For Valentine’s Day: 10 Books of Love

Every year and romance is a struggle here at ArabLit:

Some years, we’ve featured anti-love poetry and stories. Last year, it was a new translation of Nizar Qabbani. This year, to celebrate the Feast of Love, ArabLit’s founding editor M. Lynx Qualey chose five Arabic books in English translation and Beirut-based contributing writer Hoda Marmar put together a list of five in Arabic.

M. Lynx Qualey’s five:

All That I Want to Forget, by Bothayna Al-Essa, translated by Michele Henjum. The characters in this page-turning novel are larger-than-life, and you’ll either love-to-love or love-to-hate them. The romance at the center, between Fatima and Isam, is a sweet contrast to nearly all the other relationships in Fatima’s life — certainly all her relationships with men. Their relationship is moderated and modulated by poetry. Forthcoming March 5, 2019. 

Death is Hard Workby Khaled Khalifa, translated by Leri Price. Stay with me here. Three siblings traveling through the landscape of Syrian civil war with their father’s rotting corpse doesn’t — on its face — seem like the grounds for a great love story. And just as the narrative builds up great love stories, it also calls them into question. But Khalifa’s tenderness with his characters it itself a great romance; beautifully translated by Leri Price. February 2019.

The Journey: Memoirs of an Egyptian Woman Student in Americaby Radwa Ashour, translated by Michelle Hartman. Although constitutionally anti-romantic, there is exactly one romance for which I’m a sucker every single time, and that is the story of Radwa Ashour and Mourid Barghouti. You could read about it in Barghouti’s two memoirs, I Saw Ramallah (translated by Ahdaf Soueif) and I Was Born There, I Was Born Heretranslated by Humphrey Davies. In the latter, Barghouti wrote, “Alone, between sky and earth, I think of Radwa.” But I love Ashour’s matter-of-fact portrayal of their romance, either in The Journey or in Spectrestranslated by Barbara Romaine. 2018.

Chronicles of Majnun Laylaby Qassim Haddad, translated by Ferial Ghazoul and John Verlenden. The thirty-nine poems in Haddad’s “Majnun Layla” cycle are the heart of this collection. The report, invent, and re-invent the Qays-and-Layla story, taking the reader and classic characters back and forth through time. In an interview with SJ Fowler for London’s Poetry Parnassus festival, Haddad said that, in his cycle of poems, Qays and Layla’s love “became more joyous and free than the old one, and the woman also became freer and more daring and beautiful than the old Layla.” Indeed. 2014.

The Open Door, by Latifa al-Zayyat, translated by Marilyn Booth. We meet our protagonist, Layla, as a young girl on the cusp of adolescence, with the powerful, effervescent sense of self that adolescent girls can sometimes have. When she falls in love for the first time, the boy becomes jealous and possessive. Layla knows exactly what she thinks about his jealousy: “No, Isam, that isn’t love. Call it anything you want, but not love.” But while Layla knows herself as a child, she has to lose her sense of self in order to find it again. Originally published in 1960, The Open Door still makes a thrilling romantic read about finding a feminist lover in an anti-feminist world. 2000.

Bonus:Manal and Alaa: A love story,by Lena Merhej. 2013.

Hoda Marmar’s five: