5 Arabic Books to Read ‘Before You Die’

Well, perhaps this one was a bit morbid:

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.

Shakir Mustafa

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:

Mahmoud Saeed

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

Sinan Antoon

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:

  1. Mahmoud Darwish, Fi Hadrat al-Ghiyab ( In the Presence of Absence) 
  2. Abdelrahman Munif, Cities of Salt
  3. Sonallah Ibrahim, The Committee
  4. Elias Khoury, The Kingdom of Strangers
  5. Hanan al-Shaykh, The Story of Zahra

Elias Muhanna

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:

  1. Al-Jahiz, The Book of Misers
  2. The Mu`allaqaat in the Arberry translation
  3. Night, Horses, and the Desert (not a single work, but an excellent anthology of classical Arabic literature by Robert Irwin)
  4. Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddima, in the Rosenthal translation
  5. The Poems of al-Mutanabbi, also in the Arberry translation

Youssef Rakha

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:

Nouri Gana

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):

  1. Salih, Season of Migration to the North
  2. Choukri, For Bread Alone
  3. Kanafani, Men in the Sun
  4. Mahmoud Massadi, The Dam (Al-Sudd)
  5. Mahfouz, The Beggar
  6. Barghouti, I Saw Ramallah

Laila Lalami

Lalami is the award-winning author of Secret Son.

Maia Tabet

Tabet is a literary translator; her translation of Elias Khoury’s White Masks won a citation from the Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation.

Tabet’s five:

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.

Humphrey Davies

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:

Hosam Aboul-Ela

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:

  1. Ghassan Kanafani, Men in the Sun
  2. Tayyeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North
  3. Soleiman Fayyad, Voices
  4. Abdel Rahman Munif, Cities of Salt
  5. Sonallah Ibrahim, Zaat

Aida Bamia

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.

Katrina Weber

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:

Elliott Colla

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:
  1. Husain Haddawy’s translation The Arabian Nights (based on the Muhsin Mahdi edition of the Arabic).
  2. Season of Migration to the North, Denys Johnson-Davies’ translation of Tayeb Salih’s Mawsim al-Hijra ila al-Shamal.
  3. Zayni Barakat, Farouq Mustafa’s translation of Gamal al-Ghitani’s novel of the same name.
  4. W. J. Prendergast’s translation of Badi‘ al-Zaman al-Hamadhani’s Maqamat.
  5. Cities of Salt, Peter Theroux’s translation of the first of Abderrahman Munif’s quintet
  6. And a bonus that needs to be included: Michael Sells’ translation of the early Meccan Suras in Approaching the Qur’an.
Ursula Lindsay

Lindsay is a journalist and literary critic and co-maintains the popular blog The Arabist. Her five:
  1. Memory for Forgetfulness, Mahmoud Darwish
  2. Season of Migration to the North, Tayyeb Saleh
  3. The Trilogy or Children of the Alley by Mahfouz (I’m cheating but they should both be on the list.)
  4. نزيف الحجر, Ibrahim El Kouny (Editor’s note: Bleeding of the Stone, in very strong translation from May Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley).
  5. Youssef Idris stories in Arabic


Categories: lists

17 replies

  1. Reblogged this on Al-Must'arib (the vocational Mossarab) and commented:
    THERE ARE SOOOO MANY I HAVEN’T READ…. and I’m sure same applies to you, ppl out there!. At least I’m sure of smthg: If we, westerns had read a bit more of these books, there would be lesser wars. And same can apply to mid easterns. Word by word.

  2. great suggestions will be noting them down ,all the best stu

  3. Seasons of Migration to the North was on so many of the lists and I agree absolutely.

  4. Sorry, “Season”

  5. I loved reading all the names, the ones I know and the ones I didn’t know of. It is inspiring to see such a list.

  6. I remember this post and have referred to it again and again. A great post.

  7. i think the syrian trilogy THE METAMORPHOSIS by khairy alzahaby is a great great book

  8. Reblogged this on Observations of a tired sOul. and commented:
    Plethora of GOOD selections, funny this is written in English though, funny :)

  9. Sad we don’t read Arab literature.

  10. Please tell me from where I can buy HARRY POTTER in Arabic.

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