From cover to cover

Feature From Don Quixote to a Rumi anthology, we ask prominent authors, politicians and artists to tell us what they read this summer.

Ziauddin Sardar (left) and Jonathan Raban are among the authors who have shared their summer reading lists.
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"If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all." Oscar Wilde was right, of course. The process of reading can be such a pleasure - or disappointment - that finding really great books, ones that entertain and enlighten in an effortless way, can be a time consuming and difficult process. That's why we asked a number of well-known figures, all brilliant communicators in their own right, to recommend the books they have found most engaging this year. For most of our authors and commentators, good writing is about replacing opinion, conjecture and prejudice with experience, insight and empathy - or, at the very least, an informed awareness of other points of view. As Lord Ahmed says, "Through reading and studying each other's cultures, I believe we can achieve a mutual understanding."
Ziauddin Sardar Ziauddin Sardar is the author of more than 40 books on Islam, science policy and cultural studies; he is also a columnist for The Observer and The New Statesman. He lives in London. The first book I read this summer was the new translation of the Quran by Tarif Khalidi, which has just been published by Penguin. It's very poetic. Khalidi basically brings out the poetry of the Quran by the way he structures his book. The poetic verses are laid out in poetic form, while the legalistic parts are laid out as prose. The English used is very contemporary so it's easy to understand. It is the first translation that tries to capture both the rhythm and structure of the Quran. It is magnificent: he succeeds in conveying linguistic shifts while being faithful to the original. The second book I am reading is A New Politics of Identity by Bhikhu Parekh. The author takes on the critics of multiculturalism and really takes them apart. He sees multiculturalism as a virtue and a future project which should work. It's a long and highly developed critique of western liberalism and individualism; it's also very relevant because he looks at the concept of identity, national identity, the pathology of religious identity and the challenges of the multicultural world. It's very powerful because at the end he tries to develop a global ethics which balances individualism and community and promotes democracy. He talks about how people have not just material needs but spiritual needs, too. - Rosemary Behan
Amin Matalqa Amin Matalqa is the writer and director of Captain Abu Raed, which has won 10 awards this year, including the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival, the jury and audience awards at the Traverse Film Festival and the audience and best first feature prizes at the Durban International Film Festival. He lives in Los Angeles. At the moment my favourite book is Tobias Smollet's translation of Don Quixote. It was first published in 1755 but I can't put it down. I read it back in high school and my appreciation of the book grew. I'm finding this translation very, very entertaining. It's so deliciously funny you have to read every word of it with such care. I am also reading John Grogan's new book Marley & Me about a guy and his dog and the dog's effect on his family. The dog is an irresistible yellow Labrador. It's a light summer read. I always like to have a few biographies handy and at the moment I'm reading Charlie Chaplin's biography. It's fascinating, partly because I live five minutes away from his old studio, so he haunts me - his films, his life, his words. I always have stacks of books and juggle between them depending on the mood. I can't read systematically: I like to keep my brain on different waves. - Rosemary Behan
Tim Mackintosh-Smith Tim Mackintosh-Smith is the author of Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land, Travels with a Tangerine and The Hall of a Thousand Columns. He edited The Travels of Ibn Battuta and is working on the final book in a trilogy about the Moroccan traveller. He lives in Sana'a. I am working my way through Rex Smith's translation of Ibn Mujawir's A Traveller in Thirteenth-Century Arabia, which has just been published. It's the first English translation of the Tarikh al Mustabsir. Ibn Mujawir was a contemporary of Ibn Battuta. He began in Mecca and worked his way down the Red Sea coastal plain to Yemen, before continuing along the southern coast of Arabia to the Gulf, returning home via Iraq. This is a text I know well and I have a somewhat different take on it: if it had been me translating, I would have followed the route myself. As light relief, I'm reading Richard Ford's Gatherings in Spain. It first came out in 1846 and some people think it's the best guidebook ever written. It's lovely, fascinating and really funny. He attacks "speedy travel writers ... who have merely scratched their heads, and out come many volumes ready bound in calf". It's bit of a mishmash, with chapters on hiring servants, cooking and the Ronda horse fair in May. Ford is a proud and bizarre Englishman, but he frequently slips into different languages, which I love. My favourite part is the note at the front to his wife, which reads: "To the honourable Mrs Ford, these pages which she has been so good as to read and peruse, I dedicate in the hope that other fair readers may follow her example. By her very affectionate husband and servant, Richard Ford." - Rosemary Behan
Ibrahim Farghali Ibrahim Farghali, an Egyptian cultural journalist and respected new voice in the magic realism genre, now lives in Kuwait. I am reading Jose Saramago's Blindness. I am not as enthralled by it as I was by All the Names but he is a great, great writer and this helps me understand the specific style he deploys. He can communicate seriously complicated, philosophical ideas through very basic and simple life situations. I was also reading Out of Place by Edward Said because I hadn't read it when it came out. As far as I'm concerned Said is the model of the intellectual - a true peer of the western thinker, which is an idea he himself touches on - because the intellectual in its truest sense is a figure that seems lacking in the contemporary Arab world. It is fascinating to see how Said came to occupy that position. Of course, through the writing, which is not very academic writing, the human being comes through as well. And that's very rewarding. I just finished a non-fiction book, Jan Assmann's Ancient Egypt, where the German scholar traces the accumulation of ideas and attitudes through 5,000 years of history, demonstrating that the main crisis in understanding the ancients is the failure to differentiate different periods of that huge expanse. - Youssef Rakha
Sonallah Ibrahim Sonallah Ibrahim, the celebrated Egyptian novelist, is based in Cairo. His most recent book is The Turban and the Hat. I've been reading detective novels. I've been addicted to them since I was 10. There is no greater pleasure for me. The last was the latest by this guy who in my opinion should get the Nobel Prize, John le Carre, The Mission Song, which is the second of his books to be set in Africa. The first, The Constant Gardener, was made into a film. It is beautiful stuff. Detective novels can be highly literary, too, of course. But really, there is no greater pleasure than that of settling down to read one of them. I am also reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer, for the second time. It is a truly great book, but I am reading it again because I was thinking of doing something on Germany and it makes for excellent research. I don't like to stay idle for very long. So I've been reviewing the history of Nazi Germany. And The Rise and Fall is not only useful for that but profoundly enjoyable as well. - Youssef Rakha
Mohammed Hanif Mohammed Hanif is head of the BBC's Urdu service. His recent book, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, about the assassination of the ­Pakistani dictator General Zia has been longlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize. He lives in London. I picked up Youth by JM Coetzee (Vintage) randomly in a second-hand book shop, having never heard of it. It's about a South African guy who has all these artistic notions and comes to London, wanting to be a poet. The book is about his struggles when he gets there. It's a sort of spiritual guide. Having lived in London for 12 years, I could really identify with him. Coetzee is a brilliant writer and it's very funny; you can be laughing and crying on the same page. I'm halfway through The Road Grom Damascus (Hamish Hamilton) by the Syrian-British writer Robin Yassin-Kassab, which is also set in London. It's a book that's full of ideas and has the kind of long debates about religion and secularism that you don't often find in modern literature. The main character is a young man in a troubled marriage. It's extremely witty. The text draws heavily on the different characteristics of Arab neighbourhoods in the city. Some of the characters are brilliant, particularly in the bizarre ways they choose to assert their identity in order to lead a life here. - Katie Boucher
Hareb al Dhahiri Hareb al Dhahiri, a short story writer and poet based in Abu Dhabi, is the head of the Union of Writers and Authors of the Emirates. This time of the year I tend to read a little more than usual, but the summer is almost over now and I am concentrating on writing. Usually I read novels in the summer. This summer I read The Mud by the Saudi novelist Abdu Khal and a book by the Iraqi Kurdish writer Hassan Mutlag, Dabada, which is an older novel that draws on Kurdish history and mythology. I've read it many times because it is deep and layered. But right now I am concentrating on writing. It is a novel project, my first experiment in this genre, and it is set in Al Ain, where I was born. It has both personal experience and existential philosophy, but it's also my way of bringing back to life some of those inimitable characters that I encountered growing up there. As for non-fiction, I haven't read much recently apart from papers. In general I try to keep away from politics and that kind of thing, so I have just been following the news. - Youssef Rakha
Mahmoud Kaabour Mahmoud Kaabour is a filmmaker, lecturer and writer whose 2004 documentary Being Osama, about the lives and times of six men sharing Osama bin Laden's first name in the post-September-11 world, won several international awards. Satwa Stills, a series of images of the Satwa district in Dubai and its inhabitants, showed last year at The Third Line gallery. He lives in Dubai. Rumi: The Book of Love - Poems of Ecstasy and Longing (HarperCollins) is such a beautiful book I could have read in one day, but am forcing myself to take my time. It's a collection of Rumi's intense and heartbreaking poems, which have been translated very intelligently by Colman Barks. Each of the poems are preceded by a raw, witty prologue covering topics such as terrorism, carnal love and war. Barks, in his blackly satirical way, cleverly reintroduces Rumi to us with modern themes. I've been reading Rumi for a long time but Barks reminds us why he is one of the most influential poets of our time and why his themes are so universal. Travels with a Tangerine: A Journey in the Footnotes of Ibn Battuta by Tim Mackintosh-Smith (Picador) is a travel journal by a British writer who lived in Sana'a, Yemen, for 30 years. He randomly picked out a book on arrival, which was about the travels of Ibn Battuta, and decided to retrace his footsteps. As a travel journal, it's excellent, but it's also a very natural comparison of places in the Middle East as they were in Ibn ­Battuta's time, and what they have since become. - Katie Boucher
Sultan al Khatib Sultan al Khatib, the renowned Iraqi pianist, is based in Abu Dhabi and is an Arab authority on western classical music. Reading, in my view at least, is a very personal and subjective thing. There is no time of year for it, but I do think it is bound by conditions of space and time - so while the examples I can give you are in a way representative, it is still true that there is a reason I am reading them now. I have been translating Inside Music by Karl Haas, so besides the western sources, I've been reading many PhDs from Beirut and Egypt to work out how I might translate the terminology, especially since there are concepts in classical music that simply don't exist in Arabic music - the most obvious example being harmony, not the word but the musical term, which really has no conceptual equivalent since our musical tradition is monophonic. With Ramadan, it makes sense to be reading books that have to do with religion. One of the things I've always been interested in are the stories of the prophets. Many classical works are based on such stories, so I've always been interested in how they differ from each other in different religious traditions. Right now I am reading bits of Ibn Kathir's monumental work on the topic, which I find to be very useful in this regard. - Youssef Rakha
Jonathan Raban Jonathan Raban is the author of Waxwings, Passage to Juneau, Bad Land, Hunting Mister Heartbreak, Coasting, Old Glory, Arabia Through the Looking Glass and Soft City. He lives in Seattle. I am reading The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals by Jane Meyer. I am still in the early stages but it is the most closely detailed look we have had so far at the Neocon response to September 11 and the way in which the US constitution was simply torn up. Meyer talks of a "battle for the country's soul" in America over the use of torture. She quotes the head of the September 11 commission, before he left for an academic post, saying that "fear and anxiety were exploited by zealots and fools". One could hardly put it any stronger. What has happened in America under the Bush administration is quite terrifying and this should be absolutely essential reading on everybody's bookshelves. The second book I am reading is Selena Hastings' biography of Evelyn Waugh, which I last read on a plane when it came out in 1994. The fact that I was on a plane may have been responsible for my negligent reading of it the first time around. I was too anxious to get to Waugh's adulthood and I didn't recognise her treatment then, as I do now, of his childhood. It's a masterpiece. Waugh is a difficult character for biographers and people tend to portray him in a two-dimensional way. But the way she has created a three-dimensional character is as complex as a novel, but it's also like a prophecy. I particularly enjoyed the parts about Waugh's North London upbringing and his rivalry with his older brother. The rest of the book pales in comparison: you realise that this novelist was fully formed by the age of 10 or 11. Hastings shows such biographical tact, patience and attention that I am simply bowled over by it. - Rosemary Behan
Nazir (Lord) Ahmed Nazir (Lord) Ahmed is a labour member of the House of Lords. He was made Britain's second Muslim peer in 1998 and plays an active role in facilitating race relations between Britain and Muslim countries. He lives in Rotherham in the north of England. I have recently started Who Is a Terrorist by Anjum Ibrahim (Pegasus). Ibrahim is an experienced journalist and television reporter and her book is an accomplished analysis of the roots of terrorism, using real examples as case studies. She asks questions like, Who is a real terrorist? Is our current definition correct? What does it say about us as people when those who have no understanding of terrorism - like the wedding party in Afghanistan - are being bombed? I'm reading it because the root causes of modern-day terrorism lie in Afghanistan and Pakistan, yet if people look at what has happened since then (at examples of state terrorism, like the Russian invasion of Georgia) there is no one to oppose it. I am trying to understand this argument. I'm also reading In the Line of Fire: A Memoir by Pervez Musharraf (Simon & Schuster). It's full of his own traces and mistakes; it's fascinating to see inside the mind of a dictator. In this book, we see him coming face to face with terror and he makes the point about why he joined the coalition on terror. Both books are political and relevant to what I do, to perfect the argument for or against the war and to ask whether we can win people's hearts and minds through bombing. After all, statistics show that only eight per cent of wars are won militarily and the vast majority are resolved through negotiation and dialogue. Unfortunately, the majority of westerners don't understand the East and its mentality of tribalism; many of these wars aren't about terror but about tribalism and have been going on for generations. Through reading about and studying each other's cultures, I believe we can achieve a mutual understanding. - Katie Boucher
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