5 Must-read Memoirs (and Not-quite-memoirs)

I didn't list this memoir because you've already read it.

Assembly Journal, for their “five books” series, asked me to come up with a list of five Arabic books. Five from all of Arabic literature? The field was too dizzyingly wide.

Even when I narrowed my topic to “memoirs and not-quite-memoirs,” it was difficult to winnow: What about Galal Amin’s Nectar of the Years? (All right, it hasn’t been translated into English, so that’s that.) Sayyid Qutb or Huda Shaarawi’s memoirs, for their historical and political importance? (Literary interest has to come fist.) Radwa Ashour’s meta-fictional, half-autobiographical Specters? (But I had Specters in a previous five-books list.) Taha Hussein’s classic The Days? (Hasn’t everyone already read The Days?)

I eventually decided on five contemporary memoirs and not-really-memoirs (read the list of 5 here), although I was reluctant to drop this one, the sixth:

Khaled al-Berry’s Life is More Beautiful than Paradise, trans. Humphrey Davies

Al-Berry’s memoir is the most memoir-like on this list: It tells the story of the author’s adolescence in Upper Egypt: how he became a member of the banned Jama’a Islamiya, and how he was imprisoned with other members of the group. It then follows how al-Berry shaved off his beard, stopped wearing a jilbab, and embraced literature and a secular medical-school education.

What’s wonderful about this memoir is how it doesn’t feel charged with East-West politics, but treats all its subjects—Christians, Islamists, the apolitical, the secular—with understanding and respect. The book is at its most moving when al-Berry describes being in prison. His small flashes of desperation—as when he weeps from a terrible headache, or when he is perversely upset at not being tortured—make for an exceptionally real-feeling narrative.

The other five books are from Sonallah Ibrahim, Samuel Shimon, Mahmoud Darwish, Mourid Barghouti, and Nawal al-Saadawi. Read the list here.

Other lists of five:

Five books on Tahrir and revolution

Five Arabic books to read before you die


Robert McCrum at The Guardian: The seductive power of lists


  1. i hate to be a downer, but hardly anyone has read “the days”. i know, i know … 😉
    i would add mohamed choukri’s “for bread alone” to the list.

    1. Yes, you’re absolutely right about Choukri.

      I guess you’re probably right about The Days. A shame, that. And I love his novels, too.

  2. Great post. Written with your usual aplomb and self-deprecating humor. But so sad to see The Days excluded. I don’t know who Assembly Journal’s target audience is – ordinary folk with wide-ranging interests or academia and the literati – but I don’t see how The Days can be excluded from a list of 5 books in the category, especially after it stems from beng narrowed down from 5 Arabic books.. Wouldn’t it be like excluding One Hundred Years of Solitude from the five in the magical realism genre?

    1. I suppose, I just always feel that putting writers like Marquez or Mahfouz or Hussein on these lists is silly, because everyone already knows One Hundred Years of Solitude and Cairo Trilogy and The Days, and the point is not so much to be definitive but suggestive.

      But if you and Bibi say I’m wrong about The Days being so well-known, then I’m sure I am. I’ve probably been living too long in my own head.

  3. Well, as I understand it, Qutb really only wrote a semi-autobiographical novel from his earlier (i.e., pre-Islamic) life. The interesting thing about Qutb which apparently no Westerner seems to understand is that he was actually a very important literary critic in his time. He was the first to discover Naguib Mahfouz among other upcoming literary figures.

      1. i just remembered safinaz kazem. i’ve never read her memoires, but ever since the wonderful “four women of egypt” i’ve wanted to. if i remember correctly from the film, the book was to be published in french. anyways, here’s a link to an old blog from baheyya: http://baheyya.blogspot.com/2005/04/restless-mind.html
        must find film, hmmmm.

  4. I love Baheyya’s literary commentary. I didn’t realize she’d started blogging again.

    1. no, unfortunately not. the link i posted was ages old, i just thought it was interesting, given that we were talking about memoires.

  5. I just remembered a great memoir (albeit one that I very much doubt has been translated into English): الشفق الأخضر by سمير محمد خواسيك which details the adventures of an Egyptian geologist who spent many years working in the Canadian wilderness (1970s). For me it was real interesting reading about Native Americans in Arabic. Everyone should definitely pick up their copy.

    1. Oh, that, in turn, reminds me of “Memories of a Meltdown,” by the wonderful Mohamed Makhzangi. http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2006/779/bo5.htm

      Egyptians in the Canadian wilderness…Egyptians in the Soviet Union….

      I also love Makhzangi’s children’s stories, فندق الثعالب. (This is OK, because I have children.) Wonderful sensitivity toward animals and the natural world.

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