ArabLit’s List: Best Reads of 2019

In ArabLit’s annual feature, authors, critics, and contributors recommend their favorites of 2019*:

~Donia Kamal~

Egyptian novelist and producer Donia Kamal’s second novel, Cigarette Number Sevenwon the Sawiris Emerging Writers Prize and was translated to English by Nariman Youssef. She has also produced more than fifty documentary films and numerous TV shows. Her most recent novel, Random Arrangementsjust launched, and an excerpt was translated for ArabLit.

1. درب الإمبابي (El Embaby’s Path), by Muhammed Abdallah

A charming narrative that depicts the history of an Egyptian family with numerous details that weave reality with magic. This novel instantly reminded me of the Naguib Mahfouz universes, deeply embedded in Egypt with characters who are easily relatable but highly mysterious and enchanting. Many have said that this narrative is close to Márquez’s masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude, due to its many characters and to the glimpse of magical realism used in telling the story of the Embaby family. Yet it is a unique experience to read a narrative with this literary technique as a first trial of the author Muhammad Abdullah, which has also been longlisted for the Sheikh Zayed Book Award for young authors. Published by Dar Al Mahrousa, Egypt.

2. لاورا وخوليو (Laura and Julio), by Juan Jose Millas, translated to Arabic by Ahmed Abdel Latif

I usually read Spanish and Latin fiction in English, but recently one of my closest friends recommended the Arabic translation of Millas’s Laura and Julio. A quick and interesting read that gets you to understand more about loneliness, about separation, and how to deal with a “double” who might complete you or sacrifice his existence for yours. A story of stolen lives, paradoxes, mixed realities, and a mirror to help uncover what everyone is trying to hide. I also loved the intensity of the romantic scenes, whether the real or the imaginary, the amount of details and the passion described. The translation of Laura and Julio by Ahmed Abdel Latif was published by the General Egyptian Book Organization, Egypt.

3. غرفة 304 : كيف اختبأت من أبي العزيز35 عاماً (Room 304 or How I Hid from My Dear Father for 35 Years), by Amr Ezzat

A memoir, a novel, a personal narrative, whatever the category is, this book is a charming exploration of the generation that was born in the eighties. It gives a glimpse into their relationships with their surroundings, their families, their common histories, their mistakes, their continuous tensions, and the fear of committing the same errors over and over again. This text is one of the books that touched me the most; many of the details can be relevant to this particular generation, especially to those who engaged in the political scene in Egypt before the January 25 Revolution. For those who didn’t, they’ll still find something to touch on their childhood and adulthood. I finished this book twice in the past several months, and, every time I come across it, I instantly remember the sound of Amr Ezzat’s father climbing the stairs, with the squeaking of his shoes on the marble floor that he describes more than once. All the mixture of love and hate, fear, the desire to connect, the confusion and the silent rebellion against a parent who you aren’t sure whether to be fascinated by or scared of is what makes this book — to me — a must-read of 2019. Room 304 or How I Hid from My Dear Father for 35 Years was published by Al Shorouk Publishing House, Egypt.

4. أولاد حارتنا سيرة الرواية المحرمة (Children of the Alley: The Story of the Forbidden Novel), by Mohamed Shoair 

A literary journey depicting how Mahfouz’s Children of the Alley found its way from an idea in the Nobel Laureate’s mind to become his masterpiece. The book is a mix of a critical analysis of the novel, a documentary project collecting bits and pieces of Mahfouz’s contemplations on his ideas and what has been written about it, with a socio-political depiction of the effect of the problematic Children of the Alley on Egyptian society. Shoair’s narration is highly literary, and he managed to stay away from the dry documentary tone, digging more into the passion of how this iconic novel was written. Children of the Alley: The Story of the Forbidden Novel was published by Al Ain Publishing House, Egypt.

Also: a translated excerpt is available on ArabLit.

5. خطابات محمد خان إلى سعيد شيمي : مشوار حياة (Mohamed Khan’s Letters to Said Al Shimy: A Life Journey), by Said El Shimy

This book is basically a series of letters between two best friends; the legendary filmmaker Mohamed Khan and his best friend the Cinematographer Said El Shimy. The letters are genuine, funny in their own way, documenting the lives of the two men, both personally and professionally. This piece is all about movie making, music, cinematography, memories on movie sets and longing for reunion. There are whole letters with scripts from movies that have never been made and other snippets of ones that have come to life. The book includes pictures of postcards exchanged between the two artists, photographs that probably have never been published before, scraps and jokes and primitive drawings. The letters portray a unique close look on the lives of two outstanding men with their memories and intimate friendship. Mohamed Khan’s Letters to Said Al Shimy: A Life Journey was published from Al Karma Publishing House, Egypt.

If none of these strikes your fancy, you can still try out All the Battles by Maan Abu Taleb, The Critical Condition of the So-called “K” by Aziz Mohamed, Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami and Iman Mersal’s outstanding In Pursuit of Enayat Ez-Zayatt.

~Muhammad El-Hajj~

Born and raised in Cairo, Muhammad El-Hajj is a writer, translator, and digital content creator. His debut collection of short stories, Nobody Mourns the City’s Cats (2018), won the Sawiris Cultural Foundation’s Short Story Prize for emerging writers. He’s currently working on his next collection of short fiction.

I would say my readings this year reflect an interest in understanding how Egypt (as represented in its’ biggest cities) has fared with modernity (as a state of deep intellectual and material anxiety and chaos). This interest has led me to read about the Bolshevik Revolution and its’ roots, but most importantly it has led me to appreciate non-fiction more and more. My favorites this year are three Arabic non-fiction books, which I think, are the most essential reads in case you’d like to really understand something about how Egypt (still as represented in its’ biggest cities) works.

رجال ريا وسكينة  (Rayya and Sakina’s Men), by Salah Eissa.

A true masterpiece! Though I would very humbly suggest that the book could’ve used a good editor to make it flow a bit easier, it’s still a very entertaining read. The book that recounts the tale of the most notorious gang of killers in modern Egyptian history (aside from our ever-changing ruling elite of course) doesn’t stop at being just that –which would’ve been fine- but goes beyond to offer insight, humor, drama, and a fine piece of social history. The epilogue to the book is an epic win. It might get tough especially in the middle of it as Eisa tells each of the gang’s 17 kills’ stories, but in the end, it pays off handsomely.

في أثر عنايات الزيات (In Pursuit of Enayat Ez-Zayatt), by Iman Mersal

A dizzying tour-de-force from the writer with the most genuine popularity in Egypt right now. Mersal’s long awaited work doesn’t disappoint for one second, it moves seamlessly between the life of her subject and her own personal life and weaves them into one. A heartfelt account on what it meant to be a writer, a mother, and a wife in Cairo in a tumultuous moment in its’ history. What’s more fascinating –and evoking- is that the book feels at times as if it’s a personal history of a certain obsession. Mersal doesn’t shy away from revealing herself to the point that by the end of the book I felt that it’s about Iman as much as it’s about Enayat. Whether it’s about Enayat or Iman’s obsession with Enayat, It’s a story worth telling that is very very well-told.

أولاد حارتنا سيرة الرواية المحرمة (Children of the Alley: The Story of the Forbidden Novel), by Mohamed Shoair 

To be totally honest I didn’t read Shoair’s book for the first time in 2019, yet I’m still taken by it. More like Eisa, Shoair isn’t really present in the narrative. Though the books is mostly impersonal, Shoair’s sympathetic portrait of the biggest literary artist of them all in this part of the world as a not-so-young man has a resonating emotional effect. There is so much to be said about the book in terms of what it says about the relation between political and literary institutions and the singularity of a creative mind such as Mahfouz’s. But what really works in Shoair’s favor is that the manner in which he tells the story of how Mahfouz wrote Sons of our Alley and the aftermath of the novel’s publication is crazy fun and entertaining. It’s basically a book of literary history that’s structured as a thriller.

~Hisham Bustani~

بنت من شاتيلا (Girl from Shatila), by Akram Musallam (al-Ahlia, 2019)

The reason I was drawn to this novel was not its elegant literary language, nor its style that almost resembles the artistically condensed techniques of the short story — two qualities that alone would make this book a unique one. What initially attracted me is a distant memory that I share with one of its characters; both of us have seen pictures of the Sabra and Shatila massacre when we were kids, on an old TV with scratches on its screen. Both of us have preserved those pictures, leaving a scar that moves, gives birth and reproduces, much like the constant Palestinian massacres that continue until this very day. Similar to all the other massacres executed by White Europeans, the Palestinian massacres remain silenced, swept like dust under the rug of the civilized world’s living room, a world that – like one of the novel’s characters – escapes the rancid smell of dead bodies that unnecessarily taints an otherwise beautiful day, or, in the case of other characters in the novel, by not noticing the corpses at all. The only problem with this book is that, with quick yet well-thought out blows, it grants an inflated and almost angelic role to the General Commander (a portrayal of Yasser Arafat’s personality and rank despite no mentions of his name). At the same time, it demonizes “the Bearded” in a not-fully-conceived treatment that I don’t recognize when it comes to a serious, hard-working, and skilled writer like Akram Musallam, even if he includes these topics as passing references. What excuses this is that his novel is not about the General Commander or “the Bearded”, but rather about an ongoing massacre, about people who refuse to forget or to normalize injustice as something ordinary. A Girl from Shatila is a unique literary work coming from a writer who I consider one of the most prominent Palestinian writers of our time.

الموت في حيفا (Death in Haifa), by Majd Kayyal (al-Ahlia, 2019)

This is a wonderful short-story collection, and many of the stories strike deep inside the reader’s guts. At times, it triggers deep feelings of disgust, at others empathy, and others sadness, something that is extremely difficult to execute in literary texts. Majd Al Kayyal does this very comfortably, moving from a love story to rape, from a punch in the face to a kiss, from empathy to vengeance, from a sea to suicide. He wanders in his city – Haifa – and its complex places that resemble the complicated situation of colonial settlement that’s a driving pressure on him. The effect of that situation is mirrored in the text that transitions smoothly between a fresh classic, standard, and colloquial languages, making the path of events and the characters more real, and reinforcing the massive confusion between realistic places and events that may or may not be completely imaginary. What bothered me about this book is its title, which I felt was imposed on it, an attempt to force an overall thematic that turns the stories into a novel, or let’s say to an interlinked narrative. Yet, the status of the stories refuses this kind of framing; the absolute heroism of the narratives of Death in Haifa is the main trait of the art of short stories. This art is seen in the plot as it changes, shifts, and gets complicated and stands alone in each piece. Majd succeeds impressively in totally avoiding irony and surprise (which are signs of artistic vulgarity) to build a text that you continue to contemplate on for a long time after finishing it.

~Mohammad Abdelnabi~

Egyptian novelist Mohammed Abdelnabi — winner of this year’s Prix Arabe for the French translation of his In the Spider’s Room; winner of the inaugural ArabLit Story Prize; shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction — stresses that he hasn’t read all the books out this year.

1. غرفة 304 : كيف اختبأت من أبي العزيز35 عاماً (Room 304 or How I Hid from My Dear Father for 35 Years), by Amr Ezzat

Amr Ezzat was able to place his finger on the paradox of the human relationship with the authority, in all its manifestations of compassion and cruelty, both hidden and visible, by touching on some of the most important anecdotes in his relationship with his father, in a language and style that is smooth and dense. Dar al-Shorouk

2. العالق في يوم أحد، قصص (Stuck on a Sunday: Stories), by Abdullah Nasser

Distinguished storyteller Abdullah Nasser continues to deepen his experience in the field of very short narrations, as if he were distilling vast and profound experiences in overdoses of elaborate mental play.

3. الغرق (Drowning), by Hammour Ziada

This is a sweet narrative hymn woven into a tightly fitted circle of interlocking tales of the simple and the wise, oppression, and women.

4. جبل المجازات (Mountain of al-Majazat), by Ahmed Kamel

In his second novel, Ahmed Kamel finds his feet in the landscape of the Arabic narrative, with a wild but well-knit imagination and using a complex structure, he draws a stunning mural that rises from the heart of popular folk and mystical beliefs inherent to the layers of Egyptian soil.

5. جوائز للأبطال (Awards for Heroes), by Ahmed Awny 

In his first novel, Awny offers more than an adventure cut of the same old cloth; this is an adventure that approaches the experience of the January 25 revolution with a different and critical consciousness; an adventure that gives voice to another generation of activists and politicians, a generation that holds fewer illusions about itself and its heroics; an adventure that meditates on the meaning of heroism in general and in the current Egyptian moment in particular.

~Samira Negrouche~

Born in Algiers and trained as a doctor, Samira Negrouche is a poet and translator with a keen focus on interdisciplinary collaborations with visual artists and musicians.

From Eros to Thanatos, in Khaled Khalifa’s novel لم يُصلّ عليهم أحد (No One Prayed Over Their Graves) is an invitation to honor complexity and to remember that each story not only deserves but needs to be remembered, that each tragedy among those who don’t count in the flesh of the city, count.

In her Courrier de nuit, Hoda Barakat (translated by Philippe Vigreux) makes us jump into a puzzle of infinity, as a metaphor of what our lives mean, a probability of accidents.

Also this year, Actes Sud finally re-printed Jean Sénac’s “Oeuvres complètes”; I bought them in April, the first hour I landed in Paris to present my most recent book.

This year, with the rising of Algerian society — the so-called hirak which throws everything from our recent and less recent history into question — I often went back to Algerian writers and poets. As Khalifa dives into the past, I dove into our literary past to let elder voices speak. Sénac says a lot, as does Mohammed Dib; next year is his century so I went through more than twenty of his books. This tells us what Algerian French literature means, and how resistance is embedded in it.

Two books by Francophone Maghrebi authors I want to mention:

Scorpionic Sun by Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine, translated by Conor Bracken. By an author who writes from the depth of a volcano, a cousin of Kateb Yacine, and who we need to remember — part of what we could call the genealogy of the sun, as if there were no border between Algeria and Morocco.

The Rebel Son, which analyzes the correspondence and the relationship between Albert Camus and Jean Sénac, by the scholar Hamid Nacer Khodja, translated by Kai Krieche. This the perfect example of how identity is the intimate part of any war. It looks as if this year has brought us closer to the past and invites us to remember the sons — and daughters — of sun that we are.

~Ibrahim Farghali~

Egyptian novelist Ibrahim Farghali has published several novels and short-story collections; his 2004 novel, Smiles of Saints, appeared in English translation by Andy Smart and Nadia Fouda-Smart. Other books include Genie in a Bottle (2007), Sawiris-winning Sons of Gebalawi(2009), and IPAF-longlisted and Sawiris-winning The Temple of Silken Fingers.

I was involved in reading a lot of books about Averroes, and I liked one of them a lot: ابن رشد في مرايا الفلسفة الغربية الحديثة (Ibn Rushd in the Mirrors of Modern Western Philosophy), by Ashraf Mansour. As far as novels go, طعم النوم, (The Taste of Sleep)by Tareq Imam; Tareq has an extraordinary imagination and progresses from book to book. صندوق الأربعين (Fortieth Box), by Mays Al-Othman, which can be classified as a fictional biography, beautiful in its language and bold in its blend of compassion and cruelty. مستر نون (Mr. Nuun), by Najwa Barakat was a real surprise: a lesson in narrative the beauty of the writing…a novel that is cruel, sensitive, painful, and sweet. This novel, although it takes place in Beirut, poses existential questions for all humanity. I loved Saud Alsanoussi’s ناقة صالحة (Salha’s Dromedary) for its particular language and the desert-environment setting. Just so, the novel حارس سطح العالم (Guardian of the Surface of the World) by Bothaina al-Essa, for choosing a neutral language that gives the text an existence outside of space and time such that it expresses the censoriousness of all times and places.

~Mansoura Ez Eldin~

Mansoura Ez Eldin is an Egyptian novelist, critic, and journalist. Her work has been translated into a number of languages. In 2009, she was selected for the Beirut39, as one of the 39 top Arab authors under 40. Her second novel, Beyond Paradise, was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and she has won a number of prizes, including from the Cairo International Book Fair and Sharjah International Book Fairs. Ez-Eldin is currently co-editor of the literary newspaper Akhbar al-Adab, and you can get her Maryam’s Maze in English translation.

كتاب النوم (The Book of Sleep), by Haitham al-Wardani (Dar Al-Karma): This is distinctive book, and its importance lies not only in the writer’s language, nor in his reflections on sleep and related phenomena, but also in his suggestion that we might have a different way of seeing the world and thinking of its dimly lit details.

طريق الحلفا (Halfa Road), by Ahmed Ibrahim al-Sharif (Al-Rabieea Publications): In this novel, al-Sharif digs deep into the Saidi tradition, writing as a son of the landscape, far from folkloric exoticism. The world of the novel is rough, hard, and cloaked in loneliness, as most of the events are in the afterlife, as in the Divine Comedy or the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, but the aesthetics of the writing balances this loneliness. In addition to the importance of the topics, the most important characteristic of al-Sharif’s writing is his keen interest in form, structure, and writing technique.

Other works in Arabic that also caught my eye include: Syrian Square by Ahmed Al-Fakhrani, Winter Holidays by Nagham Haider, Abeel by Nazir Al-Zoubi, and The Red Garden by Mohamed Ait Hanna.

~Ahmed Naji~

Ahmed Naji is an Egyptian novelist and journalist. He is the author of several books:Rogers, Seven Lessons Learned from Ahmed Makky, Using Life, and The Mystery of the Murdered Mahragan Singer. Naji was sentenced for two years in prison after being accused of “violating public modesty” with Using Life, which was translated to English by Ben Koerber.

1. خطط طويلة الأجل (Long-Term Plans), by Mohamed Farag

This short-story collection is like a cool ice-cream cone on a hot summer night, and as you eat the ice cream and move through the book, the mood gradually changes to show you a knife hidden in the ice-cream, which suddenly stabs you in the throat. This is one of the strongest short-story collections I’ve read in a long time, and the most terrifying of them; after reading it, it will visit you often in your dreams and nightmares.

2. أيام الخرطوم الأخيرة (The Last Days of Khartoum), by Hussam al-Hilali

The best overview of Hussam al-Hilali’s literary abilities. Each story is a separate literary project; this is a collection that builds slowly, step by step. Some stories immerse you in realism and sweetness, followed by a story full of flights of surrealism and fantasy, in which words and sentences have been transformed into traps.

3. في أثر عنايات الزيات (In Pursuit of Enayat Ez-Zayatt), by Iman Mersal

Iman Mersal returns with a new book, this one a result of a journey that lasted years, in which Iman tried to follow the trail of the late novelist Enayat al-Zayat. A book on literature, loneliness, and suicide. And on how the July Revolution [of 1952] formed and shape the Egyptian feminist movement. All of this is crafted in Iman Mersal’s exquisite language and with a wonderful eye for storytelling. We do not reach Ithaca or learn the truth about Enayat al-Zayat, but we don’t return from this journey as the same person.

4. قاف قاتل سين سعيد (Stop the Murderer of S. Saeed), by Abdallah al-Busais

It begins as a detective novel. And who doesn’t love detective novels, but as we progress, we move into the mysteries of the unknown. Here is a writer who’s completely different from others in the new wave of the Gulf novel, not only in his audacity or intelligence, but also in his literary ambitions.

5. جوائز للأبطال (Awards for Heroes), by Ahmed Awny 

Another Egyptian novel about the revolution. But what distinguishes Awni’s narrative is that the hero / narrator belongs to the wealthy upper class, making it unlike the narratives of misery, poverty, and the usual  struggle of the middle class in Egyptian literature. Written very smartly, and with humor and high cynicism, with an important internal criticism of the revolution and the revolutionaries. The craft in this novel is excellent, and perhaps comparable to Youssef Rakha’s Paulo, which addressed the revolution without glorifying it, aggrandizing, and imbuing it with holiness and purity.

~Mahmoud Hosny~

Mahmoud Hosny is an Egyptian writer and translator who is currently in his first year of a PhD in comparative literature at the University of Southern California. He translated Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and The Sea (2016) and John Steinbeck’s The Pearl (2016) into Arabic, and published his debut novel, Maps of Yunus, in 2018; you can read an excerpt in translation at ArabLit. He also has a translation of John Berger’s To The Wedding forthcoming and was shortlisted for the 2019 ArabLit Story Prize.

 الحديقة الحمراء (The Red Garden) by the Moroccan writer and translator Mohamed Ait Hanna: It was one of few in the new published novels in Arabic that have a distinctive voice in narrative and experimental theme moving between different visual and written references, in conversation with other literary works without losing its personna. (Dar Al-Kamel, 2019)
 الريش (The Feathers) by my literary father the Kurdish Syrian novelist and poet Salim Barakat. In this novel, Salim not just mastered the narrative but he also worked on his complicated plot making it solid and tense. The novel structure is deeply crafted. It will be a reduction to say it’s a magical realistic work or thematically a kurdish novel. It’s a masterpiece in Arabic, in a very high Arabic, full of poetic phrases scattered on that great feast of narrative. It’s the work that I want to bring it from Arabic into English, If I should choose one! (Originally published in 1990, and republished in 2018 by Dar Al-Mada).

~Hilal Chouman~

Hilal Chouman is a Lebanese novelist born in Beirut in 1982. He is the author of four novels in Arabic: Stories of Sleep (2008), Napolitana (2010), Limbo Beirut (2012), and Once Upon a Time, Tomorrow (2016). Anna Ziajka Stanton’s English translation of Limbo Beirut (2016) was longlisted for the PEN Translation Prize (2017) and shortlisted for the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize (2017). Chouman currently lives between Dubai and Toronto, and works as a software architect. 

This is what I’ve read and liked in 2019; it was a busy year both on the personal and professional level, which reflected in the number of books I read. I have tried to pick different types of books, as this may help readers choose what amuses them.

As always, Iman Mersal never disappoints us. Her name on the cover is sufficient reason to buy a book the minute it is released. In In Pursuit of Enayat Ez-Zayatt, Iman Mersal writes about what appears to be the trace of a forgotten impact swallowed by the failures and bureaucracy of the nation-state. What starts as an attempt to pursue a writer who was deliberately ignored by the journalistic and the cultural systems ends with discoveries of buried writing, art, streets, sites, and foreigners. In a moment, we find ourselves sitting in a living room near the Egyptian actress and diva Nadia Lotfy while she shows us her famous photo with Yasser Arafat during the Israeli sweep of Beirut. This is a novel about a woman writer who was wronged by life itself, by both social and cultural systems, and who eventually decided to end her life by her own hand. Her only book was released after her death. Though this book does not have the word “novel” on its cover, I prefer to refer to it as one.

This is a short novella by Yōko Ogawa, which has recently been released in Arabic by Dar Al Adab. As is typical of Yoko, transparent sorrow dominates the storyline. We find glimpses of vengefulness against people who are present and even the ones who are absent. In 薬指の標本, a girl acts as a man’s assistant in his lab where he preserves people’s memories. The trials of revenge turn into mummified reconciliations. In this absurd atmosphere, the master gives his helper a pair of shoes as a gift, something that triggers her sensations of liberation and loneliness and inspires her to try and escape the charm to which she finds herself subject.

An English translation of Yoko’s The Memory Police (tr. Stephen Snyder) has been recently released, a book that is very likely to be one of my favorites in the coming year.

I try to read all of Nakamura’s works that are translated into English. I enjoy his writing primarily because he writes original noir literature without falling into commercial tropes. In Last Winter, We Parted, a young writer is assigned the mission of meeting a man who was arrested for murder, to write a narrative about the case that engaged the public when it first happened. As the author digs deeper, his thoughts about the case tangle with facts and speculation, leaving him confused. What is the truth? What do we see in the pictures? Who is innocent and who a killer? And how did he get here, face to face with the accused?

Um Kalthoum, Warda, Fairouz, Abdel Halim, Adawya, Amy Winehouse, Michael Jackson, Aboutrika, Mo Salah, Snowden, Game of Thrones, the Marvel Universe, Cairo, Doha, Dubai, Beirut, Queens, the Egyptian Revolution in all its different phases, the present massacre (though portrayed unspoken), go hand in hand with feelings of defeat, loss, and pressure in different cities that are similar in their brutality: All this and more in Donia Kamal’s novel Random Arrangements, released by Al Karma Publishing.

The letters in this novel alternate between what is present and what has been lost, the remaining and the departed, the near and the far, the public and the personal, covering the years between 2004 and 2018. This is a real-time novel in its reconstructions, and a documentation of real-time events. The writing is streamlined, liberated of framing, preparation, and planning. This novel is not written in the future, yet every letter represents the past of the following one, not the opposite. Even the feminist sense here does not progress backwards but rather gradually flows from the implied and unspoken to the touched upon and finally to the loud and exposed, a progression that mirrors the years in which the letters are written. Donia wrote her novel in the seat across from mine in countless Dubai coffeehouses, typing away until she had finished the entire thing before I was done with mine. Despite our joint writing sessions, I haven’t read her first draft, only experiencing the final published version of the novel. After turning the last page, the text felt like a summary of my seven years lived in Dubai, capturing the estrangement and the loneliness that suffocates us when we move away from the cities we love, those same cities which did not recognize us or love us back. Preferably, I suggest a reading of the novel with Amy Winehouse’s music in the background.

In the process of reading about the Lebanese Civil war – which is important in relation to the novel I am currently writing – I asked my friends about texts that tackle the torture and kidnapping that occurred throughout. I was advised to read this testimony by Joseph Saadé, who was in the ranks of Al Kataeb Party and lost both of his sons to the war, after which he led the Black Saturday massacre in Lebanon. This is a testimonial about the resident violence in Civil war, the logic behind it, and its motivations. This war story is told from the perspective of a fighter who experienced it, a trial of catharsis observed through interviews of the French journalists who registered the story and wrote it down.

Reading graphic novels has become a consistent annual habit. This year’s choice was Bevilacqua’s The Sound of the World by Heart. I first stumbled upon this book when I spotted its unique cover in a train station in Rome. After looking up the drawings, I decided to buy it upon its release in English.

In an attempt to fix his broken heart, a photojournalist decides to stay completely silent while wandering in the streets of New York City. His journey to document the NYC scenery lasted two long months. He begins this trial of self-control, and soon the secrets of the city come to swallow him whole. This is a novel about lost insight even in the presence of sight, about details that appear right in front of our eyes, yet we cannot see them. All this is portrayed in very artistic, sensitive and progressive drawings.

I read this book of poems by James Baldwin, although many consider his fiction more significant than his poetry. I am generally biased towards this man who seems to have an amazing grasp of language, to the extent that the reader might feel that Baldwin is writing in a different language altogether, one where every word has a deeper meaning. The collection is overcast by blue sorrow, making for poignant verse.

Here’s is an Arabic translation of Baldwin’s poem “Munich, Winter 1973.”

~Hoda Marmar~

Hoda Marmar (@Biologistic) is founder and administrator of the influential Lebanese “Bookaholics” reading group. 

1. أوراق من دفاتر شجرة رمّان, (Pages from Notebooks of a Pomegranate Tree), May Menassa

May Menassa’s first novel (1998) is written in a cursed ink that brutally narrates the daily acts of violence at home and out on the streets during the Lebanese Civil War. It wounded me deeply and imprisoned me in its world of mirrors with no faces. I read it while mourning the passing of May Menassa this January, making it an even more painful and cherished experience to me.

2. خسوف بدر الدين, (The Eclipse of Badreddine), Bassem Khandakji

By far the best Sufi novel I have ever read! Bassem Khandakji thoroughly researched historical facts and weaved them into his brilliant writing of a solid historical novel about Badreddine Mahmoud. It is a perfect novel to me; I loved everything in it, from its themes to its language and imagery.

3. ثوب حداد ملوّن , (A Colorful Grieving Robe), Selim Batti

The third and last novel in the trilogy faithfully contributes to the themes of alienation, loss, family, belonging, and childhood. The narrator walks us down his path of thorns as he attempts to patch himself up, one memory at a time, and one loss at a time. I highly recommend the trilogy (لن أغادر منزلي – فونوغراف – ثوب حداد ملوّن) for those on the lookout for a unique literary voice worth listening to.

4. القاتل الأشقر, (Blond Killer), Tarek Bakkari

Tarek Bakkari’s latest novel goes where no one else dares with a unique philosophy and humanistic insight exposing what made ISIS sprout, and what we are responsible for. But that is not all, the novel also explores the many terrors one lives through, for wars start within broken homes before they are waged outside. A must read!

5. باص أخضر يغادر حلب, (A Green Bus Leaving Aleppo), Jan Dost

A brilliant novel which elements flash before our eyes while we are trapped in that green bus, stranded at the outskirts of Aleppo’s ruins. Its dystopian narrative starts with a daydream, and hauntingly progresses into a nightmarish stream of consciousness. This was my first Jan Dost novel, and now I’m eager to read everything he published.

~Lemya Shammat~

Lemya Shammat is a Sudanese critic, translator, and short-story writer, and also a contributor to ArabLit.

1. Modern Sudanese Poetry, (2019) translated and edited by Adil Babikir

The translator has devotedly and diligently taken upon himself the mammoth mission of translating into English a selected range of poems by the finest of Sudanese poets, who left an indelible mark on Sudan’s poetry landscape with its mixed ethnicities and cultures. This anthology provides a wide spectrum of voices, visions, and abundant cross-generational colors and flavors through a beautifully balanced combination of speculative, predictive, provocative, and memory-navigating poems. Each turn of a page promises an aesthetic, artistic, and intellectual charm to be received and perceived.

2. رجل من دلقو (A Man from Dalgo, 2019), by Al-Hassan Mohamed Saeed.

A historical novel that harks back to the early years of the 1920s, this is an evocative account of Sudan’s struggle for independence and the White Flag League’s epic resistance against Anglo-Egyptian colonial rule. The densely layered narrative travels down generations to deftly explore historical, political, and sociocultural aspects of that defining era and further navigates themes of patriotism, sacrifice, friendship, loss, and cruel twists of fate.

~Nadia Ghanem~

Nadia Ghanem is an Algerian critic who publishes at She also contributes to ArabLit.

My book of the year is (hands down) The Quarter by Naguib Mahfouz, translated by Roger Allen. It’s magical to read works that have remained hidden for years, and these stories are so full of life. If I had been able to get a hold of the Algerian poet Khaled Ben Saleh’s collection يوميات رجل إفريقي يرتدي قميصا مزهراً (Diary of an African Man Wearing a Flowery Shirt and Smoking L&M’s in the Time of the Revolution) (Al-Mutawassit editions, 2019) and of Daho Tabti’s detective fiction La dernière enquête (The Last Investigation) (Casbah editions, Algeria), I’ve no doubt these two would have been the highlights of my year.

In the meantime, I’ll be closing my reading year with Kaouther Adimi’s latest novel, Les petits de decembre (December’s Youth, Seuil editions), and hope it will be as tender as her previous novel Nos Richesses, now translated to English by Chris Andrews and to be released in May 2020, either under the title Our Riches or A bookshop in Algiers.

~The Bulaq Podcast with Ursula Lindsey & M Lynx Qualey~

You can find the Bulaq podcast in an app near you. In Episode 41, Ursula & MLQ count down their top books of the year.

~Nayrouz Qarmout~

Nayrouz Qarmout is a Palestinian writer and activist. Born in Damascus in 1984, as a Palestinian refugee, she returned to the Gaza Strip, as part of the 1994 Israeli-Palestinian Peace Agreement, where she now lives. You can read her award-winning The Sea Cloak and Other Stories in Perween Richards’ translation.

الآثار ترسم خلفها أقداماً , Muhanned Younis

I read our young Palestinian author who died two years ago, Muhanned Younis, and I was really touched by his short stories.

“My story is that I have no story.” The theme of death nestles in the narratives of Muhannad Younis, and hope escapes in a present-absence where people lack names, and the description is overshadowed by individuals’ deep reflections, and the philosophies of depression form the fabric of the text with its short, tightly fitted sentences.

You can read Younis’s “Confessions and Hallucinations.”

*With special thanks to Donia Kamal, who helped with both encouragement and the translations.