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:
Robert McCrum at The Guardian: The seductive power of lists