5 Arab-Soviet Novels

As a companion to our discussion with translator Margaret Litvin about Sonallah Ibrahim’s Moscow, Litvin has shared a list of five Arab-Soviet novels.

Sonallah Ibrahim’s Ice (2011, tr. 2019)

This novel is based around Ibrahim’s experiences studying at the All-Russian Institute of Cinematography in Moscow from 1971 to 1973. As publisher Seagull Books writes, “Ice offers a powerful exploration of Arab confusion, Soviet dysfunction, and the fragility of leftist revolutionary ideals.”

Mohamed Mansi Qandil’s Moon over Samarqand (2004; trans. 2009)

Litvin writes that Mohamed Mansi Qandil’s Moon over Samarqand, set between Egypt and the former USSR, takes place in “Uzbekistan, not Moscow, which might be confusing, but still the Soviet legacy is very important to the book.” The novel’s protagonist, Ali, travels to Samarqand in search of an Uzbek general who was a friend of his father’s when working as a Soviet adviser to Egypt, and the novel’s two sections — one in Uzbekistan, one in Egypt — revive a road of comparisons and contrasts between the two countries, now and historically.

Alexandra Chreiteh’s Ali and his Russian Mother (2010, trans. 2015)

This novel, Chreiteh’s second, is set at the outbreak of Lebanon’s July War in 2006, when Beirut is under bombardment from Israel, and the novel’s unnamed protagonist is fleeing with city with others who have Russian citizenship. The book’s narrator travels with Ali, a former schoolmate with a Ukranian mother, and the two take a bus caravan across the Syrian border, on their way to Moscow. The novel explores the nested dolls of identity, the visible and the hidden. As the two companions travel, they both remember and invent the Soviet Union of their past, to which they are now heading.

Thuraya al-Baqsami’s In the Time of the Red Crescent (2012)

Al-Baqsami, also a visual artist, is a Kuwaiti who studied in Cairo and Moscow, where she earned a Master’s in illustration from the Surikov Institute. In this semi-autobiographical novel set among student dorms, a young couple arrives to study in the USSR. As she said in an interview with Bidoun, “what I wanted to express in my novel, In the Time of the Red Crescent  [is that] most of the students who went to Moscow believing in communism returned home as ultra-capitalists.”

Khalil Alrez’s The Russian Quarter (2019)

As Litvin writes in “The Intellectual is a Hybrid Creature”: Khalil Alrez’s The Russian Quarter (2019)” that, while the novel is not set in Russia or the Soviet Union, “this novel evokes a fictional hybrid space in Damascus inhabited by some historically recognizable Syrian and post-Soviet human and animal characters. The Russian Quarter takes place in an imaginary neighborhood, the Russian Quarter, located on the road to Ghouta on the eastern edge of contemporary Damascus.” When Litvin asked the author about what shaped his view of Russia before he went, he said, “It was the Russian classics I had read, the Soviet films I had seen, and my personal dream of Communism as a utopia, in those days, that shaped my impressions of Russia before I lived there.”