Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 1 November 2020

Six amazing English novels to read by Arab authors: from 'Cockroach' to 'The Turtle of Oman'

We select the books – from children's to young adult – that are worth a read

'Cockroach', 'The Turtle of Oman' and 'The Girl in The Tangerine Scarf' are worth a read.
'Cockroach', 'The Turtle of Oman' and 'The Girl in The Tangerine Scarf' are worth a read.

The history of Arabic literature is as rich and complex as the language itself. It wasn't perhaps until the late 19th century that the Arabic novel came to form, with writers Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, Jurji Zaydan and Muhammad Husayn Haykal leading the charge.

However, it's likely that it was Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz’s Nobel recognition in 1988 that brought international attention to novels from the region. You need only take a trip to bookstore Kinokuniya to see his English translations dominating half a bookshelf, if not more.

However, there are also a number of other Arab writers – or those of Arab origin – who have beautifully written their works in English.

Sure, there are certain obvious examples, such as Gibran Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet, but in this list we take a look at some not-so-obvious examples, most of which are from the 21st century.

So here's a round-up of six English novels penned by Arab authors that are worth a read:

'Cockroach' by Rawi Hage (2008)

Cockroach: A NOVEL by Rawi Hage. Courtesy W. W. Norton & Company
Cockroach: A NOVEL by Rawi Hage. Courtesy W. W. Norton & Company

This dark comedy by Lebanese-Canadian writer Rawi Hage centres on an unnamed narrator who moves to the slums of Montreal from the Middle East.

There, he finds himself mired in poverty and soon tries to end his own life, only to be saved by “a man in a Speedo”. We find out more of the narrator’s background through the therapy sessions he is forced to attend, learning about his tumultuous childhood and his belief that he is a cockroach. Meanwhile, he starts falling in love with a woman named Shohreh.

Cockroach was a shortlisted finalist for a number of Canadian literary awards, including the 2008 Giller Prize and the 2008 Governor General's Award for English-language fiction.

'The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf' by Mohja Kahf (2006)

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf: A Novel by Mojha Kahf published by PublicAffairs. Courtesy Hachette
The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf: A Novel by Mojha Kahf published by PublicAffairs. Courtesy Hachette

Written by Syrian-American novelist and poet Mohja Kahf, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, set in Indiana in the 1970s, tells the story of a young Syrian immigrant, Khadra Shamy, and her close, devout Muslim family.

The novel offers some witty and hilarious reflections on what it’s like growing up Muslim in America.

“As a Muslim living in the US, you run into these little slices of life that are on every page of the book,” Dina Ibrahim, a broadcasting professor, told the New York Times in 2007 after Kahf read an excerpt from her novel at the Arab Cultural and Community Centre.

'The Hakawati' by Rabih Alameddine (2008)

The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine published by Anchor. Courtesy Penguin Random House
The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine published by Anchor. Courtesy Penguin Random House

The blurb on the back of this novel by Lebanese-writer Rabih Alameddine describes it as “an Arabian Nights for this century”.

The comparison is fitting. The novel alternates between fantastical tales of kings, viziers, djinn, mischievous imps and supernatural animals, and the story of the novel’s central character, Osama al-Kharrat, who returns after many years to Beirut in 2003, to stand vigil at his father’s deathbed.

The novel, like any great work of fiction, is as hilarious as it is poignant, with some heartbreaking reflections of the Lebanese civil war and conflicted identity.

'The Map of Love' by Ahdaf Soueif (1999)

The Map of Love: A Novel by Ahdaf Soueif published by Anchor. Courtesy Penguin Random House
The Map of Love: A Novel by Ahdaf Soueif published by Anchor. Courtesy Penguin Random House

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the novel is by one of Egypt’s most accomplished writers, Ahdaf Soueif, and is a must read, both for the cross-cultural love story it tells, and its kaleidoscopic, non-linear narration, which effortlessly manoeuvres between Victorian, postmodern and post-colonial storytelling.

The novel takes place across Egypt, England and the US over the course of a century, providing an interesting examination of colonial rule and the issues facing Egypt up to the turn of the century.

'The Turtle of Oman' by Naomi Shihab Nye (2014)

The Turtle of Oman: A Novel by Naomi Shihab Nye published by Greenwillow Books. Courtesy HarperCollins
The Turtle of Oman: A Novel by Naomi Shihab Nye published by Greenwillow Books. Courtesy HarperCollins

A perfect novel to read with your children, The Turtle of Oman is aimed for readers in grades five and six. It is accessible, humourous and deals with themes such as moving, family, nature, and immigration.

Written by Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye, it tells the story of Aref Al-Amri, a young boy who isn’t too happy with his parents’ decision to leave Oman for Michigan, where they will go to graduate school.

The story tells of a series of adventures that young Aref takes with his grandfather, Sidi, before the family’s big move. The two go fishing in the Gulf of Oman, dream of going to India and go to observe the sea turtles at a nature reserve.

'Mornings in Jenin' by Susan Abulhawa (2010)

Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa. Courtesy Bloomsbury
Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa. Courtesy Bloomsbury

This is a multi-generational story by Palestinian-American writer Susan Abulhawa that tells the story of the Abulhejos, a Palestinian family that is forcibly displaced from their olive-farming village of Ein Hod by the newly-formed state of Israel in 1948.

The novel follows the trials of the Abulhejos family as they go to live in canvas tents in Jenin's refugee camp.

The novel’s primary voice is that of Amal, a smart and sensitive girl who makes it out of the camp only to return years later.

Updated: July 2, 2020 05:29 PM

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