50 Great Lebanese Novels and a 5-Book Starter Kit

The excellent indie press Archipelago sent out a note yesterday saying that, to celebrate “the 70th anniversary* of Lebanon’s liberation from colonial rule, Archipelago Books is happy to announce that all of Elias Khoury’s books will be on sale for 60% off the original cover price, including e-books.” You just need to check out with the code “khoury70.” Where should you start with Khoury? Where should you go from there? Well:

600px-US_50.svgThe 50 Great Books from Lebanon

For your Elias Khoury collection:

(1) Gate of the Sun, Elias Khoury, trans. Humphrey Davies. A must-read that needs no introduction.

(2) Yalo, Elias Khoury, trans. Humphrey Davies. A must-read and international award-winner.

(3) Little Mountain, Elias Khoury, trans. Maia Tabet. A beautiful older book of Khoury’s

(4) White Masks, Elias Khoury, trans. Maia Tabet (for the starter kit)

(5) The Journey of Little Gandhi, Elias Khoury, trans. Paula Haydar

(6) The Kingdom of Strangers, Elias Khoury, trans. Paula Haydar

(7) The Gates of the City, Elias Khoury, trans. Paula Haydar

(8) As Though She Were Sleeping, Elias Khoury, trans. Humphrey Davies (Quercus) and Marilyn Booth (Archipelago). Both versions are excellent; this exploration of 1930s Lebanon and Palestine is un-missable.

(9) Note that Sinalcol, Khoury’s latest novel (trans. Humphrey Davies), is coming out in English next year. And, insha’allah, we will have an excerpt of Khoury’s wonderful untranslated novella, The Scent of Soap, in the February 2014 all-Lebanon-all-the-time issue of Missing Slate. 

For your Hanan al-Shaykh collection:

(10) The Story of Zahra, Hanan al-Shaykh, trans. Peter Ford  (for the starter kit)

(11) Women of Sand and Myrrh, Hanan al-Shaykh, trans. Catherine Cobham.

(12) Beirut Blues, Hanan al-Shaykh, trans. Catherine Cobham

(13) I Sweep the Sun off Rooftops, Hanan al-Shaykh, trans. Catherine Cobham

A must-have for the serious reader (& for your Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq collection):

(14) Leg Over Leg, Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq (1804-1887), trans. Humphrey Davies. Four volumes. Un-missable.

For the lover of historical fiction:

(15) Tree of Pearls, Queen of Egypt, Jurji Zaidan (1861-1914), trans. Samah Selim. (for the starter kit)

(16) The Conquest of Andalusia, Jurji Zaidan, trans. Roger Allen. All these books are wonderful fun. If you enjoy historical fiction and are only a little curious about this period, do. Read.

(17) The Battle of Poitiers, Jurji Zaidan, trans. William Granara

(18) The Caliph’s Sister, Jurji Zaidan, trans. Issa J. Boullata

(19) The Caliph’s Heirs, Jurji Zaidan, trans. Michael Cooperson

(20) Saladin and the Assassins, Jurji Zaidan, trans. Paul Starkey

(21) Samarkand, Amin Maalouf, trans. (from the French) Russell Harris. Maalouf needs no introduction.

(22) Leo Africanus, Amin Maalouf, trans. (from the French) Peter Sluglett

(23) The Gardens of Light, Amin Maalouf, trans. (from the French) Dorothy Blair

For those interested in sexy ’60s Beirut:

(24) Death in Beirut, Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad, trans. Leslie J. McLoughlin

For the lover of boundary-crossing:

(25) The Mehlis Report, Rabee Jaber, trans. Kareem James Abu-Zeid. To quote from my own forthcoming review, this is a “genre-bending historico-fantastical murder-mystery that moves the borders between life and death.”

(26) Confessions, Rabee Jaber, trans. Kareem James Abu-Zeid. This is forthcoming from New Directions.

Sharp-witted ride through young Beirut:

(27) Always Coca-Cola, Alexandra Chreiteh, trans. Michelle Hartman

For the lover of beautiful, haunting contemporary literary works:

(28) B as in Beirut, Iman Humaydan Younes, trans. Max Weiss

(29) Wild Mulberries, Iman Humaydan Younes, trans. Michelle Hartman

(30) Other Lives, Iman Humaydan Younes, trans. Michelle Hartman. This is forthcoming from Interlink; insha’allah an excerpt will appear in our Feb. 2014 issue of Missing Slate.

(31) The Stone of Laughter, Huda Barakat, trans. Sophie Bennett

(32) Tiller of Waters, Huda Barakat, trans. Marilyn Booth (for the starter kit)

(33) Disciples of Passion, Huda Barakat, trans. Marilyn Booth

(34) June Rain, Jabbour Douaihy, trans. Paula Haydar. This is forthcoming from BQFP; insha’allah an excerpt will appear in our Feb. 2014 issue of Missing Slate.

(35) Autumn Equinox, Jabbour Douaihy, trans. Nay Hannawi

(36) Salaam!, Najwa Barakat, trans. Luke Leafgren. This is forthcoming from Interlink, and an excerpt will appear in The Massachusetts Review. Insha’allah we will have an excerpt of Barakat’s A Bus of Good People for Missing Slate. 

(37) The Penguin’s Song, Hassan Daoud, trans. Marilyn Booth. This is forthcoming from City Lights; insha’allah we will have an excerpt of Daoud’s 180 Sunsets in Missing Slate, also trans. Booth.

(38) Kite, Dominique Eddé, trans. (from the French) Ros Schwartz

(39) Blood Test, Abbas Beydoun, trans. Max Weiss. Insha’allah a poem of Beydoun’s, trans. the inimitable Maged Zaher, will also be in our upcoming issue of The Missing Slate.

For your Etel Adnan collection:

(40) Sitt Marie Rose, Etel Adnan, trans. (from the French) Georgina Kleege

Graphic novels for grown-ups:

(41) Bye Bye Babylon, Lamia Ziade, trans. Olivia Snaije (for the starter kit)

Graphic novels for young readers, 12-18:

(42) Game for Swallows, Zeina Abirached, trans. Edward Gauvin

Novels for young readers, 12-18:

(43) The Servant, Fatima Sharafeddine, trans. the author.

Lebanese novels written in English:

(44) De Niro’s Game, Rawi Hage.

(45) Cockroach, Rawi Hage.

(46) Carnival, Rawi Hage.

(47) The Hakawati, Rabih Alameddine

(48) I, The Divine: A Novel in First Chapters, Rabih Alameddine

(49) Koolaids: The Art of War, Rabih Alameddine

Well, this isn’t a novel, but if you like memoir:

(50) Jean Said Makdisi’s Beirut Fragments

And the Five for a Starter Kit, With a Bonus for the Serious Reader

1) Start with Jurji Zaidan’s Tree of Pearls. Why Zaidan? Isn’t he “just” a nahda-era historical novelist? (Well, yes, he is. But he’s a fun, page-turning historical novelist who hews pretty close to recorded history.)

2) Start with Elias Khoury’s White Masks. Why White Masks and not Khoury’s famed Gate of the Sun or stunning Yalo? Because White Masks marked a turning point in Khoury’s work, and evidences the themes — memory, loss, violence — that make his oeuvre so brilliant.

3) Start with Hanan al-Shaykh’s Story of Zahraher brilliant exploration of gender, violence, and identity.

4) Start with Huda Barakat’s Tiller of Watersa beautifully vocalized novel that gives weight to the importance of everyday objects.

5) Start with Lamia Ziade’s Bye Bye Babylona colorful, gaudy child’s-eye view of civil war.

BONUS: The serious “reader’s reader” will absolutely need to begin with al-Shidyaq’s 1855 classic Leg over Leg. After this, she (or he) can go anywhere.

ALSO: I had meant to list 70 great novels and a 7-book starter kit — since “independence” is at year 70 — but, alas, time elapsed. If you’d like to add 20 / 2 more below, I’d be grateful.

*For more on the “70th anniversary.”


  1. Please don’t omit Judgment Day by Rasha al Ameer (American University in Cairo Press), translated from Yawm el Din by Jonathan Wright who has turned the classıcal Arabic ınto a Jamesian style. The novel tells of the love affair between an imam and a modern woman through the prism of Mutanabbi.

    1. Oh dear, yes, I read it twice, reviewed it as many times. Not sure how it slipped the memory’s locks. Thanks!

      1. I second Norbert. A great novel.. very human, exquisite prose.

        1. Yes, I admit it, Norbert is right!

  2. May I also suggest Evelyne Accad’s The Excised, which is a feminist novel and which deals with the issue of female circumcision

    1. Jennifer & The Modern Novel, I will have to sadly admit I don’t know Evelyne Accad’s work, but I will start. I don’t see Poppy in the library catalog nearest me (L’excisée and a few others), but I will look for it. Thanks!

  3. I think Beirut nightmares and Beirut 75 by Ghada al-Samman should be added to the list, at least one of them. Both very important titles.

    1. Yes, I thought of those, although I left her off as she’s Syrian… Although since she worked & lived in Lebanon perhaps that’s not a particularly important distinction. Maybe I’ll make a separate category of “non-Lebanese writing about Lebanon…”

      1. 🙂

  4. If you want to include poetry, there is also Etel Adnan’s The Arab Apocalypse. Some other Hassan Daoud novels have also been translated into English, including the House of Mathilde, probably his best known work; you have also left out Rashid Ad-Daif’s work, some of which have been translated into English, including the wonderful Passage to Dusk translated by Nirvana Tanoukhi.
    Another book that fits into the category of Books about pre-war Beirut but that foreshadow the war include Andree Chedid Return to Beirut, which is a bit of classic; Andree Chedid can be considered equally Egyptian and French; Another fabulous book written in English is the Bullet Collection by Patricia Safarian Ward, which also talks about the Lebanese Civil War
    There is another Elias Khoury novel called City Gates which you didn’t include (probably for a good reason, it’s a bit awful).
    I am sure there are many more that I missed.

    1. Sorry, I didn’t notice that you had included Elias Khoury’s City Gates (I stand by my opinion of the novella though); I was thinking you might also include Maalouf’s Rock of Tanios which is a historical novel about Lebanon that won the Prix Goncourt, and it’s wonderful; Rabih Alameddine also has a story collection, The Perv; Some of Emily Nasrallah’s books have also been translated, including Flight Against Time and a nice collection called A House not Her Own

      1. CITY GATES is probably the one book listed above that I haven’t read. And with Maalouf I wasn’t sure what to include; I know ROCK OF TANIOS won the Goncourt… but I haven’t read it. Anyhow, thank you so much for all this!

    2. I did have Etel’s THE ARAB APOCALYPSE, but then I erased it, thinking it might be easier (for this list) to stick just with novels. I’ve never read BULLET COLLECTION, only by Ward in Banipal once; I should check it out. And I didn’t remember that HOUSE OF MATHILDE had been translated to English…

      1. You absolutely should read the Rock of Tanios not because it won the prize, but because it’s gripping and explains a lot about Maalouf’s ambivalent relationship with Lebanon. I remember my sister (who doesn’t even like to read) fighting over this bookAnd I can’t recommend The Bullet Collection enough as it is one of the best books written about the Civil War and it’s so sad. Another author who writes in English about Lebanon is Tony Hanania (I’m pretty sure he’s Lebanese); his books are Unreal City, Homesickness. When I first read Rawi Hage’s DeNiro’s game, it reminded me of Unreal City in that the main character is someone who is unlikeable and was complicit in the war not just an innocent victim (although the language is more sophisticated than Hage’s). No wonder I forgot about this book, it’s quite dark and your faith in humanity is somewhat shaken when you read it.
        There are all these books I keep forgetting and then remember.

        1. Susanne, I look forward to reading all these. Thank you for your excellent recommendations; faith-shaking is important sometimes. I can always go re-read LEG OVER LEG at the end and feel that “hey, humanity’s OK, because look how funny we are.”

          1. I still vividly remember listening to Tony Hanania talking about and reading from Homesick way back in the late 1990s at a literary conference in Cairo. I have never quite been able to shake him off my mind.

  5. Sorry, that’s supposed to be my sister and I fighting over this book

  6. Fantastic list Marcia! You have reminded me that I have a number of Jurji Zaidan on my bookshelf waiting to be read…and now a whole host of others I will be adding!

    1. Yes, don’t miss out on your Zaidan! I love genre novels; I think he’s been underrated in translation.

  7. Thanks Marcia for compiling such a wonderful list. So much to read, so little time!

    1. Indeed! Somehow my 10-year-old manages to read a novel a day…I wish I were still in that life-phase.

  8. I’ve just been online to add the Leg over Leg volumes to my wishlist, but only vols 1&2 are available. Do you know if volume 2&4 have been published yet and when they will be published??? Thanks for sharing such a great list!

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