“If You Only Ever Read Five Arabic Books, Read These”
The “Five Before You Die” was a feature we ran back in the summer 2010; by now, there are now many more great Arabic books available in translation, but this remains a strong list from translators, authors, critics, and publishers.
Although he might not put it on his resume, Mustafa was perhaps the first supporter of this blog. He teaches at Northeastern University, translates, and is the editor and translator of the excellent Contemporary Iraqi Fiction: An Anthology. His picks:
- Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North
- Naguib Mahfouz, Miramar
- Assia Djebar, Women of Algiers in Their Apartments (written in French, but because women are needed on the list, I’ll allow it)
- Mourid Barghouti, I Saw Ramallah
- Alifa Rifat, Distant View of a Minaret
Saeed is the acclaimed and award-winning author of Saddam City, among many other works. We have since run an interview with him here. He currently lives, writes, and teaches in Chicago. His picks:
1 – One Thousand and One Nights by Mohammed bin Sakkra Alhashemi
2 – Hayy Ben Yadhan by Iben Tufail
3 – Maqamat Al Hamdani by Bad’ie Azzaman Alhamadani
4 – Children of the Alley by Naguib Mahfouz
5 – Life Full of Holes by Driss Chraibi
Antoon was shortlisted for this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his third novel, Hail Mary, currently being translated. His second, Pomegranate Alone, is coming out in translation later this year from Yale University Press. His first was I’jaam, which Katrina Weber lists as one of her picks further down the list. He also has published a collection of poems in English, titled Baghdad Blues, in addition to being a filmmaker and award-winning translator, and is currently an assistant professor at NYU. More on Antoon here. His five:
- Mahmoud Darwish, Fi Hadrat al-Ghiyab ( In the Presence of Absence)
- Abdelrahman Munif, Cities of Salt
- Sonallah Ibrahim, The Committee
- Elias Khoury, The Kingdom of Strangers
- Hanan al-Shaykh, The Story of Zahra
In 2010, Muhanna was a PhD student in Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations at Harvard University, a writer, and the maintainer of Qifa Nabki. He still blogs at Qifa Nabki, but has since become a comp lit professor at Brown University. His five:
- Al-Jahiz, The Book of Misers
- The Mu`allaqaat in the Arberry translation
- Night, Horses, and the Desert (not a single work, but an excellent anthology of classical Arabic literature by Robert Irwin)
- Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddima, in the Rosenthal translation
- The Poems of al-Mutanabbi, also in the Arberry translation
Rakha is a poet, journalist, literary critic, and a member of the Beirut39 cabal. He writes about Arabic literature and other things at http://yrakha.wordpress.com/. His first two novels, Sultan’s Seal and Crocodiles, are forthcoming from Interlink and Seven Stories Press.
Rakha’s five books:
- The Travels of Ibn Battutah
- The Ring of the Dove by Ibn Hazm
- The Polymath by Bensalem Himmich
- Season of Migration to the North by Tayib Saleh
- The Collected (or Selected) Poems of Sargon Boulus
Gana teaches in the department of comparative literature at UCLA; he also writes about Arabic literature, cinema, and culture. Gana’s five (plus one not yet available in English):
- Salih, Season of Migration to the North
- Choukri, For Bread Alone
- Kanafani, Men in the Sun
- Mahmoud Massadi, The Dam (Al-Sudd)
- Mahfouz, The Beggar
- Barghouti, I Saw Ramallah
Lalami is the award-winning author of Secret Son.
- Men in the Sun (Ghassan Kanafani)
- For Bread Alone (Mohammed Choukri)
- Year of the Elephant (Leila Abouzeid)
- Season of Migration to the North (Tayeb Salih)
- Memory in the Flesh (Ahlam Mosteghanemi)
Tabet is a literary translator; her translation of Elias Khoury’s White Masks won a citation from the Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation.
- One Thousand and One Nights, translated by Hussain Haddawy
- Taha Hussein’s The Days
- Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North
- Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah
- Emile Habibi’s The Pessoptimist
R. Neil Hewison
Hewison is a writer, translator (City of Love and Ashes by Yusuf Idris, and Wedding Night by Yusuf Abu Rayya), and associate director of editorial programs with AUC Press. Hewison’s five:
- Hoda Barakat, The Tiller of Waters (Lebanon) – an absorbing, enlightening, multi-layered novel set in the empty war-ruins of Beirut, as a man struggling to survive and retain his sanity among packs of feral dogs reconstructs his history and the histories of those close to him through the metaphor of fabric (in which he used to trade), and slowly reveals the secret meanings of linen, cotton, velvet, silk. This is simply one of the best Arabic novels I have read, and it is beautifully translated by Marilyn Booth.
- Mourid Barghouti, I Saw Ramallah (Palestine) — a poetic revelation of what it means to be an exile, and what it means to return. This is one of the most powerful — because it is told so calmly, without rancor — indictments of the great injustice that is Israel. Translated perfectly by Ahdaf Soueif.
- Ibrahim al-Koni, Gold Dust (Libya) — a great desert novel that is simple and universal at the same time. You will feel the heat and the sores and the thirst and the pain. In an elegant translation by Elliott Colla.
- Naguib Mahfouz, Miramar (Egypt) – everybody must have their favorite Mahfouz novel, and this is mine. It is the story of Egypt and its Revolution, brilliantly told by four very different men staying in an old-fashioned pension in Alexandria, as they hover around the country girl who works there.
- Ahmed Alaidy, Being Abbas el Abd (Egypt) — weird, funny, unconventional in form and content, short but effective and memorable.
Davies is the celebrated translator of, among other works, Bahaa Taher’s Sunset Oasis, Alaa El Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building, Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun and Yalo, Ahmed Al-Aidy’s Being Abbas el-Abd. You’ll certainly want to pick up his translation of Ahmad Faris Shidyaq’s Leg over Leg when it comes out later this year. Davies’ choices:
- Elias Khoury, Bab al-Shams/Gate of the Sun: best book written about Palestinian dispossession; very long and non-linear; sometimes infuriating but ultimately thrilling—as one critic pointed out, you really have to read it twice.
- Elias Khoury, Yalo: a young man accused to serial rape and theft is being interrogated in a Lebanese police station; in the process his understanding of the world changes utterly; amazingly, even some deadpan humor.
- Muhammad Mustagab, Dayrut al-sharif + Min al-Tarikh al-Sirri li-N‛man ‛Abd al-Hafiz/Tales from Dayrut; Upper Egyptian gothic, always over the top.
- Yusuf al-Shirbini. Hazz al-Quhuf bi-Sharh Qasid Abi Shaduf/Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abu Shaduf Expounded; viciously non-PC attack on the ‘people of the countryside’ and everything they stand for by way of ignorance, unwashedness, overly long pubic hair, etc. with digressions into farting, love, cooking, and anything else rattling around in the mind of this seventeenth-century Egyptian intellectual.
- Muhammad Afifi, Taranim fi Zill Tamara/Little Songs in the Shade of Tamaara ; dreamy contemplations of the creatures inhabiting his garden (the dog, a frog, his wife, etc.) by an old man sitting under a tree; cult classic in the making.
- Ibn Khaldun, al-Muqaddima/The Introduction; what really makes the world turn, by an eleventh-century genius.
Aboul-Ela is associate professor of English at the University of Houston; he teaches courses in postcolonial literature literary theory, Arab studies, and world lit. He also translates, most notably Sonallah Ibrahim’s Stealth, Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid’s Distant Train, and Soleiman Fayyad’s Voices. He is co-editor with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak of “Theory Around the World”, a new publication series translating critical theory from outside Europe and North America. Aboul-Ela says he bases his list partially on the quality of the translation into English, with the exception of Voices, which he insists “rises above its translator’s limitations.” His five:
- Ghassan Kanafani, Men in the Sun
- Tayyeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North
- Soleiman Fayyad, Voices
- Abdel Rahman Munif, Cities of Salt
- Sonallah Ibrahim, Zaat
Bamia is a professor emiritus of Arabic Language and Literature, University of Florida. She has translated Sahar Khalifeh’s The Inheritance and Ali Bader’s Papa Sartre, among other works.
- Emile Habibi’ s Said the Pessoptimist
- Etel Adnan’s Sitt Marie Rose (Editor’s note: Originally written in French?)
- Abd al-Rahman Mounif, Cities of Salt
- Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love (Editor’s note: This was written in English, but after hearing Soueif’s explanation of how she imagines the dialogue in Arabic and “translates” it into English, I can see a reason to allow it. Also, we’re a little light on women.)
- Sahar Khalifeh’s The Image, the Icon and the Covenant
Weber is a lover of Arabic literature and was the moderator of the Read Kutub literature group and blog, which is part of The Third Line non-profit programming in Dubai. Weber also has a very interesting method of counting to five:
- Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North
- Elias Khoury, Gate of the Sun
- Mahmoud Darwish, anything and everything…is this cheating?
- Sinan Antoon, I’jaam
- Sonallah Ibrahim, Zaat
- Ghassan Kanafani, Men in the Sun and Other Palestinian Stories or Palestine’s Children: Returning to Haifa & Other Stories or All That’s Left of You
- Abdul Rahman Munif, Cities of Salt and Endings
- Hoda Barakat, Tiller of the Waters
- Naguib Mahfouz, Cairo Trilogy
- Emile Habiby, The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist
Colla is an award-winning translator (mentioned above by R. Neil Hewison) and writer; he was a runner-up for the Saif Ghobash Translation Prize for Ibrahim al-Koni’s Gold Dust. He chose:
- Husain Haddawy’s translation The Arabian Nights (based on the Muhsin Mahdi edition of the Arabic).
- Season of Migration to the North, Denys Johnson-Davies’ translation of Tayeb Salih’s Mawsim al-Hijra ila al-Shamal.
- Zayni Barakat, Farouq Mustafa’s translation of Gamal al-Ghitani’s novel of the same name.
- W. J. Prendergast’s translation of Badi‘ al-Zaman al-Hamadhani’s Maqamat.
- Cities of Salt, Peter Theroux’s translation of the first of Abderrahman Munif’s quintet
- And a bonus that needs to be included: Michael Sells’ translation of the early Meccan Suras in Approaching the Qur’an.
Lindsay is a journalist and literary critic and co-maintains the popular blog The Arabist. Her five:
- Memory for Forgetfulness, Mahmoud Darwish
- Season of Migration to the North, Tayyeb Saleh
- The Trilogy or Children of the Alley by Mahfouz (I’m cheating but they should both be on the list.)
- نزيف الحجر, Ibrahim El Kouny (Editor’s note: Bleeding of the Stone, in very strong translation from May Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley).
- Youssef Idris stories in Arabic