Twenty of the best Arabic novels that are available in English

International Prize for Arabic Fiction administrator Fleur Montanaro shares her favourite regional reads

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Trying to describe the characteristics of a “typical” Arabic novel is an overly ambitious task. The many countries and cultures that make up the region are impossible to generalise, and the minds that make up its healthy literary diaspora are individual.

However, if it’s not definition you seek but recommendation, look no further than the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, which will be awarded in Abu Dhabi on Sunday. Sponsored by the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi the Ipaf was launched in 2007 and has grown to become the gold standard when it comes to Arabic fiction.

Because of its scope, the Ipaf's selection offers the perfect gateway for those wanting to explore the Arabic novel, says prize administrator Fleur Montanaro. The English literature graduate and Arabic translator, who was born in Malta and raised in Nigerian and the UK, says picking up these books will also help people break some of the misconceptions surrounding the region.

“I would say to anyone to please read these books to gain an insider's view of the Arab world and its culture, and don't judge by what you see on the news,” she tells The National. “The books not only deal with the burning questions of the Arab world, but also issues relevant to us all, such as identity, love, fear and memory. They should be read as works of art, not just as a guide to these countries.”

To begin your collection, Montanaro picks her favourite reads from the Ipaf selection. All of these books are available in English translation and have either won or been shortlisted for the prize. Here are her 20 favourites.

1. The Dispersal by Inaam Kachachi (Iraq)

The Dispersal has a warm, humane and elegant prose typical of the Iraqi author’s work. It tells the story of a female doctor working in the countryside in southern Iraq in the 1950s, in an atmosphere far removed from the sectarian conflicts of today, and follows the lives of her children, dispersed across the globe. The novel gives a powerful sense of the cultural richness and diversity of 1950s Iraq, balanced by a profound and poignant sense of loss.”

2. Firefly by Jabbour Douaihy (Lebanon)

“This unforgettable, evocative novel charts the life of a Muslim hero brought up by Christians in a Lebanon fragmented by civil war. The curiously-named Nizam (which means regime or system) negotiates roadblocks and checkpoints where showing the wrong ID card can lead to execution. His discoveries of love and creative fulfilment are short lived, since ultimately the hostile sectarian environment will prove too strong for him.”

3. The Secrets of Folder 42 by Abdelmajid Sebbata (Morocco)

“The novel by Moroccan author Abdelmajid Sebbata was shortlisted for the Ipaf Award in 2021 and an English version will be out in May. It is a thriller-cum-jigsaw puzzle with an intricately constructed plot comprising different strands which finally come together at the end.”

4. The Slave Pens by Najwa Binshatwan (Libya)

“The Slave Pens is considered to be the Libyan author’s finest novel. Binshatwan said she was inspired to write the novel after seeing a black-and-white photo of unknown women standing on a plot of land in Tripoli. The Slave Pens conjures up their lives, lifting the lid on the dark and untold history of slavery in Libya, whose effects resonate today.”

5. A Small Death by Mohammed Hasan Alwan (Saudi Arabia)

“The 2017 Ipaf award-winning work is one of those rare long novels (around 600 pages) you wish would never end. It is a fictionalised account of the Sufi saint, Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi, from his birth in Muslim Spain in the 12th century until his death in Damascus. It describes his journeys through numerous countries and search for his four aqtab or spiritual guides, one of whom is a woman he loves. Although the historical background is fascinating, it is his inner growth, spiritual struggles and triumphs captivating readers.”

6. A Sky So Close to Us by Shahla Ujayli (Syria)

“The book explores the lives of Syrian exiles in Amman (where Shahla herself lives) and spans the globe to take in Iraq, Palestine, Serbia and Vietnam. It is a rich, textured work following the destinies of multiple protagonists and highlighting the impact of war as well as personal tragedy upon the individual.”

7. The Old Woman and the River by Ismail Fahd Ismail

“The late, esteemed 'father of the Kuwaiti novel' Ismail Fahd Ismail was a prolific writer but this title is the only one available in English at present. A slim volume, it tells the true story of a belligerent old woman and her donkey who resisted Iraqi army attempts to seize her piece of land, which lay on the front line during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.”

8. The Bird Tattoo by Dunya Mikhail (Iraq)

“The novel deals with the painful subject of the sale of Yazidi women as slaves by Isis, balancing this trauma with an exploration of the astonishing world of Yazidi customs and legends. The story is told without exaggeration or sentiment and the Iraqi-American Mikhail went on become the English translator of the book, which is now in several other languages.”

9. Sarajevo Firewood by Said Khatibi (Algeria)

“The novel compares and contrasts the destinies of two countries in the Balkans and North Africa: Algeria and Bosnia. At one time tied by bonds of friendship and ideology, both became embroiled in futile civil wars. In Algeria, as in Bosnia, the 20th century had a bloody end, as people were torn apart by issues of religion and ethnicity. The novel follows protagonists, Salim and Ivana, both of whom fled war and hatred in their countries, to build a new life in Slovenia.”

10. Azazeel by Youssef Ziedan (Egypt)

“One of the most successful winners of the Ipaf (2009), it won the Anobii First Book Award at the Edinburgh Festival (a prize given based on readers' votes). Not every scholar and historian can turn novelist, but Youssef Ziedan managed it and surprised the literary world by doing so. His subsequent novels have been much in demand, although many would say that none equal this masterpiece. The story is set in the 5th century and charts a Coptic monk’s journey from Upper Egypt to Alexandria and then Syria during a time of massive religious upheaval.”

11. The Bamboo Stalk by Saud Alsanousi (Kuwait)

“This is an incredibly successful Ipaf winner [2013] with more than 30 Arabic editions printed. Readers have engaged deeply with the book and its protagonist, who is half-Kuwaiti, half-Filipino. It's told in simple language appropriate for the uneducated narrator and vividly evokes the Philippines and Kuwait. The novel explores the struggles of identity that anyone can have, and with humorous touches.”

12. The Baghdad Clock by Shahad Al Rawi (Iraq)

“Translation rights were snapped up by Oneworld before this debut novel was shortlisted for the Ipaf in 2018. It is an intensely warm, nostalgic look back at a girl's childhood in a middle-class Baghdad neighbourhood in the 1990s. Reading it, you strongly sense the author's deep fondness for the place she grew up in and the people she knew, now changed for ever.”

13. The Frightened Ones by Dima Wannous (Syria)

“This examines fear from the grass roots and the effects of the Syrian Assad regime on individuals. It asks the question, how do people become savage beasts? Do they go to sleep and wake up the next morning like that? It is set in present-day Syria and charts a relationship that begins in a therapist’s waiting room. It was shortlisted for the Ipaf in 2018.”

14. Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (Iraq)

“Probably the best-known Ipaf winning novel [2014] outside the Arab world. One particular scene in this novel gave me a shiver up the spine. As a whole, it offers a rich, panoramic view of Iraq in 2006, with Frankenstein the monster becoming a metaphor for cyclical revenge and sectarianism.”

15. A Rare Blue Bird that Flies With Me' by Youssef Fadel (Morocco)

“This book is part of a trilogy about the ‘Years of Lead’ in the 1980s in Morocco when the regime harshly persecuted all opposition, including from intellectuals. It gives a powerful, detailed account of an innocent man stagnating, Monte Christo-like, in an infamous prison in southern Morocco. It is informed no doubt by the time the author himself spent in prison during that period. It takes in a wider sweep of Morocco, and the private as well as public despotism, but there is also beauty and hope.”

16. Voices of the Lost by Hoda Barakat (Lebanon)

“This short novel achieves a lot in a few pages. Through its brilliantly crafted epistolary structure, it takes a compassionate look at lost souls (who are Arab migrants) and modern humanity's ultimate failure to communicate, despite the many means we now have of doing so. The story is told through six letters and follows the fate of its writers who are linked to one another and their fates are also intertwined.”

17. In Praise of Hatred by Khaled Khalifa (Syria)

“The influential literary publication List Muse included this book as one of its Top 100 Novels of All Time. Penguin described it as 'a stirring, sensual story' that focuses on the clash between the Syrian regime and Islamic fundamentalists in the author's native Aleppo in the 1980s. It's a must-read. The late Khalifa was relatively unknown on the literary scene before the book was shortlisted in the inaugural year of the prize in 2008.”

18. June Rain by Jabbour Douaihy (Lebanon)

Douaihy's inspired characterisation weaves a careful web of memorable protagonists from small town Lebanon during the civil war, whose lives interlock in intricate and sometimes devastating ways. A non-Arabic-reading English friend said she is still haunted by one of the characters.”

19. Embrace on Brooklyn Bridge by Ezzedine Choukri Fishere (Egypt)

“In modern-day America, Egyptian-Americans are travelling to a birthday party, which we never see them reach. But the real journey is through their past memories and present lives, showing each one's encounter with the US. The 2012 shortlisted novel is subtle and eschews stereotypes.”

20. The Longing of the Dervish by Hammour Ziada (Sudan)

“Probably the reader's favourite to win in the year it was shortlisted, 2015, but it wasn't to be. The story of an Islamic fundamentalist political movement that took power in Sudan in the 19th century has obvious modern-day resonance. It is also a bittersweet love story in the most unlikely of circumstances.”