Many of us have been brought up and educated in languages other than our mother tongue, making us unwilling, unable or intimidated to read Arabic books.
We don’t realize, however, until we do venture into some Arabic literature, how profoundly deep it is. Because of the richness of the language itself, good Arabic writing is fulfilling regardless of its level of seriousness or topic.
This list should encourage some daring souls to try out some Arabic reading. Here are some of our favorites, and they don’t even include the big, heavy names you might be expecting!
1919 by Ahmed Mourad
For fans of historical fiction, this is a great book. Set in early twentieth century Egypt, it features some of our favorite characters, including Saad and Safiyya Zaghloul. Along its historical plotline, closely intertwined of course with the country’s politics at the time, the book features a classic love story. Brace yourself for courtship cuteness, political ploys and some very vivid characters.
Bab El Khoroug (Exit Door/The Way Out) by Ezzedine Choukri Fishere
Written in the immediate aftermath of the January Revolution, this book discusses the fictional possibilities for the future and where the hope for Egypt lies, building on the author’s political and academic background as a diplomat and Political Science Professor at AUC. It has sometimes been called a prophecy coming true because of how close Fishere’s predictions have been to real events. Alongside its rich material and details, the book is also very well written. Its development as a long letter from father to his son is especially interesting.
Al-Feel Al-Azraq (The Blue Elephant) by Ahmed Mourad
Another favorite by Mourad, this book has been a best seller and has been turned into a star-studded feature film. The main character is a psychiatrist has suffered a major loss in his life and has since lost his way, but this is the least of his troubles. Stuck evaluating the sanity of an old friend charged with murdering his wife, he becomes entangled in a search for the truth, one that doesn’t seem very real. A fast-paced thriller, this is a book that will keep you turning the pages for more – and will probably keep you awake for a couple of nights afterwards, so make sure you have a nightlight at hand.
Utopia by Ahmed Khaled Tawfik
Set in the future, Utopia gives us the author’s glimpse of what our current ever-growing socioeconomic gap between classes can develop into. With a self-entitled, oblivious upper class and increasingly marginalized and oppressed masses, the book becomes particularly relevant to our contemporary moment. Utopia is short, to the point and its prose is brilliantly written. It also features one of my favorite ever poems by legendary Abdel Rahman El Abnoudy as a key theme, but Arabic poetry is a topic for another time!
Mer’at Farida (Farida’s Mirror) by Reham Rady
Although similarly concerned with socioeconomic inequality in Egypt, Mer’at Farida is much more youth-focused. The heroine is an independent young journalist without a care in the world. Written from her perspective, the book’s narrative features the occasional English and slang, but remains powerful. With the story’s development, she becomes forced to acknowledge and address the problems rampant in Egyptian society as she comes to terms with her own personal life. The book is a relevant read, dealing with broader social and economic issues as well as weighing in on personal relationships, marriage and social norms.
Nady al-Sayarat (The Car Club) by Alaa al-Aswany
Another pick for those nostalgic about the good old days; set in the mid-twentieth century, Nady al-Sayarat weaves a story about hard work, hardship, love and so many other themes against the backdrop of Egypt under British rule. The place plays such an important role in the story, but this doesn’t compromise the depth or development of the characters, with whom the reader relates and falls in love. Although there is a small plot flaw at the beginning that was inexplicably overlooked by the author, the later depth of the characters and how much the reader becomes engrossed with them helps him/her overlook it.
Irth al-Hekaya (The Legacy of Storytelling) by Nesma Goweily
This is the only non-fiction entry on the list, because it has some of the best Arabic and travel writing to be found. Following the author’s yearlong trip across Egypt, the book gives us a look into places we’ve never been and places we’re dying to go. From local customs and dress, to classic Egyptian warmth and hospitality, the author details it all in a series of letters. She is eloquent, graceful and insightful as she recounts her travels, giving us a sense of Egypt’s soul rather than geographical locations and raising some deep and worthy questions in the process.