By Essayed Taha
The twelve authors from nine countries who recommended books for our list of 2023 summer reads had different ideas about what you need in a summer book. While some went short, others went long. (Some went both.) Some suggested a light, fast-paced book to relax with on the beach while others looked to reads for a balcony. Some recommended biting humor while others suggested contemplative poetry. And two authors have you covered if you need to prepare you for a difficult encounter with family.
Kuwaiti author Saud Alsanousi chose Abdullah Alhusseiny’s novel, The Remains of The Tattoo (باقي الوشم). Alsanousi said this makes for a fitting summer read both because of its compact size and the significance of its subject matter, which he views as distinct in its exploration of the bidoon issue, the stateless individuals in Kuwait. Despite its brevity, the novel stands out in its treatment of this issue, offering a condensed yet impactful narrative.
What sets it apart from other works on the subject is its ability to address a challenging humanitarian concern with a blend of humor, biting satire, and a story line that is devoid of sentimentality.
Alsanousi believes that through laughter at the characters’ hardships, the novel takes readers to the core of their pain.
Yemeni author Wajdi al-Ahdal chose Naguib Mahfouz’s classic novel The Harafish (ملحمة الحرافيش), which he describes as an absorbing and seamless story that spans ten generations of a single family.
The novel’s protagonist, Ashour Elnagy, becomes a legendary figure in the memories of his descendants, and his greatness grows with time.
In addition to that, al-Ahdal recommended J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye as a summer read.
Emirati author Eman Al-Yousuf selected Tawfiq al-Hakim’s play, The Tree Climber (يا طالع الشجرة). She describes it as a captivating and peculiar literary work that combines elements of Egyptian folklore, rural atmosphere, and modern touches. The play is relatively short, allowing readers to finish it in one sitting or enjoy it by reading a few pages each day while relaxing on the beach. Al-Yousuf suggested that The Tree Climber serves as an enjoyable and suitable starting point for those who haven’t yet explored Tawfiq al-Hakim’s plays.
Al-Yousuf also recommends Muhsin Al-Ramli’s novel, The She-wolf of Love and Books (ذئبة الحب والكتب). She noted that, unlike al-Hakim’s play, this novel is lengthy and may require several weeks to read. Many readers enjoy this type of literary work because it allows them to immerse themselves in its world, characters, and events throughout a calm and unhurried summer, creating an engaging and enjoyable experience. The novel stands out due to its unique literary style that combines narrative storytelling, poetic reflections, and letters. The novel beautifully explores love through an extraordinary relationship between the protagonist and a married woman separated by a significant geographical distance.
As for Libyan author Najwa Binshatwan, she playfully provided a list of books suitable for different summer scenarios. For afternoons on the balcony, she recommends Hymns for Sea Snakes by Patrick Svensson and Nescafé with Sherif Al-Radi (نسكافية مع الشريف الرضي) by Mayada Khalil. If there is no balcony, she suggests reading The Algerians’ Flowers by Daniel Keyes.
For sunbathing and enjoying a refreshing drink or green mint tea, she recommends A Brief History of Time, My Autobiography by Stephen Hawking, Lighter than Air by Federico Jeanmaire, and Alfaguara by Hernán Rivera.
Lastly, for a summer spent with a challenging family situation and no escape, she recommends Death in the Family by James Agee.
Algerian author Amal Bouchareb chose the poetry collection A Chair on Akka’s Wall (كرسي على سور عكا) by Najwan Darwish. She noted that, from a Mediterranean perspective, summer is often associated with the sea. However, for her, the sea is not just a place for light reading but rather a space for deep contemplation, where one can delve into profound and expansive books. In the first poems of this collection, which were written on the shores of Akka and burdened by the pain of occupation, Darwish poses the question, “What do the waves wash away?”
Another of her recommendations is Al-Najdi (النجدي) by Kuwaiti novelist Talib Al-Rifai. She mentioned that, despite its publication years ago in Kuwait and its critical acclaim across the Arab world, she only had the opportunity to read it this summer in the Italian translation by Antonino d’Esposito. She contemplated how a translator from the coastal city of Naples could convey the story of a sailor from an Arab shore like Kuwait, given the significant differences in the histories of these two cities. Would the shared maritime terms prevail, or would the diverse lives of people impose their language on the text and its translation?
Bouchareb also recommends Baba Fekrane by Mohammed Dib.
Lebanese visual storyteller Lena Merhej suggested the forthcoming comic anthology “Cutes/ظراف” from Samandal, which features work in both English and Arabic and has elements of “hot romance, trans superheroines, reflections on gender and identity,” and more. Merhej also selected the collectively translated You Are Not Yet Defeated by Alaa Abdel el-Fattah, which she says is a fitting choice for activists in Arab countries looking to articulate their thoughts. It offers, she says, “Down to earth yet controversial new ideas to understand and overcome the catastrophes that have surrounded us.”
Additionally, Merhej recommended You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat. She says, “If you are traveling to see family and have angst or even anger towards them, this is the book to read. It will hopefully ease the encounter with your own family and nourish your soul with no self-help bullshit.” Merhej also recommended Staying with the Trouble by Donna Haraway, and Heimat by Nora Krug.
Lebanese author Hilal Chouman expressed that his reading habits are not influenced by changing seasons but rather by changing moods. However, he recommended titles from his recent readings, hoping they would be suitable for those who want to enjoy them during the intense summer heat, which is not often experienced in Canada where he lives. Chouman selected A Chance for a Final Love (فرصة لغرام أخير) by Hassan Dawood. According to Chouman, Dawood has a unique ability to reimagine destruction and decay in different captivating ways. The COVID-19 crisis serves as a backdrop for the neighbors in two buildings to engage in voyeurism, internal monologues, and interactions in an attempt to break the cycle of waiting. The pandemic, in this context, is merely a pretext to intensify the sense of anticipation and fear of imminent changes before eventually subsiding.
Chouman also recommended Jackals and the Missing Letters (بنات آوى والحروف المفقودة) by Haitham Al-Wardani. He notes that Al-Wardani’s latest book expands on his earlier reflections on society, politics, and language. The book explores the question of what can be expressed in times of catastrophe and political confinement. It delves into how language reshapes itself when there is a lack of space for negotiation among different parties. The book also examines the meaning of writing and its relationship to political and identity-formation systems. Chouman characterizes Al-Wardani’s book as a blend of myth and absurdity, filled with folktales, talking animals, and the silence of humans.
Syrian author Rasha Abbas chose the book A Smiling Cloud (غيمة بشوشة) by the late Jordanian writer Mohammed Temlieh.
This collection includes satirical articles and short stories.
Additionally, Abbas suggested reading Kindred by Octavia Butler, translated by Mona Kareem.
You can see a conversation about the translation of Kindred with Mona Kareem at Northwestern University’s YouTube channel.
Like Saud Alsanoussi, Kuwaiti author Bothayna Al-Essa also selected The Remains of The Tattoo (باقي الوشم) by Abdullah Al-Husseini. She said that the novel explores numerous sensitive topics within Kuwaiti society through its unforgettable characters and storyline.
Notably, it avoids using slogans, clichés, or rhetorical language, instead dedicating itself entirely to shaping vivid and authentic characters. As a result, readers may find it challenging to believe that these characters are purely imagined.
Al-Essa also recommended Children Are Kings by Delphine de Vigan, and The Life of Michael K and His Times by J.M. Coetzee.
Algerian author Said Khatibi picked How to Breastfeed from a She-Wolf Without Getting Bitten (كيف ترضع من الذّئبة دون أن تعضك) by Amara Lakhous.
Khatibi said that the novel explores the themes of human destinies, migration, and intertwined tales. It examines how others perceive us and how we perceive them. The novel’s brevity, smooth language, and engaging events make it enjoyable for summer reading.
Khatibi also recommended The Braid by Laetitia Colombani, and Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado.
Sudanese author Amir Tag Elsir chose two books by Abdelrazak Gurnah: Afterlives and Memory of Departure. According to Tag Elsir, Gurnah creates enchanting and enigmatic worlds, and his writings explore diverse African societies. Tag Elsir wrote that he is deeply intrigued by Gurnah’s work and anticipates immersing himself in these two books. A second book he recommended was Leila Aboulela’s new novel, River Spirit, also written in English.
Tag Elsir wrote that Aboulela is known for her significance to Sudanese and African literature. He adds that he anticipates an exciting journey filled with skillfully intertwined history.
Tag Elsir also selected Gabou and Mercedes by Rodrigo Garcia, and Arabia Felix: Across the Empty Quarter of Arabia by British explorer Bertram Thomas.
Iraqi author Mortada Gzar selected three novels. Firstly, he praised Suhail Sami Nader’s The 14th of July Neighborhood (حي 14 تموز) for its exploration of personal transformations and societal changes, which it does by following a group of young individuals across different eras, including the period of the US invasion. Gzar highlighted Nader’s ability to provide insights into Iraqi identity and the impact of misguided policies. Gzar’s second choice was
Shady Lewis Botros’ Summary History of Creation and East Cairo (تاريخ موجز للخليقة وشرق القاهرة), which he admires for its representation of a new creativity in Arabic literature. The novel tells the story of a child from Egypt’s Coptic minority, focusing on a pivotal day when the child’s mother escapes an abusive marriage and seeks divorce against the church’s teachings. Lastly, Gzar included Belal Fadl’s Um Mimi (أم ميمي), describing it as a delightful and captivating novel that keeps readers engaged. The story follows an ambitious young man who moves from Alexandria to Cairo in pursuit of his dreams but becomes entangled in the surreal reality of Um Mimi’s family, an elderly and quick-witted pimp. The novel is beautifully written, fluid, and infused with popular cultural elements. (You can read an excerpt of the novel, in Osama Hammad’s translation, on ArabLit.)
Essayed Taha is the newest member of the ArabLit editorial staff. He is a poet and translator from Alexandria, Egypt. His Arabic translations of The Time Machine, The Man Who Would Be King, and The Shadow Line were published by Dar Dawen, among other translations. He co-translated excerpts from al-Mawluda (Born) by Nadia Kamel for Words Without Borders and The Los Angeles Review. Taha writes poetry in Arabic; English translations of his poems have been published in Lock Raven Review.