‘Travel to the Arab world without a passport:’ the 11 best Arabic novels that are available in English

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

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Trying to describe characteristics of a “typical” Arabic novel is a fool’s errand. 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 highly individual.

However, if it’s not definition you seek, but recommendation, look no further than the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Sponsored by the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi and run in conjunction with the Booker Prize Foundation, the Ipaf was launched in 2007 and has grown to become the gold standard when it comes to Arabic fiction. The numbers speak for themselves: the prize has received 1,780 submissions written by authors from 24 countries over the years.

Of that number, 66 novels have been shortlisted through the years, and nine out of the 13 winning titles have been republished in English. Many of the novels acknowledged by Ipaf have also been translated into different languages, including French and Chinese.

Because of its scope, the Ipaf's selection offers the perfect gateway for those wanting to explore the Arabic novel, says prize administrator Fleur MontanaroPicking 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."

Fleur Montanaro is the administrator for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Courtesy Ipaf

To begin your collection, Montanaro, a British-Maltese Arabist, 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. “Reading these books, you can travel to the Arab world without needing a passport. You will also meet characters who will live with you for ever,” she says. “You can discover the distinctive voice of each writer telling their story, and because of their artistry, you will enjoy listening to that voice and want to hear more, even though the story they are telling might be about a difficult and traumatic subject.”

Here are Montanaro’s 11 favourite Ipaf books…

1. '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.

2. '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."

3. '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."

4. 'The Frightened Ones' by Dima Wannous (Syria)

“This examines fear from the grassroots 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.

5. 'Frankenstein in Baghdad' by Ahmed Saadawi (Iraq)

"Probably the best-known Ipaf winning novel [2014] outside the Arab world, after it was shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize for Fiction in Translation.

“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.”

6. '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.

“This was shortlisted for the Ipaf in 2014. The other two novels in the trilogy are also available in English.”

7. 'The Night Mail' 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 English translation rights were also picked up before the book won the prize in 2019.”

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.

8. '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 must-read. Khalifa was relatively unknown on the literary scene before the book was shortlisted in the inaugural year of the prize in 2008."

9. 'June Rain' by Jabbour Douaihy (Lebanon)

"Also shortlisted for the Ipaf in 2008, 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."

10. '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."

11. '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."