Where Do I Start with Arabic Literature?

ArabLit editor M Lynx Qualey gets asked this question a lot:

Often I stand there, blinking, my brow furrowed and lips askew, as though I’d just been asked: “Where do I start with life?”

So, as one does with the world’s insoluble mysteries, I took it to Twitter. Unfortunately, the site’s polling software allows the creation of only four possible responses. I tossed out three possibilities and my usual ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

I followed this up with several caveats: yes, if an individual asks me, I take that individual’s tastes into account; yes,  I recognize this question, by its very nature, posits Arabic literature as a single “thing,” among which like apples-to-apples objects can be judged; yes, I recognize it’s a 1500-year tradition. And herein my conundrum. Do I give some twisty-mouthed answer to people who are, at least potentially, interested in immersing themselves in a new literature? Or do I give my best devil-may-care grin and suggest a few titles?

The poll numbers lean, slightly, to a “Mahfouz-era classic,” although with a healthy showing for “It’s an impossible Q.” Answers in the comments range from the absurdist (“I say tharthara fawq an-Nīl and let them guess” or “Maybe they shouldn’t start at all if they’re still wondering 😂 “) to the tentative (“A couple of each? A mix of modern and classic?”) to those who had a clear opinion on the matter: (“A classical intro to Arabic literature is done through the works of early 20th century Egyptian writers : Ahmed Amin, tawfik al hakim, Taha Hussein…etc.” or Diviani Chaudhuri’s “New stuff in good translation.”)

As to that last suggestion: Iman Mersal’s How to Heal: Motherhood and Its Ghosts (tr. Robin Moger) for nonfiction in December, Mazen Maarouf’s Jokes for the Gunmen (tr. Jonathan Wright) for a short-story collection out in January, and Khaled Khalifa’s Death is Hard Work (tr. Leri Price) for a novel out in February. Beautiful works, all.

Several commenters urged a start from classic poetry. And indeed, if a reader is going to understand the context in which any literature swims, they should (at some point) read that language’s classics. Yet many of the Arabic classics, however defined, are unavailable in English translation. Worse, many are in translations that are clunky, sing-songy, or altogether patchy. I could certainly give a nod toward Antarah’s War Songs, translated by James Montgomery; Michael Sells’ work in Desert TracingsDavid Larsen’s translations of Ibn Khalawayh in Names of the Lion. And, I believe, Montgomery’s forthcoming Mutanabbi collection and Kareem James Abu-Zeid’s forthcoming version of al-Muʻallaqat.

The critic Susannah Tarbush suggested a contemporary multi-author short-story anthology. This is an appealing answer for a number of reasons, and I do enjoy the buffet-style short-story collection. Yet I can’t think of a well-translated, around-the-region short-story anthology that fits the bill. Certainly, our alleged Arabic-literature-in-translation newcomer could take out a subscription to Banipal or ArabLit Quarterly.

Some suggested I recommend work that’s freely available online, and indeed I’ve already compiled any number of listicles: Selected: 10 Arabic Short Stories by Women, in Translation, Online and 10 Iraqi Short Stories for the Shortest Day of the Year and 10 Great Arab Short Stories for Rabih Alameddine to Teach. There’s also the old “5 Books to Read Before You Die” list, useful in a pinch.

Madonna Kalousian today added another option: tell people to learn Arabic.

Either in Arabic or in translation, the best way entry point is probably a course with a knowledgeable, joy-sparking, bibliophilic professor. Or you could read ArabLit’s series on “Teaching with Arabic Literature in Translation” and DIY your own course.

In the end, though, the question is probably both impossible and extremely easy to answer: Nowhere. Everywhere. Anywhere you like.


  1. For anyone interested in poetry, or in contemporary history, Fady Joudah’s translation of Mahmoud Darwish, The Butterfly’s Burden, as well as Jeffrey Sacks’ earlier Darwish translation, Why Did You Leave The Horse Alone ?

    1. It’s scandalous that I mention so little poetry. I think I like recommending the newest stuff because my memory’s so poor.

      For a new recommendation: Golan Haji’s collection, tr. Golan & Stephen Watts.

  2. Why not start with the question: “Hmm, let’s find you something. What do you like to read in English?”

    1. Ah, yes, sorry for being unclear. This is for interviewers & such. If I’m asked by an individual, I give an individual answer.

  3. i personally started with mahfouz and that sent me down the rabbit hole. Not necessarily awlad haretna because it’s kinda long, but works like miramar or tharthara fawq an nil are short, cheap and cheerful.

    Huge fan of gamal ghitany even though more of his work is in French than in English and is a good start for people into magical realism

    1. I might have personally started with Mahfouz? I’m really not sure. In any case I know that it was Mahfouz who drove a sunburnt Scandinavian-American to stand at Bab Zuweila and imagine she’d come home.

      Yes, Tharthara Fawq an-Nil, but maybe we should tell people that means Chitchat on the Nile. 🙂

      Would you say earlier, more classic al-Ghitany (Zayni Barakat) or more elliptical, later al-Ghitany (like Pyramid Texts)?

      1. bigger fan of his later work…zayni barakat is a classic, but i think zaafarani files and pyramid texts have more of a vibe

        1. ahh zafarani files, yes.

  4. I think you should start with Darwish because he is one of the two or three greatest writers, hands down, of anyone in the world over the last hundred years (For me, it is Darwish Neruda, and I would have to think about a third person although I might lean towards Virginia Woolf, Kafka, or Borges for sheer invention, orginality and wonder. But for Middle Eastern beginners, i would give the the very fine short story anthology by Dennis johnson;; I think the title is Modern Arab Short Stories with work by some of the very best and not that frequently published or touted writers such as the Palestinian Emile Habib- i would definitely include Saeed The Pessoptiist. of course, alot of this might depend on a reader’s inclination. Some people want a linear progression. Some want more philosophy. i c an tell you though that if was going to recommend Mahfouz I would NOT

    1. i’ got interrupted but here is the rest. I would not recomend the Cairo Trilogy. I think he wrote that in that nice Bildungrosmn because it resembles the great coming of age European tradition of these long drawn out and ultimately weary and tedious famly sags with emhasis on the sag ( but spinachless). I MIGHT start someone with his short story collections such as The Time And the place where we an see the influence of the great aaria TAmer of Syria who wold also be a good plae to start. A book i have had a lot of success with is Victims of the Map a bililngual anthologgy of three fantastic Middle Eatern poets- Darwish, Adonis, and Samir Al Qasim, pithy with a wallop and sizzling imagery.so much more than the cruddy cheap American confession of the kicthen table with alll the scoops 9 what is IN THE scoop is often either irrelevant or eaily disps. If you really want to immersesomeone right away, give them The Corpse EXhibition, or Zakarai Tamer’s The Hedgehog or Samir Al Qassis poetry colletion poetry collecltion. Sadder Than Water. Or how about Shamballah’s publiction of Rumis Oen Secrets.
      Annother idea:give them Salma Jayyusi’s mammoth anthology. The World of palaninaek

  5. For six years, I taught a month long “unit” in a World Literature Senior English Class at Northampton high school. These kids, or most of them, had never even read a single story from the Arabian Nights ( and the challenge there is which distorted translation does one read although there has been a newer translaiion by an actual MiddleEast intellectual other than Richard Burton or Jack Zipes. So here, in almost chronological order, are the books I used, trying to get a variety of fiction and poetry, along with books with different “reading levels”, and different styles ranging from gritty realism to historical novel to utterly satirical or fantastic/ absurd
    1( Tales of the Arabian Nights . The Arab translator hadnt done the translation yet so I did the Jack Zipe one althugh I also made a lesson where i compared Zipe’s work with Sir Richard Burton’s just to show how different ( and biggoted one translation can be from another.
    2) The Epic of Gilgamesh. (Stephen mitchell translation). For people who hate to read and or want action and blood; for the stoners too.
    3) Open Secret- Rumi ( Shamballa for the philosphical, short poem lovers and everyonee
    4)The Poems of Hafiz. Daniel Ladinsky trans.
    5) Mehmed My Hawk by Yashar Kemal. Big hit. I didnt that many kids would take on such a long novel, but the adventure and romance enmeshed them.
    6.Woman At Point Zero- Nawal Sadaahwi. Griitty nove novel where abused woman killl pimp. A bigf hit, down to earth, easy to read ( 6th to7th grade reading level, and it worked especially for nonreaers.
    7,Woman of Myrth- Hanan AlShaykh. More challenging- four different woman’s lives, one of the m American and one or more gay.
    8.Martyr’s Crossing- Amy Wilentz- the one novel by a non Arab empathetic American about a crucial and lethal inident a border crossing becoming an international incident after a Palestinian baby perishes. Straight up.
    9.Sadder Than Water- Samir al Qasim- master of the short punchy ironic poem . Many loved it.
    10Time Between Roses And Ashes. Adonis. A more challenging poetry collection by one of the greatest image makers in world poetry.. Had he not been Syrian or an Arab, he wouldl have won the Nobel decades ago.
    11. The Butterflys Burden- Mahmoud Darwish. The above goes doulble for Darwish. Scintillating.
    12. Let It Be Morning- khashrue. A young journalist returns home from work and fineds his village surrounded by Israeli tanks.
    I I had three classes work in teams of two and report back to the claslsl so everyoe got a taste of most of the books. in additio, each student was reqluired to do some kind of project on the book. There could be a traditional formal paper, or a painting of a scenen or scenes in the book, historical research of the time when the book place,, or a story or poem in the style of. a particular author. for more info contactme at erbrill69@gmail.com

  6. by the way, I was fortunate in that i taught public high school at Northampton Ma a town where the parents value education ( although the city itself sucks in terms of paying teachers a fair wage; we had among the lowest salaries in Western massachusts- no good deed goes unpunished). But in the early nineties, parents in the town began a fund raising venture for ‘special educational projects” called The Northampton Education Fund, and, over ten years, raise over one million dollars and used that to yearly give grants to teachers k-12 to spark innovative curriculum and special projects. i applied TWICe to the foundation for my Middle East books and recceived over tw0 and a half thousand dollars altogether, one thousand and change each time without spending a dime of my own! Thanks again to the parents and students of Northampton. And to the teacher who continued the unit after I retired in 2016! Collegiality and curiousity an commitment at their finest!

  7. Mahmoud Darwish is an excellent start–his prose as good as his poetry. Another is Naguib Mahfouz. Equally good is Ghassan Kanafani. Three writers who had what it took to create literature for their days and for the ages, not for awards or select audiences.

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