There is a horror category in Arabic. Indeed, way back in 2011, Egyptian critic and writer Ahmed Khalifa said the genre was undergoing a renaissance:
Yet as Lebanese filmmaker Tarek Jammel also noted in “No Zombies in Gaza,” sometimes there’s so much on-the-ground horror that the monsterized version doesn’t have as much to offer writers.
Either way, there are some truly hair-curling, gooseflesh-raising, get-me-off-this-planet Arab books. The five books below all have monsters in them, although only in Frankenstein in Baghdad is the monster non-human.
1. Frankenstein in Baghdad, by Ahmed Saadawi, translated by Jonathan Wright (2017).
Just as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein tops lists of literary horror pioneers, Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad — winner of the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction — deserves its place among Arabic’s well-crafted horrors. The book features a living corpse, stitched together of different blown-up body parts and made into a what’s-its-name that claims to be on a “grand mission in order to punish, with the help of God and Heaven, all criminals and eventually do justice on Earth.” Scary stuff.
2. Yalo, by Elias Khoury, translated by Humphrey Davies (2009).
This among the most frightening works of Arabic literature, perhaps even more frightening in the gaps it leaves the reader’s minds to fill in. Here, the monster is not a shuismo, or “what’s-its-name,” but an “ordinary” young man who goes about the extraordinary business of torturing and being tortured.
Khoury’s most beautiful work is As Though She Were Sleeping, his most influential has been Gate of the Sun; his most frightening is decidedly Yalo. Read at your peril.
3. The Corpse Exhibition, by Hassan Blasim, translated by Jonathan Wright (2014).
It’s hard to pick a most frightening story from amidst the works here, which are nearly all gooseflesh-provoking in one way or another. “The Truck to Berlin” echoes Ghassan Kanafani’s classic Men in the Sun as a human trafficker takes a truckload of asylum seekers and other migrants through a Serbian forest.
4. Abduction, by Anouar Benmalek, translated by Simon Pare (2011).
This is another book to give you nightmares. Indeed, at times it feels as though Benmalek enjoys terrorizing his readers. The protagonist, Aziz, is just an ordinary middle-class zookeeper in Algiers until the abduction of his daughter. The reader must chase along with Aziz, contemplate horrifying choices, and relive Algeria’s many 20th century conflicts in the attempt to get Aziz’s daughter back from a sadistic kidnapper.
5. Oh, Salaam!, by Najwa Barakat, trans. Luke Leafgren (2015).
Oh, Salaam! is a post-civil-war story that centers around an explosives expert, a sniper, and a torturer who try to find their way in post-war, peacetime Lebanon. If you weren’t sufficiently frightened about human nature by reading the news, you will be after reading Oh, Salaam!
Also very frightening is Najwa Bakarat’s story in the collection Beirut Noir. Her″Under the Tree of Melancholy,” translated by Michelle Hartman, is seen through the eyes of a broken man living out his own afterlife. He is just an ″eye″ with no remaining agency, moved from place to place by his wife. He is both criminal and victim, and Barakat manages to make the reader feel as helpless as he does.