Upon the death of their leader, a group of Tuareg nomads in the Sahara Desert turns to the heir dictated by tribal custom; however, he is a poet reluctant to don the mantle of leadership. Forced by tribal elders to abandon not only his poetry but his love, who is also a poet, he reluctantly serves as leader. Whether by human design or the meddling of the Spirit World, his death inspires his tribe to settle down permanently, abandoning not only nomadism but also the inherited laws of the tribe. The community they found, New Waw, which they name for the mythical paradise of the Tuareg people, is also the setting of Ibrahim al-Koni’s companion novel, The Puppet. For al-Koni, this Tuareg tale of the tension between nomadism and settled life represents a choice faced by people everywhere, in many walks of life, as a result of globalism. He sees an inevitable interface between myth and contemporary life.
After coming to Vienna from Sudan to win a better life for himself, Hamza struggles to escape from the margins of society and the stigma of the immigrant. Following several years of hardship, his fortunes begin to change when he meets Sandra, a young Austrian woman, who shows him the Palm House. In this famous Viennese greenhouse, the frost of Hamza’s heart begins to thaw, and he slowly opens himself to Sandra, revealing his bitter yet beautiful past in Sudan and beyond. This masterful novel draws on the 1001 Nights as well as Sudanese folk traditions, and demonstrates the remarkable power of storytelling to overcome even the most dire circumstances. Critically acclaimed across the Arab world, this novel can be read on its own, or as a sequel to Eltayeb’s first novel, Cities without Palms (AUC Press, 2009).
The Scarecrow is the final volume of Ibrahim al-Koni’s desert trilogy, which chronicles the founding, flourishing, and decline of a Saharan oasis. Fittingly, this continuation of a tale of greed and corruption opens with a meeting of the conspirators who assassinated the community’s leader at the end of the previous novel, The Puppet. They punished him for opposing the use of gold in business transactions—a symptom of a critical break with their nomadic past—and now they must search for a leader who shares their fetishistic love of gold. A desert retreat inspires the group to select a leader at random, but their choice, it appears, is not entirely human. This interloper from the spirit world proves a self-righteous despot, whose intolerance of humanity presages disaster for an oasis besieged by an international alliance. Though al-Koni has repeatedly stressed that he is not a political author, readers may see parallels not only to a former Libyan ruler but to other tyrants—past and present—who appear as hollow as a scarecrow.
This novel from one of Tunisia’s leading writers, the first of his works to be translated into English, narrates a love story in all its stages, in all its glorious and inglorious details. Moment by moment we become acquainted with the morning rituals, the desires of the flesh, the turbulence of the spirit, and even a few unattractive personal habits. It is a journey that takes us inside the nuances of what passes between two lovers, from the first glances of attraction to the final words of anger. It is a journey filled with all the hallmarks of the complex relationship between one man and one woman ‹the mystery and the ambiguity, the intricacy and the confusion‹ which, in the end, serve to expose its fragility. This is an intimate tale that manages to tell not only the story of two individuals, but also that of the collision of two cultures.
This award-winning historical novel deals with the stormy life of the outstanding Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldun, using historical sources, and particularly material from the writer’s works, to construct the personal and intellectual universe of a fourteenth-century genius. The dominant concern of the novel—the uneasy relationship between intellectuals and political power, between scholars and authority—addresses our times through the transparent veil of history. In the first part of the novel, we are introduced to the mind of Ibn Khaldun as he dictates his work to his scribe and interlocutor. The second part delves into the heart of the man and his retrieval of a measure of happiness and affection in a remarriage, after the drowning of his first wife and their children at sea. Finally we see Ibn Khaldun as a man of action, trying to minimize the imminent horrors of invading armies and averting the sack of Damascus by Tamerlane, only to spend his last years lonely and destitute, having been fired from his post as qadi, his wife having gone to Morocco, and his attempts at saving the political situation having come to nil.
“The elusive simplicity and fluency of style manage to entertain and instruct at once. We learn as we read about Ibn Khaldun: his insights into history and historiography, his views of the rise and fall of civilizations, the principles of his sociological thinking, along with intimate aspects of his life, including his tragic losses and his attitude toward women. We also learn of his response to the major crisis of his time, the Tatar invasion of the Mashriq. In short, Ibn Khaldun, the distant and formidable figure, is humanized—thanks to this novel.”—Naguib Mahfouz Medal Award Committee
Taha Hussein (1889-1973), blind from early childhood, rose from humble beginnings to pursue a distinguished career in Egyptian public life, but he was most influential through his voluminous, varied, and controversial writings. The stories in The Sufferers were first published in the periodical al-Katib al-Masri in 1946, but were banned by the government when collected in book form in 1947. The collection was finally published in Lebanon, and was only published in Egypt after the 1952 Revolution.
Meet Egypt’s top TV preacher Hatem el-Shenawi: a national celebrity revered by housewives and politicians alike for delivering Islam to the masses. Charismatic and quick-witted, he has friends in high places. But when he is entrusted with a secret that threatens to wreak havoc across the country, he is drawn into a web of political intrigue at the very heart of government. Can Hatem’s fame and fortune save him from this unspeakable scandal?
The Tent is a beautifully written, powerful, and disturbing novel, featuring a host of women characters whose lives are subject to the will of a single, often absent, patriarch and his brutal, foul-mouthed mother. Told through the eyes of a young girl, the lives of the Bedouin and peasant women unfold, revealing the tragedy of the sonless mother and the intolerable heaviness of existence. Set against trackless deserts and star-filled night skies, the story tells of the young girl’s relationship with her distant father and a foreign woman who is well-meaning but ultimately motivated by self-interest. It provides an intimate glimpse inside the women’s quarters, and chronicles their pastimes and preoccupations, their stories and their songs.
The Theocrat takes as its subject one of Arab and Islamic history’s most perplexing figures, al-Hakim bi-Amr Illah (“the ruler by order of God”), the Fatimid caliph who ruled Egypt during the tenth century and whose career was a direct reflection of both the tensions within the Islamic dominions as a whole and of the conflicts within his own mind. In this remarkable novel Bensalem Himmich explores these tensions and conflicts and their disastrous consequences on an individual ruler and on his people. Himmich does not spare his readers the full horror and tragedy of al-Hakim’s reign, but in employing a variety of textual styles—including quotations from some of the best known medieval Arab historians; vivid historical narratives; a series of extraordinary decrees issued by the caliph; and, most remarkably, the inspirational utterances of al-Hakim during his ecstatic visions, recorded by his devotees and subsequently a basis for the foundation of the Druze community—he succeeds brilliantly in painting a portrait of a character whose sheer unpredictability throws into relief the qualities of those who find themselves forced to cajole, confront, or oppose him.
Ibn Shalaby, like many Egyptians, is looking for a job. Yet, unlike most of his fellow citizens, he is prone to sudden dislocations in time. Armed with his trusty briefcase and his Islamic-calendar wristwatch, he bounces uncontrollably through Egypt’s rich and varied past, with occasional return visits to the 1990s. Through his wild and whimsical adventures, he meets, befriends, and falls out with sultans, poets, and an assortment of celebrities—from Naguib Mahfouz to the founder of the city of Cairo. Khairy Shalaby’s nimble storytelling brings this witty odyssey to life.
This timely, elegant novel’s hero is an Iraqi secret police inspector who routinely uses enhanced interrogation techniques, which even he considers torture. Convinced that he is protecting society from anarchy, he is at peace with the world until ordered to interrogate a childhood friend, a journalist with possible links to violent subversives. Then he falls in love with his friend’s wife. The plot of this novel, which was written in Iraq in 1976 and published in Arabic in Germany in 1989, is further complicated by street protests in Baghdad following the Six-Day Arab–Israeli War of June 1967. Despite the grim subject matter of this novel, it is at heart a love story, lyrically narrated.
Palestine. For most of us, the word brings to mind a series of confused images and disjointed associations—massacres, refugee camps, UN resolutions, settlements, terrorist attacks, war, occupation, checkered kuffiyehs and suicide bombers, a seemingly endless cycle of death and destruction. This novel does not shy away from such painful images, but it is first and foremost a powerful human story, following the life of a young girl from her days in the village of al-Tantoura in Palestine up to the dawn of the new century. We participate in events as they unfold, seeing them through the uneducated but sharply intelligent mind of Ruqayya, as she tries to make sense of all that has happened to her and her family. With her, we live her love of her land and of her people; we feel the repeated pain of loss, of diaspora, and of cross-generational misunderstanding; and above all, we come to know her indomitable human spirit. As we read we discover that we have become part of Ruqayya’s family, and her voice will remain with us long after we have closed the book.
Mosul, Iraq, in the 1940s is a teeming, multiethnic city where Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Jews, Aramaeans, Turkmens, Yazidis, and Syriacs mingle in the ancient souks and alleyways. In these crowded streets, among rich and poor, educated and illiterate, pious and unbelieving, a boy is growing up. Burdened with chores from an early age, and afflicted with an older brother who persecutes him with mindless sadism, the child finds happiness only in stolen moments with his beloved older sister and with friends in the streets. Closest to his heart are three girls, encountered by chance: a Muslim, a Christian, and a Jew. After enriching the boy’s life immensely, all three meet tragic fates, leaving a wound in his heart that will not heal. A richly textured portrayal of Iraqi society before the upheavals of the late twentieth century, Saeed’s novel depicts a sensitive and loving child assailed by the cruelty of life. Sometimes defeated but never surrendering, he is sustained by his city and its people. This novel was the 2010 winner of the King Fahd Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies Translation of Arabic Literature Award.
An unknown observer is watching the residents of a small, closely-knit neighborhood in Cairo’s old city, making notes. The college graduate, the street vendors, the political prisoner, the café owner, the taxi driver, the beautiful green-eyed young wife with the troll of a husband—all are subjects of surveillance. The watcher’s reports flow seamlessly into a narrative about Zafarani Alley, a village tucked into a corner of the city, where intrigue is the main entertainment, and everyone has a secret. Suspicion, superstition, and a wicked humor prevail in this darkly comedic novel. Drawing upon the experience of his own childhood growing up in al-Hussein, where the fictional Zafarani Alley is located, Gamal al-Ghitani has created a world richly populated with characters and situations that possess authenticity behind their veils of satire.
Spanning the collapse of Ottoman rule and the British Mandate in Palestine, this is the story of three generations of a defiant family from the Palestinian village of Hadiya before 1948. Through the lives of Mahmud, elder of Hadiya, his son Khaled, and Khaled’s grandson Naji, we enter the life of a tribe whose fate is decided by one colonizer after another. Khaled’s remarkable white mare, Hamama, and her descendants feel and share the family’s struggles and as a siege grips Hadiya, it falls to Khaled to save his people from a descending tyranny.
In a small town in the Nile Delta lives Houda the deaf and mute butcher’s apprentice. Revealing the town’s private stories through public sign language, Houda articulates the unspoken and the forbidden, to unsettle the apparent quietude of rural society. But his own unrestrained desire threatens to scandalize the town and rock its codes of public behavior. When it is reported that he has violated the sanctity of his employer’s own house, the whole town, with the butcher and Shaykh Saadoun, the pretending Sufi, in the lead, rises to avenge itself and publicly humiliate and ridicule Houda. The elaborate ruse planned by the butcher and the shaykh, playing on Houda’ s hopes, dreams, and fantasies, is foolproof—but while Houda may be a dreamer, he is certainly no fool. This original, satiric novel, introducing the reader to every public and private corner in the life of a small town, is both a daring critique of contemporary Egyptian reality and a thoroughly good read, a remarkable novel of sustained carnivalesque suspense and wicked black humor that marks the arrival of a true literary talent.
When a fourth corpse in three days washes up in Tangier with a bullet in the chest, Detective Laafrit knows this isn’t just another illegal immigrant who didn’t make it to the Spanish coast. The traffickers. The drug dealers. The smugglers. They know what it takes to get a gun into Morocco, and so does Laafrit. As his team hunts for the gun, Laafrit follows a hunch and reveals an international conspiracy to unlock the case. Whitefly is a fast-paced crime thriller from the Arab west.
In a Riyadh bus station, Turad, a bitter older man, resolves to leave the city he has come to loathe. Born into a Bedouin family, Turad left his desert home as a young man to work in the city—as a tea-boy, car-washer, security guard, and office messenger—after a traumatic event that cost him his left ear. By chance, he happens upon a green folder left behind by another traveler, containing official reports about an abandoned baby born outside wedlock and found in a cardboard box, and documents about his subsequent years in an orphanage and a foster home. As Turad imagines the life of this abandoned child, his memories stray into the secrets of his own past, and that of his friend Amm Tawfiq, an old Sudanese man brought to Saudi Arabia as a child, castrated, and sold into servitude. In this elegantly constructed narrative, Yousef Al-Mohaimeed reveals the surprising connections in the life stories of three damaged people—the Bedouin, the orphan, and the eunuch—to tell a haunting tale of modern Saudi society. Confounding stereotypical images of life in Saudi Arabia, Wolves of the Crescent Moon is a moving, troubling, and ultimately redemptive story of pain remembered and hope restored.
Back in the dog days of the early twenty-first century a pair of lovebirds fleeing a murder charge in Cairo pull in to Alexandria’s main train station. Fugitives, friendless, their young lives blighted at the root, Ali and Injy set about rebuilding, and from the coastal city’s arid soil forge a legend, a kingdom of crime, a revolution: Karantina. Through three generations of Grand Guignol insanity, Nael Eltoukhy’s sly psychopomp of a narrator is our guide not only to the teeming cast of pimps, dealers, psychotics, and half-wits and the increasingly baroque chronicles of their exploits, but also to the moral of his tale. Defiant, revolutionary, and patriotic, are the rapists and thieves of Alexandria’s crime families deluded maniacs or is their myth of Karantina—their Alexandria reimagined as the once and future capital—what they believe it to be: the revolutionary dream made brick and mortar, flesh and bone? Subversive and hilarious, deft and scalpel-sharp, Eltoukhy’s sprawling epic is a masterpiece of modern Egyptian literature. Mahfouz shaken by the tail, a lunatic dream, a future history that is the sanest thing yet written on Egypt’s current woes.
Then, she looked at me assiduously, “What is it that you do exactly?” I replied, savoring my last sip of coffee, with all the sass of a gypsy, “A novelist.” How to write a novel? Where to find inspiration? What is it that novels do for us? What is the nature of love? And most importantly, how and where to find it? Embarking on a literary and romantic journey, an aspiring novelist guides the reader through the streets of Damascus to bookstores, libraries, historical landmarks, cafés, and neighborhoods that carry the traces of history and the possibilities of the future. Mining the rich and divergent histories, narratives, texts, memories, and people that occupy the narrator’s mind and everyday life, Writing Love casts a critical eye on contemporary society and offers a playful testament to the tangential nature of writing and the many ways to fall in love. Writing Love was awarded the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature.