7 Arabic Books That Foreground the Rain

To celebrate the release of ArabLit Quarterly‘s RAIN-themed Spring 2023 issue, we have assembled seven Arabic books in which, in some way or another, rain plays a more or less important role.

June Rain (مطر حزيران), by Jabbour Douaihy (2006), tr. Paula Haydar (2014)

Based on the real events of the Miziara church massacre on June 16, 1957, Douaihy’s novel imagines the calamity’s aftermath from the perspective of several of the village’s inhabitants. At the center of the narrative, however, stands Eliyya, an emigrant returned from the US to trace his father’s story, who was killed in the shooting. The titular June rain that occurred—deeply atypical for the season, we are told—came to be remembered and reported as a decisive element of the events:

No telling of the events of the Burj al-Hawa incident left out the rain. Even if the flirty veteran reporter from the French-language journal Magazine, saw in that downpour some kind of warning or omen of what was to come and proceeded to attribute it to some god from Greek mythology, eyewitnesses confirmed that the heavy rain began to pour down after the outbreak of gunfire, not before. Their explanation for the rain’s timing was that the rainmaker wanted to separate the combatants and limit the harm they inflicted on each other. Others simply deduced that the rain that came pouring down (though one of them insisted what fell was actually the kind of large hail that is rare not only in June but in any month of the year) was nothing short of an expression of God’s wrath over what was transpiring before Him in and around His own house.

Rain over Baghdad (مطر على بغداد), by Hala El Badry (2010), tr. Farouk Abdel Wahab (2014)

The protagonist of El Badry’s novel, an Egyptian journalist living in Baghdad during the late 1970s, takes the reader with her to Iraq’s capital to experience the societal and political changes as well as everyday experiences as ordinary as getting caught in the rain and having to deal with wet shoes:

I like to go out early in the morning, to expose myself to the cool drizzle and enjoy the sun which sometimes, coyly, takes her time rising. I follow the thawing of patches of light and rare patches of snow covering the green gardens and sometimes staying on treetops and car roofs. On such days I arrive at the office with my pants wet up to the knee and their bottoms muddy, and my shoes soaked in rainwater. I leave a pair of clean dry shoes in the office that I put on as soon as I arrive. I place my wet shoes in the sun on the balcony railing. The fashionable platform heel style in which the heels rose ten centimeters above the ground did not help protect against the wetness either. I saw that Iraqi journalists were always very well dressed and I didn’t understand how they did it, then I realized that they used their work cars in moving about and did not have to walk in rain-covered streets. My appearance after a walk in the rain must cause them to wonder as much as it causes my resentment. Once I said to myself, “I am working and this is a price I have to pay for that and they must also wonder when they read my beautiful feature articles.“

Land of No Rain (حيث لا تسقط الأمطار), by Amjad Nasser (2010), tr. Jonathan Wright (2014)

The absence of rain, rather than its abundance, give Amjad Nasser’s genre-defying work its title, with the protagonist reflecting on his home country of Hamiya, a fictionalized amalgam of real-life Arab states while exiled in London:

The City of Red and Grey has no significant community of people from your country. There are people you sporadically come across at public gatherings, but you have started to avoid them, out of caution or irritation with their foolish rustic nostalgia. It never occurred to you to live in this city, where many years ago your region was dismembered like a cake at a birthday party. That never registered on the radar screen of your imagination. You came to the city by force of circumstance after your ship ran aground there. But sometimes, in the gloomy tunnels to the underground trains, you see large advertisements showing the desert, camels, bedouin encampments and oases with palm trees, and underneath, in bold type, this phrase that never changes: ‘The Land of No Rain’. You guessed that these tourism posters refer to your country, but they don’t mention the name. Although you doubt that camels and bedouin encampments exist in the way the adverts show, the basis for your guess that the posters refer to your country is the wall of volcanic rock that appears in shots of the oases. But there are similar volcanic rocks in neighbouring countries too.

Love in the Rain (الحب تحت المطر), by Naguib Mahfouz (1973), tr. Nancy Roberts (2011)

As leading Mahfouz scholar Mohamed Shoair writes in Al Ahram,Love in the Rain (1973) was the first of Naguib Mahfouz’s novels to be written after the Naksa (as Egypt’s defeat in the June 1967 War with Israel was euphemistically referred to), and he called it ”a bird with a broken wing’. This was his way of describing the censorship to which it was subjected, which resulted in three different versions of the same book.”

Like the Mahfouz story published in the Spring 2023 issue of ArabLit Quarterly, “Under the Bus Shelter,” Love in the Rain creates a collage sometimes over-the-top events, in which the rain provides an incomplete cover for behavior society deems immoral, although the rain can also appear to wash all that away:

“Then the rain poured down for five minutes, after which the sky cleared, and the warmth, purity, and the sweet fragrance of the heavens diffused through the atmosphere.”

Read Shoair’s biography of the novel in Al Ahram.

Summer Rains (أمطار صيفية), by Ahmad al-Qarmalawi (2017), parts tr. by Sophia Vasalou (Banipal 65, 2019)

Despite winning the 2018 Sheikh Zayed Book Award, this novel by Egyptian author Ahmad al-Qarmalawi has not yet been published in English translator. An Italian version (Pioggia d’estate) came out just last year with Round Robin in Amira Kelany’s translation, and an excerpt also appeared in Sophia Vasalou’s English translation in Banipal 65 (Summer 2019).

According to the Frankfurt Book Fair’s “Frankfurt Rights”:

Using music as a thread that connects the past to the present, this novel explores what happens when traditional and cultural heritage clash with modernity. The characters face the impact of modernization on heritage and arts versus the need to protect and preserve their traditional culture and must choose between the pursuit of materialism versus spiritual balance. Al Qarmalawi writes about a wide range of music from Sufism to the present era of electronic musical arts, and Summer Rains addresses the current Arab youth crisis, in which young people find themselves torn between fundamentalism and modernity.

Summer Rain (مطر صيف), by Abdel-Nadi al-Zaidi (2005), tr. A. al-Azraki & James al-Shamma (2017)

A play by Iraqi playwright al-Zaidi, Summer Rain appears in English in a collection edited and translated by A. al-Azraki and James al-Shamma, titled Contemporary Plays from Iraq. While rain does not seem to play a significant role beyond the title, we couldn’t miss the chance to highlight a worthy representative of a otherwise often neglected genre. In his introduction to the play, al-Zaidi writes:

The play appears to address social concerns, taking place as it does in a house, and between a wife and her multiple husbands. At the symbolic level, however, it calls upon the nascent science of human cloning in order to broach the subject of post-dictatorship politics in Iraq. In this work, I attempt to expose the false heroic deeds and religious masks that are employed to validate actions that strip humans of their freedom. This has been a concern of mine, as expressed in my plays since the 1990s.

Black Rains (أمطار سوداء), by Badr Ahmad, excerpt tr. Katherine Van de Vate

In a 2017 interview—part of which appears in the RAIN issue of ArabLit Quarterly in Van de Vate’s translation, Ahmad describes the night that led him to write Black Rains:

On an evening in March 2011, I stood in the middle of a road in a remote area. It was raining as never before. At that moment, I was overcome by a feeling of desolation. Oblivious to the downpour and my water-logged feet, I watched the road, hoping to spot a car and catch a lift home. Suddenly three motorbikes approached through the rain and lightning and stopped a few paces from me, right in the middle of the road. Six armed men dismounted. Setting up an impromptu roadblock with rocks, they waited for cars to approach. None of them took any notice of me standing there in silence. I forgot the rain and started to scrutinize them: their features, their clothing, their gaunt limbs, their weapons and pale faces, and their jaws that were dripping with evil. Passing a bottle of alcohol back and forth between them, they smoked and sang, shouting and laughing like lewd hyenas. 

After that evening, as Van de Vate describes, “He raced home and wrote nonstop for three months until he had completed Black Rains. Though he had written since childhood, it was only for himself. However, friends persuaded him to submit Black Rains to publishers, and he has gone on to write two more novels as well as short stories.”

In an excerpt of the novel translated by Van de Vate, an old man says, “Fear has erased everything of beauty in this country. The language of evil has replaced all the values we were brought up with, even decent behaviour. Resentment and hatred have swept like a torrent over everything, covering it in blackness – the ground, the sky, the flowers, even the rain runs black. Nothing is as it was, and it doesn’t seem it ever will be.”