Help Ann Morgan: A Year of Reading (the Arabic-writing) World

No, I don't think she plans to read with a safari hat on.

This year, freelance journalist Ann Morgan has passed her time reading women. She made a decision early this year, she said, ” to devote 2011, the last year of my twenties, to reading books by women and trying to see what we have got to say to the world.”

Apparently, that must be going well, since she’s decided to make 2012 “A Year of Reading the World,” one book per nation.

So English PEN put out a call, asking members, Facebook friends, and hangers-on to suggest books for Morgan’s project. I found it ridiculously difficult to suggest just one book from a prolific nation like Egypt (and unfortunately just as difficult to dig up anything in translation from Bahrain and Oman).

Perhaps she should do “A Year of Reading Egypt” in 2013.

In any case, I decided to focus on literature published in the last 5 years, and generally books out in 2010-2012. You will be shocked that I haven’t mentioned Mohammad Choukri or Yusuf Idris, Tayeb Salih or Abdul Rahman Munif, but I kept things a little neater by staying recent.

In some spots, Morgan has already dropped in suggestions for our Arabic-writing nations. In others, her lists remains blank. I’ve wedged in a few of my suggestions below; I’m sure she’d love to hear yours, too.


Two books that I’ve enjoyed by Algerian writers in the last two years have been Leïla Marouane’s, The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris (do read my review before you trip over your feet leaping to conclusions) and Abduction, by Anouar Benmalek. Although “enjoy” is probably not the correct word for Benmalek’s striking examination of torture.


I believe that Dr. Ferial Ghazoul and John Verlenden are currently at work on a translation of Bahraini poet Qassim Haddad‘s collected works.  Haddad’s work also can be found in Gathering the Tide: An Anthology of Contemporary Arabian Gulf Poetry, with excerpts available on Blackbird.

Otherwise, I suggest the collection Pearls, Dreams of Shell (Howling Dog Press) published in 2007, edited by Hameed Al Qaed.

Egypt: Ahdaf Soueif The Map of Love

We couldn’t argue with Morgan’s choice here. Indeed, The Map of Love was one of the selections on our lists of “5 Books to Read Before You Die.” But, as The Map of Love wasn’t published in the last five years, it can’t be my choice. To stick with Soueif, we could go with her forthcoming Cairo: My City, Our Revolution. Or what about Sonallah Ibrahim’s Stealth; I never miss an opportunity to plug Ibrahim’s Stealth. I haven’t plugged Moon over Samarqand by Mohamed Mansi Qandil in a while.

Are re-prints allowed? If they are, of course I’d have to suggest the re-issuing of Waguih Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker Club. All these books are very Egypt-y.


For something fun, I’d suggest that Morgan go with Samuel Shimon’s An Iraqi in Paris. For something serious and intellectual, but thrilling, Ali Bader’s The Tobacco Keeper (trans. Amira Nowaira). For poetry, Sargon Boulos’ 2009 collection. Or if Morgan’s in the mood for incredibly voiced short stories, The Madman of Freedom Square, by Hassan Blasim (trans. Jonathan Wright).


 I would like to suggest Where the Rain Doesn’t Fall, by Amjad Nasser, but it won’t be out in English until 2013. So instead I’ll suggest Morgan read Ibrahim Nasrallah’s IPAF-shortlisted The Time of White Horses, which will either be out from AUC Press later this year or in early 2012. 


Hm. I would suggest Laila al-Othman or Ismail Fahd Ismail, but neither is available in book-length translation, to my knowledge.

She could read the somewhat dry-sounding A novelist from Kuwait: A thematic study of Ismail Fahd Ismail’s novels. And Dr. Naif’s from Kuwait. Would reading an issue of The 99 count? Someone help out, please.


Lebanon is another conundrum. I couldn’t possibly pass up suggesting Elias Khoury’s stunning Yalo, (or White Masks) and if Morgan hasn’t read Hanan al-Shaykh, she absolutely must—al-Shaykh’s  Thousand and One Nights is her most recent work, although The Locust and the Bird is more Lebanon-y. Perhaps she’s already read those, and then, well, she’ll have to read Jabbour Douaihy’s June Rain, due out next year. Or Alexandra Chreiteh’s Always Coca-Cola….

Libya: Hisham Matar In the Country of Men; Anatomy of a Disappearance / Ibrahim Al-Khoni Anubius: A Desert Novel; Gold Dust; The Animists; The Bleeding of the Stone; The Puppet; The Seven Veils of Seth / Ahmed Fagi Homeless Rats; 30 Short Stories

Morgan throws out a lot of suggestions from Libya. Among the al-Koni novels, I would suggest Bleeding of the Stone or Gold Dust, although the former is not within our 5-year frame. Anatomy of a Disappearance is; that’s a good choice. Elliott Colla’s translation of Ibrahim al-Koni’s The Animists is supposed to be out next year. Innit, Elliott?

Morocco Diss [sic] Chraïbi Heirs to the Past; Le Passé Simple (The Simple Past) / Tahar Ben Jelloun La nuit sacrée.

From Morocco, Morgan has selected two Francophone works. Both excellent choices; I wouldn’t argue. I’ll just add the possibility of Bensalem Himmich’s wonderful and philosophical The Polymath, trans. Roger Allen. It’s not very Morocco-y, but it’s lovely.


Umm…umm… Ibrahim Farghali spent a good part of his childhood in Oman. Would Smiles of Saints count?

Someone help me so Morgan doesn’t end up reading something dreadful like Behind the Veil in Oman. I am not saying there are no Omani writers; I’m just saying that, outside of stories published in Banipal, I don’t know of anything in English.

No listing for Palestine.

I see that Morgan had to be chary when deciding which nations to call a nation. But, politics aside, the literature of Palestinians is un-missable. Really, Ann, you’d be doing yourself a disservice.

Just from 2011/2012, there are many great books to choose from: Mahmoud Barghouti’s I Was Born There, I was Born Here, trans. Humphrey Davies (2011) and Adania Shibli’s We Are All Equally Far from Love trans. Paul Starkey (2011), and Rabai al-Madhoun’s The Lady from Tel Aviv, trans. Elliott Colla (2012) are a start. Oh, or if Morgan’s needing a laugh by the time she gets to the Ps, what about Suad Amiry’s Nothing To Lose But Your Life?


If Reflections on Islamic Art counts (it is after all reflections on the art at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha), then definitely, definitely this. If not, Qatari Voices, a collection out recently from Bloomsbury-Qatar. The “hot” Qatari book right now is القرصان, I understand, but it’s not available in translation.

Saudi Arabia: Rajaa Al-Sanea Girls of Riyadh.

She could; why not? Although she’d need to keep in mind the translation problems the book has in English. Or she could go with My Thousand and One Nights: A Novel of Mecca, by IPAF-winner Rajaa Alem, trans. with Tom McDonough.


The Grub Hunter, by Amir Tag Elsir, is supposed to be out next year, trans. William Hutchins. An excellent choice. Or Tarek Eltayeb’s acclaimed The Palm House. Or both.


Fadi Azzam’s Sarmada, which is on this year’s IPAF longlist, and is already out in English. Or else, if Morgan is in the mood for poetry, the Adonis collection put together by Khaled Mattawa for Yale University Press. Although it’s not at all Syria-y.


Habib Selmi’s The Scents of Marie-Claire, trans. Fadwa Qasem.

United Arab Emirates

I would like to choose Nujoom al-Ghanem; however, al-Ghanem does not have a poetry collection available in English.

In English, there is Maha Gargash’s The Sand Fish, which I haven’t read, but have heard is…okay. For something different, Qais Sedki’s award-winning YA graphic novel, Gold Ring, now out in translation.


If you can wait for fall 2012, I’d say Wajdi al-Ahdal’s بلد بلا سماء (A Land Without Skye), trans. William Hutchins as A Land without Jasmine. It’s due to be published in the fall of 2012 from Garnet.

If not, then I’ll have to break the five-year rule and choose the excellent The Hostage, by Mutee Dammaj.

You will note that, among the Arab League nations, I have left off Comoros, Mauritania, Djibouti, and Somalia. The first two because I just don’t know (although Wikipedia has a list for Mauritania); the latter two because I don’t think of them Arabic-writing nations; if Morgan wants my suggestions, it’s Nuruddin Farah in Somalia and Abdourahman Waberi from Djibouti.

All right, your turn!