Top 12 contemporary novels by Arab writers you should read

These novels explore the Middle Eastern experience in diverse and profound ways

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There’s nothing like spending an evening with a good book.

Whether you’re looking for your next great read or for a gift this holiday season for the bookworm in your life, there are plenty of novels by Arab authors worth investigating.

From historical fiction and experimental literature, to works of fantasy and family sagas, these novels explore the Arab experience in diverse and profound ways.

‘Bird Summons’ by Leila Aboulela

This is a novel about self-discovery, love and friendship. When three friends, Salma, Moni and Iman, decide to go on a road trip to the Scottish Highlands, they have no idea they will also be embarking on a journey that will change how they see themselves and the world.

Salma is happily married but is tempted to risk it all when her first love from Egypt gets in touch, while Moni, who gave up a career in banking to care for her son who has a disability, gets no help from her indifferent husband. And Iman, who has been married three times, yearns for a freedom and autonomy that she's never experienced.

In award-winning Sudanese-Scottish writer Leila Aboulela's story, the three friends are forced to examine their relationships with faith, love, loyalty and sacrifice.

‘Against the Loveless World’ by Susan Abulhawa

Nahr was born in Kuwait in the 1970s to Palestinian refugees and always dreamed of falling in love, having children and opening a beauty salon. Instead, she’s sitting in solitary confinement, spending her days reflecting on the events in her life that landed her in prison.

Susan Abulhawa's novel blends fact and fiction, to tell the haunting story of a Palestinian refugee as she slowly becomes radicalised while searching for a better life for her family in the Middle East.

Abulhawa is a Palestinian-American writer and human rights activist who received worldwide acclaim for her 2006 novel Mornings in Jenin.

Against the Loveless World, is her latest work and another emotive work by the author exploring Palestinian themes.

‘An Unlasting Home’ by Mai Al-Nakib

Writer Mai Al-Nakib's first work of fiction, The Hidden Light of Objects, a collection of linked short stories published in 2014, won the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s 2014 First Book Award.

Her first novel, An Unlasting Home, published in April, is a multigenerational saga that moves across Lebanon, Iraq, India, the US and Kuwait.

It follows Sara, a philosophy professor at Kuwait University in 2013 trying to understand her place in the world after she is charged with blasphemy. There's also her grandmother, Yasmine, who married the son of the Pasha of Basra and lives to regret it, and Lulwa a poor girl in Kuwait who finds herself in an Indian estate.

The novel looks at Kuwait’s history through Sara’s complicated relationship with it while also delving into the culture of the region in different time periods.

'The Arsonists' City’ by Hala Alyan

Palestinian-American writer, poet and clinical psychologist Hala Alyan first came into prominence with her debut novel Salt Houses in 2017.

Her latest is an examination of home through the history of one family.

The Nasrs — a Lebanese father, Syrian mother and three American children — are dispersed across the world, living in Beirut, Brooklyn, Austin and the Californian desert. When their father dies and a new patriarch of the family decides to sell their ancestral home in Beirut, the family reunite to stop the sale. However, as they gather, secrets and old tensions bubble up to the surface in a city still reeling from the effects of war and an influx of refugees.

‘Mother of Strangers’ by Suad Amiry

Based on true events and characters, Suad Amiry's first novel is an homage to her father and his home town of Jaffa.

Set between 1947 and 1951, the story follows the hopes and dreams of the talented and clever young mechanic Subhi and Shams, the peasant girl he hopes to marry.

As readers get a glimpse into the picturesque life in the port town of Jaffa and Subhi’s ambitious plans for himself, the story takes a turn as the displacement of Palestinian families begin.

Mother of Strangers is a powerful portrait of the city, the people who live there and the dreams they had for themselves and the reality of their future.

‘Country of Origin’ by Dalia Azim

Dalia Azim’s debut novel is a complex multigenerational family saga set against the political unrest of 1950s Egypt.

Readers are taken on an epic journey when four family members' lives intersect around the disappearance of a teenager Halah Ibrahim.

Halah’s privileged life shatters around her as Egypt faces political unrest and she begins to question her father’s role in the new military-backed government. In an impulsive moment, she flees to America with a young soldier as Cairo goes up in flames.

Her decisions set of a series of events, revealing secrets, lies and the story of a family and the coming-of-age of a nation.

‘The Watermelon Boys’ by Ruqaya Izzidien

Set in Iraq during the First World War, as the country transitions from Ottoman to British rule, this is a wonderfully told story, about two men, from very different places, fighting the same war.

Iraqi-Welsh novelist and journalist Ruqaya Izzidien's debut novel tells the story of Ahmad who leaves his peaceful family life on the banks of the Tigris to join the British-led revolt. Meanwhile Welsh teenager Carwyn reluctantly enlists in the war and is sent to the Mesopotamia campaign through Egypt.

Izzidien’s important retelling of the history of Britain in Iraq looks at promises made, revolts and the story of two men whose fates are intertwined in a war that defined a region.

‘Shad Hadid and the Alchemists of Alexandria’ by George Jreije

Middle Eastern desserts, magic and the dark forces. Lebanese-American writer George Jreije's debut novel is a young adult urban fantasy filled with the flavours of Lebanon.

The story follows Shad Hadid, 12, a Lebanese immigrant to America and an aspiring baker with a love for Middle Eastern desserts. His life takes an extraordinary turn when he discovers that he’s descended from a long line of alchemists and is then sent to the mysterious Alexandria Academy.

However, not all is as it should be at the prestigious and historical school. Dark forces are lurking in the shadows and Shad, curious, brave and with a nose for trouble, soon learns that he holds the key to stopping or helping them with their evil plans.

‘As Long as the Lemon Trees Grow’ by Zoulfa Katouh

Salama Kassab is a pharmacy student leading a normal life in Syria. But everything changes when the country is plunged into violence and Salama volunteers at a hospital to help the wounded.

Torn between staying in her beloved country, rife with civil unrest, and fleeing before her sister-in-law, Layla, gives birth, her conflicted feelings manifest into an imaginary friend, Khawf, who obsessively tries to keep her safe. Salama’s feelings are further complicated when she crosses paths with the boy who once meant a different future for herself.

Syrian-Canadian writer Zoulfa Katouh’s debut novel not only depicts the effects of the Syrian civil war but focuses on the very real and universal story of one person trying to forget her path in the world.

‘The Beauty of Your Face’ by Sahar Mustafah

Sahar Mustafah's debut novel, The Beauty of Your Face, tells the story of Afaf Rahman, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants and principal of Nurrideen School for Girls, a Muslim school in the Chicago suburbs.

One morning when a shooter attacks the school, everything changes. As tragedy unfolds, Afaf is taken back into her past, from the prejudice she faced as a child and her mother’s dashed dreams to return to her homeland, to the disappearance of her older sister, which shatters her family.

‘If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English’ by Noor Naga

Written using experimental literary techniques, Egyptian writer Noor Naga’s debut novel is a dark romance exploring American identity politics outside of the US.

The story follows an unnamed narrator, known as the “American woman” as she returns to Cairo after the 2011 uprisings where she meets another unnamed narrator known as "the boy from Shobrakheit", a photographer who now lives in a rooftop shack.

The two unreliable narrators embark on a romantic and toxic relationship that echoes the ethics around the real and imagined relationships we have with nationalism and the homeland.

‘Bride of the Sea’ by Eman Quotah

A tale of family, immigration and a clash of cultures, the story begins with Muneer and Saeedah, mismatched newlyweds from Saudi Arabia who arrive in America on student visas and are about to have a child.

After they divorce, Saeedah changes her name and disappears after fearing that Muneer will take her daughter from her.

Seventeen years later, Hanadi, their daughter, meets her father and her extended family in Jeddah. Hanadi feels both sorrow for the lost moments she could have had with her family but is also confused by their way of life compared with how she lives in America.

Arab-American writer Eman Quotah’s debut novel spans 50 years, intimately portraying the story of a broken family, loss, healing and love.

‘No Land to Light On’ by Yara Zgheib

Yara Zgheib is the author of the critically acclaimed novel, The Girls at 17 Swann Street. Her second novel, No Land to Light On is the story of Hadi and Sama, a young Syrian couple in America excited for the arrival of their first child.

However, when Hadi’s father suddenly dies in Jordan, the night before his visa appointment at the embassy, Hadi flies back for the funeral, promising Sama he’ll only be gone for a few days.

Yet on the day his flight is due to arrive in Boston, Sama waits unaware that her husband has been stopped at the border and detained for questioning, trapped in a timeless limbo.

No Land to Light On is the story of a family separated by forces out of their control fighting for a home to call their own.

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Updated: December 22, 2022, 5:36 AM