If you’re the Christmas or the gift-buying type, then I’ve got some (bookish) suggestions. If you’re neither the Christmas nor the gift-buying sort, then you can always use these recommendations on yourself.
All are 2010 releases.
Beer in the Snooker Club, Waguih Ghali
This utterly gorgeous classic has been reissued by Serpent’s Tail with a new cover and introduction. It’s charming, witty, sly, miserable, beautiful, and spins a whole world of post-revolution Egypt and not-so-revolutionary Britain. This is a book that deserves to be read and re-read. As I’ve said about it elsewhere:
The protagonist is as painfully charming, witty, and sympathetic as any in modern fiction. Yet he cannot grow up, and cannot commit himself to any course of action. He is trapped between past and possible Egypts, between what is and what should’ve been.
Written in English, originally published in 1964. A review from The Guardian.
For the lover of love and history:
Leila Aboulela’s Lyrics Alley
This book is set in 1950s pre-independence Sudan, and—although I think it puts forth some stereotyped ideas about Egypt vs. Sudan—it is always a page-turner, and well-crafted. Originally written in (quite lovely) English.
For the dissector of relationships:
Habib Selmi’s The Scents of Marie-Claire, trans. Fadwa Qasem
Tunisian author Habib Selmi is a master of detailed psychological observations, particularly when it concerns family and romantic relations. The Scents of Marie-Claire, while suffering from some translation stiffness, is no exception. This novel was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (“Arabic Booker”) in 2009.
For the young reader who wants a laugh:
Ghada Abdel Aal’s I Want to Get Married!, trans. Nora El-Tahawy
This book is somewhat confusingly packaged: It has a scholarly introduction from the U of Texas but a chick-lit cover, and is unfortunately labeled “memoir.” (A discussion of that here.)
Still, ignore all that, and it’s pretty funny. A review from Muslimah Media Watch.
For the literary-minded:
Sonallah Ibrahim’s Stealth, trans. Hosam Aboul-Ela
This is my favorite novel of the year. Take an innovative stylist who generally deals with the socio-political, and put him down in the world of his own childhood, you get something really remarkable.
Adania Shibli’s Touch, trans. Paula Haydar
This is also a book for the poetically inclined; a beautiful coming-of-age exploration, told through the eyes of an eight-year-old girl learning to deal with family, culture, language, and a world pocked by the Sabra and Shatila massacres.
For the poetically inclined:
Adonis: Selected Poems, selected and translated by Khaled Mattawa
Award-winning poet Khaled Mattawa has created a beautiful artifact here, following the sweep of Adonis’s long career.
Mahmoud Darwish’s Journal of an Ordinary Grief, trans. Ibrahim Muhawa
Journal is one of Darwish’s three prose works. Another, In the Presence of Absence, will be out next year from Archipelago. An excerpt from my review:
Journal has an exceptional stylistic range, moving from the reportorial to the philosophical to the poetic. But the book’s predominant mode is dialogue: between the poet and a taxi driver, the poet and a judge, the poet and a lover, the poet and himself. In this, the book doesn’t resemble a ten-chapter memoir so much as a ten-act play–a yet more abstract version of the “theater of the mind” once practiced by the Egyptian playwright Tawfiq al-Hakim.
My review for Al Masry Al Youm. And one from Words Without Borders.
More poetic suggestions in “Must-have Arabic Poetry Collections of 2010.”
For those who like a good detective yarn:
Elias Khoury’s White Masks, trans. Maia Tabet
This is one of Elias Khoury’s earlier novels (published in Arabic in 1981), and not as layered as Gate of the Sun or Yalo. But it’s nonetheless both interesting and enjoyable, built around the narrator’s attempt to understand what he describes as the “wonderful, dreadful” murder of civil servant Khalil Ahmed Jaber.
My review for World Literature Today. A review for The Quarterly Conversation.
For the visual artist or lover of coffee-table books:
re:viewing egypt: Image and Echo, photographs by Xavier Roy, text by Gamal al-Ghitani, trans. Humphrey Davies.
An evocative and gracefully assembled photo collection of Egypt, where photos are allowed to speak both to each other and to Gamal al-Ghitani’s interesting introduction, which is evocative of his short novel Pyramid Texts.
For the cool graphic artist:
You can’t get much cooler than a subscription to the Lebanon-based, trilingual, graphic-novel magazine Samandal.
For the lover of Arabic lit (in English):
The fan of literature from the Arabic-writing world (who prefers to read in English) can’t do much better than to get a subscription to Banipal magazine.
Oh dear, we diverge based on your second choice!
I wonder if the author has been acclaimed because of her dress choice, and getting back with her roots, so beloved of the “luvvies”, as opposed to quality and substance of writing?
Lyrics Alley was a choice of EmiratesLitFest reading group, my summary was “trite”!
Well, I’m recommending it for the romantic reader, not necessarily for myself, or you. It’s not on my personal “top 10” list, but I think it would be enjoyable for a certain subset of the reading community. Did no one in the reading group like it?
And the whole rub of gift buying is not to imagine what I would like (in case people would like to buy something for me…I want the subscription to Samandal), but to imagine my way into others’ reading tastes, which is a bit harder.
Just a final point, this past year my reading has been broadened by being part of the wider reading community, through a variety of book clubs, so whether recommendations are “trite” or “substantial”, upon reading, my mind has experienced a far wider variety. 🙂
Wonderful selection of books ,the beer in snooker club caught my eye when I read the guardian review couple weeks ago ,all the best stu
Thanks for presenting us the Arab literature. What especially attracted my attention is the a novel Beer in the Snooker Club by Waguih Ghali that features allegiance to the English culture and at the same time to the Egyptian culture. I have no doubts that this post-colonial novel is a masterpiece and I long for reading it.
Get it! I do very wholeheartedly recommend Ghali’s (only) book.
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