Category Archives: Arab

The Servant by Fatima Sharafeddine, translated by Fatima Sharafeddine

ServantAt 15, Faten is uprooted from her village life to become a live-in servant to a wealthy family in Beirut, where violence from the ongoing Lebanese Civil War seems neverending. Her father’s decision to pull her out of school, to indenture her away from all that is familiar, is final; even Faten’s mother cannot undo his harsh verdict. For two years, Faten glimpses only her father once a month when he comes to Beirut to pick up her tiny salary. Her only city friend is an immigrant from Sierra Leone who also works as a servant in the same building, whom she is allowed to visit for a few hours on Sundays.

In spite of missing two years of high school, Faten decides  she must figure out a way to achieve her dream of becoming a nurse. She realizes that education is her only chance to escape a lifetime of servitude. The young man who lives in the next building, who she sees everyday from the balcony, might just be the outside help she needs. With the passing of a single note, she allows herself to hope for a different future.

Lebanese-born, peripatetically-domiciled picture book author Fatima Sharafeddine, twice nominated for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (regarded as the international children’s book prize with a 5 million Swedish krona/$770,000 payout!), writes her first-ever title for young adults; she also translates her own work from Arabic to English.

While her focus in Servant is on Faten whose socioeconomic status clearly puts her at a disadvantage, Sharafeddine also draws compelling attention to the plight of girls and young women overall, regardless of a family’s net worth. In spite of her fancy school, designer clothes, and many friends, May, the older daughter in Faten’s employer’s family, lives in a gilded cage, on regular display for the perfect suitor who will ensure her future as a wife and mother before she has even finished her teenage years. In this girls’ world, privilege and poverty are not as contradictory as they might seem …

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2010, 2013 (Canada, United States)

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Translation, Arab, Lebanese

Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar

Anatomy of a DisappearanceHisham Matar’s second novel (following his much-lauded, substantially-awarded debut, In the Country of Men) reads like a fast-moving dream, events jarringly, jaggedly forced together, and yet somehow managing to maintain a clear, thoughtful narrative. Narrator Steve West’s methodically-paced, calmly-controlled voice imbues Matar’s haunting story with dignity and gravitas.

Disappearance, absence, displacement loom large throughout Nuri’s life. Even as a young boy, what Nuri knows of his Cairo home is already a compromised existence-in-exile as a result of his father’s political past. When his mother dies, his father remarries a vibrant young woman named Mona whom the 12-year-old Nuri claims as his own upon first sight. Sent away to an exclusive English boarding school, Nuri is separated from all that is familiar, including the devoted servant girl who helped raise him.

And then his father disappears, in 1972 when Nuri is just 14. That loss becomes the single defining event of Nuri’s life; in the desperate, unending search to discover what happened, both Nuri and Mona learn as many truths about themselves, and each other, as about the distant, enigmatic man who once held them tenuously together.

The missing parent looms large in both of Matar’s titles, telling proof that he writes what he knows: Matar lost his own father, a Libyan dissident, to a politically motivated kidnapping in 1990; decades later, the elder Matar remains missing.

In a January 2010 article for the UK’s Guardian, Matar wrote about learning that his father was seen “‘[f]rail, but well’” in 2002 in a secret prison, although the news took eight years to reach the surviving family: ” … weeks from finishing that novel [Anatomy], I learn that my father, who disappeared 20 years ago, might be alive … Uncanny how reality presses against that precious quiet place of dreaming. As if life is jealous of fiction.” Fictional as Anatomy claims to be, echoing his literary stand-in Nuri, Matar holds on to his father’s coat waiting for his someday-return. “Maybe it still fits him,” he muses.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2011

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Arab, British, Egyptian, European, Middle Eastern

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

Remember that gorgeous film, Red Violinwhich tells the story (backwards) of the creation and fantastical 300-plus-year-history of the eponymous instrument? People of the Book uses a similar structure to reveal the story of a 500-year-old illuminated manuscript known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. That haggadah is very real; the novel, however, as Geraldine Brooks explains in her “Afterword,” “… is a work of fiction … While some of the facts are true to the haggadah’s known history, most of the plot and all of the characters are imaginary.”

What Brooks does with her Book is exactly what her contemporary protagonist, a Harvard PhD-ed Australian rare books expert, wishes for: “I wanted to give a sense of the people of the book, the different hands that made it, used, protected it. I wanted it to be a gripping narrative, even suspenseful.” Lucky readers are we to get the full story …

In 1996, young Dr. Hanna Heath – rather a bit angry at the world, seemingly alone by choice – agrees to travel to war-torn Sarajevo, still smoldering from the tragic destruction of civil war. She’s agreed to conserve a 15th-century Hebrew manuscript found in a safe-deposit box of the shell-shocked city’s central bank. In between her work with the Sarajevo Haggadah, Hanna’s own story takes shape … her unavailable famous mother, her never-known missing father, her far-flung relationships, her growing attachment to a man she barely knows.

From fragments Hanna discovers in the holy book – an insect’s wing, the imprint of missing clasps, a wine stain, salt crystals, and a single white hair – she begins to reconstruct what might be the book’s peripatetic history of survival through a half-millenium of war and suffering. In the midst of centuries bloodied with violence – tragically, ironically, all in the various names for god – the people who created, protected, and preserved the book are of all faiths and span multiple countries and cultures. The book is a reminder of the strength of human faith over the age-old destruction wrought (again and again) in the name of religion; it becomes the proof of “the survival of our multiethnic ideal.”

Before I close, allow me this rant: Narrator Edwina Wren is a grating reminder of why not to affect various accents. While she does just fine as the Australian protagonist (Wren herself is Australian), she’s eyeball-rolling annoying with the Hogan’s Hero-esque German, the ridiculously affected lisp of one brother’s Spanish (“thorry” for “sorry” – which is just plain wrong because the z and c (after e or i) get the ‘th’ (ceceo)-inflection in some Spanish dialects, but not s!!) while the other brother doesn’t get the marbles-in-mouth treatment, the tedious Godfather-inspired Italian, etc. etc.

Okay, so you get the general message about this Book: read on the page, period.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2008

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Arab, Australian, European, Jewish

Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea, translated by Rajaa Alsanea and Marilyn Booth

Sometimes the best thing that can happen to a book is to get banned. REALLY. Just ask Rajaa al-Sanea (yes, the spelling of her name is different on the cover of her book from what she has on her personal website – which has two variations of ‘Al-Sanea,’ and ‘al-Sanea,’ so I’m just picking the latter here).

[Update on July 11, 2013: al-Sanea's personal website, http://www.rajaa.net, seems to have taken down or is being blocked. No further information found.]

Her novel was first published in Lebanon in Arabic in 2005, and was quickly banned by the government of her native Saudi Arabia, making it a near-instant underground bestseller. It appeared in English translation in 2007, and was longlisted for the prestigious International IMPAC Dublin Liteary Award in 2009. Death threats aside (!), al-Sanea has had quite an auspicious literary debut!

The titular Girls are four wealthy, privileged young women living in Riyadh, all searching for true love with someday (soon) dreams of a happy marriage. Their lives are revealed by an anonymous fifth friend in a series of weekly emails she posts via a Yahoo group; her following grows exponentially as she reveals the intimate lives of Qamrah whose arranged marriage to Rashid proves disastrous, Sadeem who twice chooses the wrong men, Mashael who is betrayed by a man who cannot go against his family, and Lamees the only one who finds true love.

While the 19th-century genteel man-hunting world of Jane Austen immediately comes to mind, the shock factor here is that what happens in Girls is happening now, two centuries later. Even in a major city such as Riyadh, women remain closeted and controlled. In spite of modern conveniences like the cell phone and computers, communication is anything but open. Regardless of vast wealth that allows for first-class airline tickets and posh educations abroad, the lives of these girls remain tightly circumscribed by constrictive societal expectations.

That the anonymous friend reveals everyday, albeit private, details about her friends is akin to blasphemy in the suppressed Saudi society in which these girls live; even for those who choose to leave such confinement, choose inevitably to return. For the Western reader used to … say … Sex in the City, or even the current Fifty Shades of Grey craze, the experiences of Girls of Riyadh will seem virtually harmless. But to read Riyadh as an outsider is to glimpse how these women on the other side of the world live … and endure. The realization is quite a sobering bottom line: more often than not, even wealth and privilege cannot buy freedom.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2007 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Arab

Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City by Guy Delisle, translated by Helge Dascher

Guy Delisle is a graphic genius who draws what he sees – simply and unadornedly – with droll, minimal commentary, and creates some of the most poignant, effective, resonating memoirs ever. French Canadian Delisle has undoubtedly found international fame as a traveling artist: he recreated his temporary assignments to faraway animation studios in Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China: A Journey and Pyongyang: A Journey In North Korea; he’s turned his family’s foreign postings (a result of his partner/girlfriend/wife/mother of his children – her moniker varies, sometimes by the panel! – employment with Médecins San Frontières/Doctors Without Borders) into The Burma Chronicles and now this, his latest, Jerusalem.

From August 2008 to July 2009, Delisle, his partner Nadège, their two young children Louis and Alice, call East Jerusalem ‘home.’ Two days after arrival, an MSF employee stops by and provides an initial glimpse of the complicated, labyrinthine geography – literal, historical, cultural, religious – into which the family has landed: “This is the ‘east’ part of Jerusalem. It’s an Arab village that was annexed following the six-day war in ’67. … According to the Israeli government, we’re definitely in Israel, but for the international community, which doesn’t recognize the 1967 borders, we’re in the West Bank, which should become Palestine (if that day ever comes). … For the international community, [the capital of Israel is] Tel Aviv. That’s where the embassies are. But for Israel, it’s Jerusalem. The Parliament, or ‘Knesset,’ is here, not in Tel Aviv.” Delisle’s outward reaction is “Hmm … ok.” Silently, he admits, “I didn’t really get it, but I tell myself I’ve got a whole year to figure it out …” And thus begins a year of living surreally…

While Nadège works, Delisle takes care of the children, and works when he can, which includes explorations between shifting borders. His gleeful sense of discovery is contagious; his observations are priceless.

His first outing without the family is an invitation to accompany an Israeli women’s group to the separation wall (“I didn’t think it would be so high”) where he dons one of the organization’s vests for safety (“At Machsom Watch, we’re against the systematic oppression of the Palestinian people. We’re calling for their freedom of movement in their own land and an end to the occupation, which is destroying Palestinian society and damaging our own”), where he buys pickles (“Let’s try the local delicacies”) amidst journalists, kevlar-helmeted photographers, soldiers taking posed pictures of each other (“You’d think it’s the Eiffel Tower or the Great Pyramids”), before taking cover from tear gas grenades, machine guns … and stones (“F**k me!”).

Suffice it to say that no one, no one, can capture that ‘you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up’-sense of reality like Delisle. Jerusalem is surely his best work thus far; it’s also thankfully his longest. To reveal anything more feels selfish … to share the contagion seems to be the nobler option. To quote Delisle at book’s end: “And that’s it, a year of good and faithful service.” Spread the word.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2012 (United States)

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, .Translation, Arab, Canadian, Israeli, Palestinian

Zahra’s Paradise by Amir & Khalid

“The authors have chosen anonymity for obvious political reasons.” When you know something like that about a book – that lives were willing to be risked to get a story out – how could you possibly not read it? In the case of Zahra’s Paradise, I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Written by Persian activist/journalist/documentary maker Amir and illustrated by Arab artist Khalil making his graphic novel debut, Zahra’s Paradise began as an online serial webcomic. In the name of worldwide access, the series was released simultaneously in English, Farsi, Arabic, French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Korean, Hebrew, Portuguese, German, Swedish, and Finnish. The story – set in the aftermath of Iran’s contested June 2009 presidential elections that declared incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad victor – was considered that important. Now with Iran back in near-daily headlines, the urgency to read Zahra’s Paradise grows ever stronger.

The book opens with a gruesome prologue that will be alluded to again and again throughout the coming pages: a brutal father forces his young son to witness the monstrous destruction of a litter of newborn puppies. In the prologue’s ending panels, the butchered, bagged remains sink down in a watery burial: “Now you too are in the stream touched by all that’s still and waiting. A lost generation buried inside the eye of this blog. Zahra’s Paradise.”

“[T]his blog” is the work of a young man named Hassan desperately searching for his younger brother, Mehdi Alavi, who disappeared from Freedom Square (the irony!) while protesting the outcome of the Iran’s elections. From June 16 to August 19, 2009, Hassan records his family’s desperate search via the technological tools remarkably still available to him – his phone camera, his computer, the internet – first for Mehdi himself, and then, as time passes, any news of Mehdi at all. Hassan and his mother beg, demand, even call in dangerous favors to work through a labyrinthine system of hospitals, prisons, government offices, the morgue, and even the cemetery just outside Iran’s capital city of Tehran known as Zahra’s Paradise, named after the prophet Mohammad’s daughter. What Hassan is able to unveil is worse than any nightmare …

That the resulting panes make for an unforgettable story might be enough, but that so much of this graphic fiction is indeed fact is a sobering, outrageous slap of reality. The creators use a “composite of real people and events,” supported by an appendix-like 40+ pages at volume’s end they label “Glossary” that serves as historical record. Most haunting are those final 13 pages of names – real, true, once-living brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents – that make up the “citizens of a silent city named Omid (‘hope’ in Persian).” Printed in near-blinding tiny type, these names are an ultimate reminder to “[l]et them challenge our conscience so that in the future we will prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again.”

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2011

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, Arab, Iranian, Iranian American, Persian

Gazelle Tracks by Miral Al-Tahawy, translated by Anthony Calderbank

The slim, startling volume begins with an aged, family photograph which essentially contains the contents of the pages that follow … that is, the single picture holds the thousands of words that circumscribe Muhra’s story, past and present.

Muhra, a young woman of Bedouin descent, is one of the last of a sprawling family who for centuries once controlled vast holdings throughout the Egyptian Delta, including slaves whose descendants are still referred to by older family as “the slave of Clan Minazi,” regardless of the generations-ago abolition of human ownership. With political and cultural shifts, the Minazi family that once enjoyed the company of the powerful and royal, has dwindled to but a few members, some scattered, some lost.

With the remaining photographs that tenaciously hang on the walls of her grandfather’s ancestral home, and later her mother’s, Muhra tracks her own history through the voiceless faces of her ancestors. She shares the tragedy of her enigmatic mother, who is perhaps not the woman who gave birth to her, and to her estranged father whose memories of glory and influence as a world-class expert on birds of prey become both myth and tragedy.

To read Gazelle Tracks is a lyrical experience of discovery on at least two levels: its sparseness belies an important historical glimpse into a little-known (especially in the West) once-powerful Arab society, as well as a delicate unraveling of a family saga preserved in printed photographs but mutely trapped in dying memories.

Miral Al-Tahawy’s latest title, Brooklyn Heights (scheduled for publication in English translation in January 2012), recently won the prestigious 2010 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, and is currently shortlisted for the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, also known as the Arab Booker and considered the most important literary prize in the Arab world. Without a doubt, Al-Tahawy is a major Arab voice to play close attention to, and surely one we will be lucky to (need to) continue to hear from in the West.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2008 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Translation, Arab, Egyptian

Maryam’s Maze by Mansoura Ez Eldin, translated by Paul Starkey

Here I go again starting with a book backwards … in the ending “Translator’s Note,” Paul Starkey writes, “Readers of Maryam’s Maze who are already familiar with the author’s short stories will quickly feel themselves at home in this more extended work, which again reveals the author’s preoccupation with the relationship between dreams and reality, and by the influence of the past on the present.” So what that seems to suggest is that to read Mansoura Ez Edin’s earlier stories might better illuminate this, her debut novel. Perhaps that’s where I went wrong … because reading the novel alone was neither familiar nor illuminating.

Two related narratives are intertwined here. Each chapter is preceded by an epigraph-like short paragraph on its own page, presented in a different font. Woven together, these mini-pages reveal an elliptical story about a wealthy, mythic figure named El Tagi who builds a remarkable palace, the construction of which causes the suffering and death of many others.

The chapters comprise Maryam’s story, who wakes up one day after a violent dream of her own murder, only to find herself in a strange bed in a Cairo apartment, seemingly living a life not her own. Desperate for answers, she seeks out her journalist boyfriend in his office, only to find he doesn’t work there – even his bylines have disappeared from the newspaper. She next rushes to the girls’ hostel where she is convinced she went to bed the night before, where she shared a room with another young woman, only to find all traces of their life together completely vanished.

Moving abruptly from Cairo to an unnamed village, the next chapter begins to unravel Maryam’s past as a descendant of El Tagi. Her childhood was spent in that blood-stained palace, overshadowed by extended family, so many of whom had disturbing personalities and self-complicated lives. Told through disjointed flashbacks, Maryam’s enigmatic past is surely maze-like, populated by both the living and dead, although which is which is not always clear.

“What the woman had said meant she had either lost her memory or her reason. How could time have become so horribly confused?” Maryam asks herself, still unable to distinguish between past and present, dream and reality. Indeed, both Maryam and the reader must work equally hard to construct her multi-layered, uncertain story.

The slim volume is not without memorable, beautifully-rendered passages – about gardens redolent with heady fragrances, fickle young love that begins with air kisses and ends in betrayal, the mourning of lost innocence, and so on. But even in spite of Starkey’s supplemental explanatory notes at novel’s end, Maryam’s Maze ultimately remains lost in translation.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2007 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Translation, Arab, Egyptian

The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif

If, like me, you don’t like to know the whole story before you read the book (!!), then skip the family tree in these opening pages. Don’t even glance at it. You can always go back to it after.

Ahdaf Soueif‘s 1999 Booker Prize shortlister (J. M. Coetzee took his second Booker with Disgrace that year) is a cross-cultural, cross-historical, cross-generational saga about two pairs of lovers a century apart. While Map traverses time, the story’s ‘now’ is 1997 Egypt … pre-9/11, pre-Tahrir Square which, read in 2011, adds another compelling layer to its already epic scope.

Soueif makes the intriguing choice to narrate the lovers’ courtships with a fifth, omniscient voice: Amal, recently separated from her British husband, leaves her London life to return to her native Egypt. At the behest of her world-famous, globe-trotting conductor brother ‘Omar, Amal is visited by Isabel, an American journalist from New York. Isabel arrives with a large trunk filled with letters, diaries, artifacts, memories that once belonged to a bold Englishwoman, Lady Anna Winterbourne, who outlived her own riveting love story.

Just before the turn of the 20th century, Lady Anna arrived in Cairo as a grieving widow, a member of the British elite in colonial Egypt. Unwilling to accept the limitations of being female, she donned men’s clothing to expand her explorations. Her independence led to mistaken abduction, which surprisingly led her to the gallant (and powerful) Sharif, the love of her life. The remnants of her Egyptian adventures preserved in that leather trunk will bring together her great-granddaughter Isabel with her beloved ‘Omar.

“[T]his is not my story,” Amal insists, and yet she immediately recognizes both pairs of lovers: “… if I come into [the story] at all, it is only as my own grandmother did a hundred years ago, when she told the story of her brother’s love.”

The core of Soueif’s novel is undoubtedly Anna and Sharif’s defiant relationship, which Soueif infuses with captivating details, judiciously revealed to keep the reader turning the pages. Her attempts, however, to weave in the politics then and now, feel clumsily intrusive. Without minimizing the grave importance of historical context – Anna and Sharif’s love story surely would not have been nearly as memorable without the tumultuous political backdrop – the combination of politics and romance stalls more often than not. That said, “unpacked, unwrapped, unravelled” through Amal’s fifth lens, Anna and Sharif and Isabel and ‘Omar prove to be an enigmatic foursome.

Readers: Adult

Published: 1999

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Arab, Egyptian

Harbor by Lorraine Adams

According to her official website bio, Lorraine Adams left her Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper career in 2000 “to recount the lost stories of Algerians she knew without the strictures of journalism, and the conventional sentiment of the moment.” Even before 9/11, Adams well understood about “ambiguity” and terrorism.

Journalism’s loss proved to be literary gain: Adams’ award-winning 2004 debut novel is stunning, sly, devastating, and not a little condemning of the forces supposedly engaged to keep America safe. Adams’ superb investigative skills clearly come in handy, as she unravels a nuanced story of two brothers from Algeria and their uncertain American lives.

Aziz rises from the waters of Boston Harbor more dead than alive, his body festering from 52 days trapped in the hold of a tanker. Barely human when he reaches land, only the initial kindness of strangers saves him until he can join his childhood friends, fellow illegal aliens sharing a crowded makeshift existence.

Aziz’s younger brother’s American entry bears no resemblance: “Mourad had a green card. He had checked luggage. He had a one-way ticket on Air France. His aisle seat was next to an empty window seat for the entire eight-hour flight. He had slept comfortably with three pillows and two blankets.” In spite of his near-effortless immigration, Aziz instantly knows Mourad “‘does not want to be here.’”

Seemingly quiet and detached, Aziz is a young man of many secrets. Amidst a cast of dubious companions with more bravado than brains, more testosterone than caution, Aziz is a wondrous character who seems to be both sage and desperado. As his story is revealed, layer by layer, you will gasp at the final realization of why he can never rest.

“Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” the Statue of Liberty beckons from another harbor. But this post-9/11 America, as Adams deftly shows, is a complicated maze in which anyone can get lost, anyone can be hunted, and anyone can disappear. Follow Aziz on his dazzling journey and bear witness to his bewildering, elusive search for freedom.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2004

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, African, Arab