The best books by Arab authors in 2021
From Alaa Abdel Fattah’s highly anticipated book written from his prison cell, to Hala Alyan’s and Layla AlAmmar’s critically acclaimed new novels and Mohammed El-Kurd’s lauded poetry collection, not to mention a new release by award-winning author Rabih Alameddine – 2021 was certainly a fantastic year for Arab writers.
It may have been yet another unforgiving year for several reasons, but one silver lining to come out it was how readers were once again spoilt. From compelling fiction, insightful memoirs, and stellar works of poetry, here’s The New Arab’s latest roundup of books – published in English first – by Arab authors in 2021.
Bride of the Sea is a striking debut that explores the multi-generational story of an immigrant Saudi family in the US and the events that trigger ripple effects. Spanning 48 years between multiple US states and Jeddah, and against politically charged backdrops such as 9/11 and feminist protests in Riyadh, Eman Quotah weaves a complex, nuanced story in a delicate and captivating light.
Weaving in love, war and generational trauma, Hala Alyan's The Arsonists' City is a complex, rich novel about an Arab-American family returning home. The plot revolves around Mazna and Idris – a Syrian and Lebanese couple with three adult children who take a life-changing summer holiday to Beirut because Idris wants to sell his childhood home. But in a city dealing with a fresh wave of refugees and unaddressed scars of a civil war, family secrets begin to unravel.
In Layla AlAmmar's latest novel Silence Is a Sense, the unnamed protagonist's unwavering attention on the British housing estate where she lives forms part of an avoidance to look inward. This is a compelling story about a Syrian asylum seeker coming to terms with leaving her loved ones behind in the midst of the civil war, while also coming to terms with her new home. Not only does AlAmmar tell the protagonists’ story with utmost sensitivity and nuance, it’s also a stunning, evocative read.
The story of The Wrong End of the Telescope evolves around an Arab-American trans woman's trip to Lesbos to provide medical support to Syrian refugees at the Moira camp. While on the surface the novel may be about pressing humanitarian issues of refugees, war, and trans people, Rabih Alameddine’s stunning prose transforms it into a compelling story of loss and triumph, identity and culture, and the resilience and beauty of human nature.
Yara Hawari’s debut novella The Stone House is a vivid, haunting tale of intergenerational trauma and survival under Israeli occupation while also detailing a rigorous history of Palestine. Told from the perspectives of three characters—a grandmother, a mother and a son—combined with Hawari’s distinctive, laconic prose, The Stone House paints a dystopian horror of settler-colonialism and the lengths families go to survive.
Sambac Beneath Unlikely Skies is a collection of flash fiction stories reflecting on the narrator’s childhood in Gaza, and the struggles in navigating a new life in colder, unfamiliar worlds while holding tightly to memories of home. Hayek’s vignettes also explore the methods of survival nurtured by Palestinian women in the face of colonial occupation and patriarchy. A tender, beautiful book.
What Strange Paradise begins with a little boy’s body on a beach, surrounded by the wreckage of a boat and its refugee passengers. But then the unexpected happens: the child wakes up – and he makes a run for it, to the surprise of local authorities on site. Told from the point of view of two children, on the ground and at sea, between a “before” and an “after”, with the boat wreckage being the central moment between the two – El Akkad’s plot and focus is tight, yet powerful.
The Other Half of You details the life of Bani Adam, a young Lebanese-Australian who has just graduated from university — the first in his family to do so. Born into an Alawite family, the central tension is Bani’s secret relationship with a Christian Lebanese woman and the impact this has on his life; namely the birth of his son. In this moving novel, Michael Mohammed Ahmad explores the complexities and nuances of modern love with the demands of family, tradition, and faith.
A novel in verse, Home is Not a Country is about a Sudanese teen named Nima who has moved with her mother to the US after the death of her father amid rising conflict in her country. Unfortunately, Nima finds she is excluded and bullied at school, and she wishes her late father could emerge to make it all better. A gorgeously book about home, family, language, music, nostalgia, what it means to belong, and a painfully beautiful mother-daughter relationship.
Marking the latest instalment in the Reading the City anthology series from Comma Press, The Book of Ramallah is a collection of short stories set in the Palestinian city of the same name, written by Palestinian authors. Together, they paint a picture of life and survival under occupation, complete with the sarcasm, anger, questioning of identity, and pursuit of romance and human connection that come with it.
Memoirs and Social Commentary
Love is an Ex-Country is a travelogue memoir presented in a creative, non-linear way, and interspersed with anecdotes and essays that delve into sexuality and body image, religion and culture, childhood and family, and forgiveness and reconciliation. Honest and unflinching, Randa Jarrar highlights the power and love we can derive from fighting for ourselves and living unapologetically - even if it takes a journey of complex, nuanced experiences to reach that stage.
Alaa Abdel Fattah is arguably the most high-profile political prisoner in Egypt. Collected here for the first time in English are a selection of his social media posts, interviews, essays and reflections scrawled in pencil and smuggled out of prison, translated and edited by an anonymous collective of supporters. Written in the context of Egypt’s upheaval since 2011, You Have Not Yet Been Defeated presents a unique account of ideas, and the importance of ideas – whatever their cost.
We Wrote in Symbols is a collection of works by Arab women on love, lust, and erotica. A collaborative project between publisher Saqi and Palestinian-British author Selma Dabbagh, the book offers readers a rich and diverse selection of poetry and prose written by 75 Arab women, dating from the classical period to the modern day. Featuring chapters by Hanan al Shaykh, Leila Slimani, Adania Shibli, Sabrina Mahfouz, Randa Jarrar, Naomi Shihab Nye, Ahdaf Soueif, and more.
Amani Haydar suffered the unimaginable when she lost her mother in a brutal act of domestic violence perpetrated by her father. Five months pregnant at the time, her own perception of how she wanted to mother (and how she had been mothered) was shaped by this devastating murder. In The Mother Wound, the lawyer, artist and women’s advocate not only comes to grips with the family trauma, but draws on the healing experience to turn it into a masterclass in grace and hope.
291 Days is a collection of writings that chronicles the at sometimes intense, often politically charged and at times heart-breaking events in Lebanon between the October 17, 2019 Revolution and the August 4, 2020 Beirut Blast, and the immediate aftermath that followed. What makes 291 Days unique is that it comprises of micro-stories, short anecdotes, and rallying calls, most of which were originally posted on Raja Farah’s popular @OhMyHappiness account on Instagram.
Mansoor Adayfi's memoir as Guantanamo detainee #441 is an invaluable resource for exposing the joint impunity of the US and its nefarious associates in the War on Terror. In an awe-inspiring display of resolve, Don’t Forget Us Here also chronicles how one Guantanamo detainee was able to keep his faith while incarcerated in the most torturous of conditions.
Are You This? Or Are you This? sees Madian Al Jazerah tell his story of growing up gay and in exile in Jordan – away from his birthplace of Kuwait, and away from his ancestral home in Palestine. When he first came out, his mother had one question: 'are you this?' she asked, cupping her hand, ‘or are you this?' she motioned with a poking finger. For Madian, that moment represented a microcosm of society’s efforts to fit identity into boxes and raised questions of patriarchy and power.
From Jerusalem to a Kingdom by the Sea is a riveting read from a scion of a major Palestinian family, who was born in Libya in the 1950s and grew up in an and around the Royal Court as a Libyan. Adel Dajan’s account of life in Libya, England and Tunisia is bookended by the tragic experiences of the Dajani family in Palestine – one of the country’s chief notable families dating back to the 7th century.
A hilarious, heart-warming memoir of growing up and becoming yourself in an Egyptian Muslim family in the Australian state of Queensland. Sara El Sayed writes with honesty as she reveals the hardships she encountered as a migrant. Beyond that, Muddy People also explores significant truths about a country of settlers who colonised and occupied an already settled land, and how many of their descendants today struggle with the implications of accepting other immigrants.
It’s impossible to do a list like this and not mention Mohammed El-Kurd's lauded debut poetry collection, Rifqa. Paying homage to his people's lives and struggles, while commemorating the life of the book’s inspirational namesake, Rifqa is both a political work that elegantly educates readers on the Palestinian fight for freedom while dismantling the common Western fetishisation of struggle. A stellar collection of writing from the 23-year-old who, alongside twin sister Muna, rose to global prominence this year from the front lines of Sheikh Jarrah, Jerusalem.
It's no secret that the art and love of poetry is so ingrained in Arab cultures, with a swathe of other titles joining Rifqa to build on this great tradition this year. Notable ones include Bint by Ghinwa Jawhari, Fetch Your Mother's Heart by lisa luxx, Dancing on the Tarmac by Tariq Dobbs, who is owed springtime by Rasha Abdulhadi, The Good Arabs by Eli Tareq El Bechelany-Lynch, Villainy by Andrea Abi-Karam, and Field of No Justice by Sara Elkamel.
As with previous instalments of this list, there are plenty of other titles that could've been added – especially books that fall under the politics/social commentary. Some notable titles in this sub-genre that were released this year include The Handshake: A Gripping History by prominent British-Arab paleoanthropologist and comedian Ella Al-Shamahi, and The Middle East Crisis Factory, co-authored by Iyad El-Baghdadi and Ahmed Gatnash.
There’s also Coming of Age in the War on Terror by award-winning author Randa Abdel-Fattah, who this year went viral on social media over her “your son's dog was scared? There were children who were massacred and slaughtered” remark during an episode on Gaza for Australia’s Q&A.
If it’s children’s books you’re after, then consider the Farah Rocks Florida, the latest in Susan Muaddi Darraj’s pioneering Farah Rocks chapbook series. For teenagers, then Listen, Layla, Yassmin Abdel-Magied's follow-up to You Must Be Layla, should be your next read. Young readers who love fantasy are also spoilt with two great titles written by Arab authors this year: We Free the Stars by Hafsah Faizal, and Sparrow Rising by Jessica Khoury.
While this article focuses on titles published in English first, it’s still worth mentioning a few titles by Arab authors that were translated into English this year.
Highlights include The Last One by Fatima Daas (trans. Lara Vergnaud), Planet of Clay by Samar Yazbeck (trans. Leri Price), Slipping by Mohamed Kheir (trans. Robin Moger), Djinn by Tofik Dibi (trans. Nicolaas P Barr), The Ardent Swarm by Yamen Menai (trans. Lara Vergnaud), My First and Only Love by Sahar Khalifeh (trans. Aida Bamia), and the award-winning Voices of the Lost by Hoda Barakat (trans. Marilyn Booth).
Elias Jahshan is The New Arab's social media editor. Follow him on Twitter: @Elias_Jahshan