series translating critical theory from outside Europe and North America. Aboul-Ela says he bases his list partially on the quality of the translation into English, with the exception of Voices, which he insists “rises above its translator’s limitations.” His five:

  1. Ghassan Kanafani, Men in the Sun
  2. Tayyeb Salih, Season Of Migration To The North
  3. Soleiman Fayyad, Voices
  4. Abdel Rahman Munif, Cities of Salt
  5. Sonallah Ibrahim, Zaat

Aida Bamia

Bamia is a professor emiritus of Arabic Language and Literature, University of Florida. She has translated Sahar Khalifeh’s The Inheritance and Ali Bader’s Papa Sartre, among other works.

Katrina Weber

Weber is a lover of Arabic literature and was the moderator of the Read Kutub literature group and blog, which is part of The Third Line non-profit programming in Dubai. Weber also has a very interesting method of counting to five:

Elliott Colla
Colla is an award-winning translator (mentioned above by R. Neil Hewison) and writer; he was a runner-up for the Saif Ghobash Translation Prize for Ibrahim al-Koni’s Gold Dust. He chose:
  1. Husain Haddawy’s translation The Arabian Nights (based on the Muhsin Mahdi edition of the Arabic).
  2. Season Of Migration To The North, Denys Johnson-Davies’ translation of Tayeb Salih’s Mawsim al-Hijra ila al-Shamal.
  3. Zayni Barakat, Farouq Mustafa’s translation of Gamal al-Ghitani’s novel of the same name.
  4. W. J. Prendergast’s translation of Badi‘ al-Zaman al-Hamadhani’s Maqamat.
  5. Cities of Salt, Peter Theroux’s translation of the first of Abderrahman Munif’s quintet
  6. And a bonus that needs to be included: Michael Sells’ translation of the early Meccan Suras in Approaching the Qur’an.
Ursula Lindsay
Lindsay is a journalist and literary critic and co-maintains the popular blog The Arabist. Her five:
  1. Memory for Forgetfulness, Mahmoud Darwish
  2. Season of Migration to the North, Tayyeb Saleh
  3. The Trilogy or Children of the Alley by Mahfouz (I’m cheating but they should both be on the list.)
  4. Bleeding of the Stone, Ibrahim al-Koni
  5. Youssef Idris stories in Arabic


    1. I will read:
      1.Mahmoud Darwish, Fi Hadrat al-Ghiyab ( In the Presence of Absence) (or Memory for Forgetfulness)
      2. Al Jahiz, the book of misers
      3. In Khaldun, Al Muqaddima the introduction
      4. Saleh, Season of migration to the north (Re-read)
      5. Elias Khoury Gates of the sun

    2. As my interest slightly shifts from classics through moderns into contemporaries I will definitely include the anthology Beirut39 with that spans the whole Arab world in my summer must-read list, than maybe an excellent anthology edited by Joumana Haddad “Medina”, long-postponed Amin Maalouf “Balthazar” and anything thay may come from Yahia´s Lababidi pen:) And maybe finally finish Nagib Mahfouz´s “Children of Gebelawi”:)

  1. I’m going to finally read Miramar. I’ve been carting a copy of it around with me for years with the best of intentions.

  2. I have quite a few of these and have read them, albeit many of them long ago. I’m glad to see The Children of the Alley on there. I’ve posted this to my Facebook page to encourage my summer-reading friends. So fascinating to see the concurrences in the lists…there are some there that are definitely must-reads.

  3. What a great idea, I never know which books to choose so this will help expand my Arabia translation library.
    Now it all comes down to what is available in Hurghada.

  4. what a wondeful idea ,breat chices from every one ,all the best stu

  5. going try and read one of the 2 mahfouz on list 🙂

    1. have managed to find 4 from library have reserved and have tales of dayrut 🙂

  6. Nice exercise. What about doing a parallel post that invites people to submit their recommendations for non-translated Arabic lit?

  7. I will finally read “the Days”! I bought the book ages ago and now it’s a great opportunity to read it!

  8. i like the idea , i planned to read : Miramar , I Saw Ramallah and Muqadima for ibn khaldoun

  9. I’m going to read I saw Ramallah. I have already read Yalo (Elias Khury), which was a great discover for me, I just loved it, so I’m going to try also The gate of the sun. This for now.
    (And by the way, I’m reading those books in Italian, so far)

  10. What a great idea! I’ll start with Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North.

  11. I’d definitely go for “The Collected (or Selected) Poems” of Sargon Boulus. For the summer….

  12. Well, I’m trying to read a book from every country anyway, so it’s great to have some recommendations… I think I’ll start with Cities of Salt and Bleeding of the Stone.

  13. my five choice if they all come from library
    1 tales of dayrut
    2 cities of salt
    3 for bread alone
    4 yalo
    5 i saw ramallah

  14. I will read Elias Khoury’s Yalo and, if my copy turns up (I’m not sure if I’m still waiting for the publisher to send it or if it’s lost in my house) Gate of the Sun.

    I read Mirimar in college, and I loved it.

    1. My copy turned up (the publisher had an issue w/ the printer, and the backorder finally came)! And, I went through my bookshelves . . . discovering other eligible books. So, here’s the list I’m attempting between Memorial Day and Labor Day:

      Beirut Blues by Hanan al-Shaykh
      The Harafish by Naguib Mahfouz (I also might re-read Mirimar)
      White Masks by Elias Khoury
      Yalo by Elias Khoury
      Gate of the Sun by Elias Khoury
      and two anthologies w/ decent Arabic representation. . .
      Words Without Borders: The World Through the Eyes of Writers
      Literature from the “Axis of Evil.”

      It doesn’t totally count, but I’m also planning to read Michael Muhammad Knight’s The Taqwacores.

  15. AbdulRahman: You going to read it?

    by بنسالم حميش

  16. I will surely read
    by Ahlam Mostaghanmi and
    ليلة المليار
    by Ghada Samman

    ps.: العلامة is a very good book

  17. Well, I have a dissertation to write so I don’t know how much time I’ll have, but it does look interesting. I already read Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North and much of Mostaghanemi’s Memories of the Flesh. Cities of Salt, and Mahfuz’s Trilogy are appealing.

  18. I just finished Azazeel by Yusef Zidan and before it Al-Harafeesh by Mahfouz, so I’m in the mood still for Arabic literature.

    I chose 6 books that I try to finish this summer, I’m a quick reader but I’m working so it might slow me down a bit but I will do my best to finish them because it’s a very interesting challenge that I want to make use of to read the books I might not be able to read any other time.

    Here is the list of the books I intend to read, some I have already some I’m yet to buy:
    1. Children of the Alley….Mahfouz (in Arabic)
    2. Season of Migration to the North…Tayeb Saleh (in English)
    3. Gate of the Sun…Elyas Khoury (in English)
    4. Cities of Salt…Abd AlRahman Munif (in English)
    5. Map of Love….Ahdaf Souaif (in Arabic)
    6. works of Mahmoud Darwish, (in Arabic) a book that I found last week in a new bookshop in Edgware road and i was about to buy it but I hesitated now I have a reason to buy it 🙂
    BTW, do we have to come back and comment on every book we read or we comment after we finish them all?

  19. Arabic summer reading list? A great idea! I just stumbled upon this blog and love it.

    I’m an American living in Tunis and am heading to Libya next week so my top read for June is Gold Dust by Ibrahim al-Koni. [If anyone has more advice on Libyan authors, let me know. My whole trip there is to buy Libyan literature.]

    July, I’ll read I Saw Ramallah. I’ve had it for years and haven’t gotten around to it.

    August will be for Al-Muqqadimah in honor of my “concitoyen” Ibn Khaldoun.

  20. I have a question. Where can I order online or buy Arabic literature? (in the US). I’ve tried neelwafurat.com but their shipping is just way too much for a college student like myself to afford. Any suggestions? 🙂 Thanks..

    1. For literature in translation, Amazon.com actually has a decent supply. For non-translated literature, try http://www.incognito.com.lb/store/ I’ve purchased music and graphic-based books from them. They’re shipping is quite reasonable. It isn’t the biggest selection of books, but they carry stuff in Arabic, French, and English.

  21. Christiaan: Ahmad Ibrahim al-Faqih, sometimes transliterated as al-Fagih. Hisham Matar, although he lives in London and writes in English.

    Perhaps, after the trip, you can suggest more Libyan literature to us?

    Taqwa: I guess having traveling friends stuff books in their suitcases is the cheapest option….

  22. What a wonderful idea!

    I am ashamed to admit that I haven’t read /A Season of Migration to the North/, so that is first on my to-read list.

  23. This sounds like fun, and what a great resource! Unfortunately, my library didn’t have a lot of the titles, but I’ll be using the list for ILL inspiration in the future. 🙂

    I’d like to participate and read I Saw Ramallah in June, Cities of Salt in July, and either Women of Algiers in Their Apartments or The Map of Love in August (I’ve requested the former, but if it doesn’t arrive in time, my library owns the latter).

  24. I have already enjoyed Memory for Forgetfulness by Mahmoud Darwish and For Bread Alone by Mohammed Choukri, so I am going to read Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah as I am familiar with the excerpts already and love his style of writing a lot. I would surely read them all if I had them at home, I always try to buy and read as many as I can.
    Thank you for posting the list.

  25. Excellent Idea. It;s a shame that I have only read 3 or 4 of the books.

    Check out my blog!

  26. I am going to read Map of Love and Elias Khoury‘s Gate of the Sun if I can.

    This challenge is just too enticing to pass it on, because my local libraries (South West UK) are so poorly stock on translated Arab lit that I jumped on the prospect of receiving a bundle of Arabic books from across Atlantic! 😉

  27. I’m going to read Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North. Great summer reading challenge!

  28. I read Miramar (in English) a lifetime ago. This challenge inspires me to re-read it and add to it Map of Love. Thank you for the challenge and for the lovely list of new authors (to me). A thought, if you have copies to spare of these authors, donate them to the public library so others can share these visions.

    Does anyone know where I might purchase Metro in English by Magdy ElShaffee? translated by Humphrey Davies. I couldn’t find it on Amazon or Incognito.
    Thanks in advance,

  29. I’m really excited to have stumbled upon this challenge. I have always loved reading about middle eastern culture and history but for some reason I’ve never thought to read Arabic literature translated into English. So thank you for this challenge and for all of the suggestions, without them I wouldn’t have known where to start. I’m going to start off reading Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih because it was recommended the most. I’m hoping to read more from the lists of suggestions in the future. Thanks again!

  30. Audible.com is now selling The Others by Seba al-Herz (translated from Arabic). Their website doesn’t say who did the translation, however.

  31. finished reading 2 books:
    1. Children of the Alley….Mahfouz (in Arabic)
    2. Map of Love….Ahdaf Souaif (in Arabic)

    4 to go 😀


  32. I’m excited about this challenge. I will read Mourid Barghouti, I Saw Ramallah and Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North.

  33. I’ve got a copy of I Saw Ramallah on my shelves and it seems tol be widely recommended so that’s what I’ll commit to initially.

  34. I’m studying for the bar exam until the end of July, so I won’t be able to start my book until August, hope that’s okay. I plan on reading either Palace Walk by Mahfouz (first book in the Cairo Trilogy) or I See Ramallah.

    Thanks! 🙂

  35. Phew, so many good recommendations …. like my reading list wasn’t long enough already! I have the Beirut39 book in my lap at the moment, but Memory in the Flesh will arrive to my mail box soon and will be my choice for the challenge.

  36. Thank you for posting so many titles, I am very interested in this challenge. I will read:
    For Bread Alone (just bought before I read this posting.) I plan to read others, I need to see what my library has in their collection. Thank you.

  37. Can you recommend any good non fiction regarding Egypt, it’s history, culture, etc. Thanks.

  38. Finished “I saw Ramallah”, at last! Very moving… But the thing is, when it comes to Palestine, I become way too much emotional.
    And just to keep this emotional thing I’m going to start “The Gate of the sun”.
    I also found in my shelves “The map of love”, so that could be the third this summer (this one in English, the others still in Italian).

  39. Hello all!

    This is probably a little too late but will share my summer reading experience anyway.

    I’m very very new to Arabic literature but so far have had a very enjoyable summer sampling some its fiction (I only found out about this blog last week so I think I only got one amongst the recommended readings).

    Here’s the list –

    Yalo – Elias Khoury (saw him at PEN!)
    Silent Day in Tangier, The Sand Child, and The Last Friend – Tahar Ben Jelloun
    Journey of Ibn Fattouma and Arabian Night & Days – Naguib Mahfouz
    Muntaha – Hala El Badry
    Shattered Vision – Rabah Belamri

    As you can see, it’s pretty random so this blog will definitely help me in the future!

    Enjoy the rest of the summer and happy reading!

  40. Hope to join in 2011.

  41. I must admit reading Alla Ala Aswany was my first exposure to middle east and North African literature. I have since found many other’s like the great Naguib Mahfouz. I loved “Drumbeat” by Mohamed El-Bisatie. I could relate to it. It reminded me of being in prison or what that would be like. Having to “Suffocate” or completely turn off part of yourself. Anyway’s I am now reading “Wolves of a crescent Moon” by Yousef Al-Mohaimeed.
    I have read other’s as well. Maybe I am wrong but the author’s currently writing seem to have better translation’s. Maybe it’s because some or most speak English and can over see the translation or maybe it’s just that modern Arabic language is easier to translate than something written 50 or more years ago. Perhaps the art of translating is more refined and done with more care . Whatever the reason books written in the past 10 years just seem to flow natural. Some of the other translations make the story almost academic and stiff which is something I don’t like. But I am great-full for these books.
    C.J.M. Seattle Wash.

  42. Hello there… I am a palestinian novelist and a political writer. I published a novel in 2007 “The Jasmine Dreams in the Time of Marble”. It is a valuable novel in Arabic which deals with the social life of an arabic woman and the social problems and political issues in the arab countries which is worth it to be translated to english for american people to get to know what is happening around more… How can I translate the novel into English? thank you…

  43. Are we not doing Arab poets, some of the most spectacular poets in the world?
    I highly recommend the recentlly issued Journal of An Ordinary Grief by Mahmoud Darwish, Kanafani’s short story collecton Palestine’s Children, and Emile Habiby’s delightful Sanaya, The Ogre’s Daughter. For Mahfouz, I recommend Arabian Nights, and Ahknaten, a masterpiece of multiple povs. I would also recommend Al Koni’s The Bleeding Stone, and Sahar Khalifeh’s Wild Thorns ( a novel that’s more intricate than what appears).

  44. We could do poets this summer… still undecided. I have until June 21, the official start of the season…

  45. Thank you for this list!!!!!
    I must choose Season of Migration to the North, Tayyeb Saleh because it was mentioned so many times… and by such amazing minds… I am wonderfully frightened to see what impact it has on my life, it will no doubt be small!

  46. two years ago, I read A. Rahmane Mounif’s Cities of Salt, Ahlam Musteghanmi’s Memory of Flesh.
    on 2005, I read Ghassan Kanafani’s Men under Sun and a short story entitled “The Stranger” by Leila Abouzeid.

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