A way I have discovered to learn about the Middle East that exists beyond the headlines and the news coverage on CNN is to read books by its novelists and short story writers, which I've been doing ever since I read Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. This book tells of teaching American and British fiction to Iranian students during the first years of the Islamic Republic. Nafisi argues that reading novels helps you understand and appreciate the experience of individuals within other cultures and subcultures. That is the argument of this list: that people in other countries come to life for us as living, breathing human beings when we read fictional narratives set in those countries - they stop being the stereotypes of news coverage, politicians, and media commentators.
First off, fiction is more of a Western invention than a product of the Middle East, which has a centuries-long tradition of poets and poetry instead. When Middle Eastern writers write fiction, they are often writing at least in part for a Western audience. Some Middle East writers in fact live in the West, as part of a global diaspora of Arabic, Farsi, Hebrew, Pashto, Dari, Urdu, Turkish and other speakers. Some even write in English. The following is a sampling of fiction and memoirs from and about countries in the Middle East:
A classic of Iranian literature is the surrealistic novel The Blind Owl, which portrays a dream-like world full of puzzling images and fantasy. A modern classic is Touba and the Meaning of Night (Women Writing the Middle East) by Shahrnush Parsipur, which with elements of magical realism tells the life story of a free-thinking woman constricted by the limits of traditional roles for women. Her novella "Women Without Men" also addresses the oppression of women.
More realistic as it depicts the difficulty of being a writer in modern-day Iran is Shahriar Mandanipour's Censoring an Iranian Love Story. A collection of short fiction by contemporary Iranian writers can be found in Strange Times, My Dear: The PEN Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature. The autobiographical novel My Father's Notebook: A Novel of Iran by Kader Abdolah is a loving portrait of both Iran and the author's father.
Meanwhile, a number of Iranian writers have written memoirs that reveal much about family life. Examples are Roya Hakakian's Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran and Marjane Satrapi's graphic memoir Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. Memoirs by Iranian-Americans include Azadeh Moaveni's Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America And American in Iran.
The master storyteller here is Nobel-winning Naguib Mafouz, whose The Cairo Trilogy: Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, Sugar Street (Everyman's Library) is a Dickensian family saga set in the years between WWI and WWII. Alaa Al Aswany has written The Yacoubian Building: A Novel portraying a social cross section of Cairo residents. A look at social conditions in modern-day Cairo can be found in Khaled Al Khamissi's entertaining Taxi. Black humor rules the account of a young soldier serving in place of another during the 1973 War with Israel in War in the Land of Egypt (Emerging Voices) by Yusuf Al-Qa'id.
A mix of sweeping colonial romance and modern-day feminism is The Map of Love: A Novel by Ahdaf Soueif. A Kafaesque political critique can be found in the pages of the short novel The Committee: A Novel (Middle East Literature In Translation) by Sun Allah Ibrahim.
Two brilliantly written novels fresh from Pakistan are the satiric A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif, which belongs on a bookshelp next to Heller's "Catch-22", and In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin, a fine collection of interrelated short stories. Also of note is Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which explores the subject of Middle Eastern identities as perceived by Westerners.
Maybe the best known Lebanese writer is Elias Khoury, with books like Yalo: A Novel and "Gate of the Sun" that take on controversial political topics. For sheer entertainment, there is Rabih Alameddine's The Hakawati, which is a celebration of storytelling itself. Four Palestinian friends meet in a Beirut cafe to talk in a novella set during the occupation of Lebanon by the Israelis in Illusion of Return (The Contemporary Art of the Novella). Three novellas describe the experience of Palestinian exile in war-torn Beirut during the same period in Liyana Badr's A Balcony over the Fakihani (Interlink World Fiction). Rashid Al-Daif's novel This Side of Innocence (Emerging Voices) uses elements of the political thriller to explore the subjective experience of being taken into custody for questioning.
A classic is Ghassan Kanafani's Men in the Sun and Other Palestinian Stories, an early portrayal of displaced Palestinians. A Palestinian account of the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1948 can be found in Yahya Yakhlif's poignant A Lake Beyond the Wind (Interlink World Fiction). Another more ambitious novel on the same theme is Ibrahim Fawal's On the Hills of God. Sari Nusseibeh's memoir Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life covers much of the 20th century from the point of view of a Palestinian family that has lived in Jerusalem for centuries. I Saw Ramallah is a memoir by Palestian poet Mourid Barghouti, who has lived in exile since 1967.
Arabic writers in Israel include Shimon Ballas, whose Outcast is a fictional memoir of an Iraqi Jew who converts to Islam. Sami Michael's A Trumpet in the Wadi: A Novel finds a family of Arab Christians with a Russian Jew moving into their apartment building. Three generations of another Arab Christian family have their story told in Anton Shammas' Arabesques: A Novel. Sayed Kashua's somewhat mournful Dancing Arabs concerns a Palestian-Israeli in search of an elusive identity.
Among Hebrew writers in Israel is novelist Amos Oz whose memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness describes his boyhood in the country's early years. Another mainstream novelist is A. B. Yehoshua, whose The Liberated Bride and The Lover are insightful portrayals of the Israeli social order. More nontraditonal, satric, humorous, and thought provoking are the short stories of Etgar Keret; collections include The Nimrod Flipout: Stories. Finally, one of the best books to have been written about young soldiers in wartime is Ron Leshem's Beaufort, set at the end of the occupation of Lebanon.
A short novel Naphtalene: A Novel of Baghdad (Women Writing the Middle East) by Alia Mamdouh tells the story of a young girl growing up in 1950s Baghdad. A novella I'jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody by Sinan Antoon describes 1980s Baghdad as an Orwellian nightmare. Meanwhile, poet Fadhil al-Azzawi offers a leisurely and richly remembered account of 1950s Kirkuk in his political novel The Last of the Angels: A Modern Iraqi Novel, which ranges in mood from farcical comedy to abject horror.
For memoirs, there is My Father's Rifle: A Childhood in Kurdistan, a coming of age story set in Kurdish Iraq during the years of Saddam Hussein. Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog from Iraq is a gripping account of the American invasion of that city as recorded in the blog of a young woman with the pseudonym Riverbend. Part memoir, part family history is American-born Ariel Sabar's My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq.
The one great Saudi novel, about the growth of the oil industry, is Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif. Hamza Bogary's short autobiographical novel The Sheltered Quarter: A Tale of a Boyhood in Mecca (Modern Middle East Literature in Translation) tells of growing up in pre-oil-era Mecca.
Another Nobel winner here is Orhan Pamuk, whose novel Snow is a postmodern mixture of politics, religion, and the wearing of scarves.
BOOKS BY OTHERS
Set in a fictional oil-rich nation on the Gulf, Leila al-Atrash's A Woman of Five Seasons (Emerging Voices) tells the story of a marriage between an ambitious man who rises to wealth and position, while his wife slowly rebels against the traditional role of an Arab woman.
French-Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra has written a compelling novel about suicide bombers, which takes place in Israel, called The Attack. His other novels about political extremism include "The Swallows of Kabul," set in Taliban-era Afghanistan, and "Wolf Dreams," which is set in Algeria.
An entertaining and informative book of historical fiction by a British writer, is Louis De Bernieres' Birds Without Wings, which describes the fate of a Turkish village at the end of the Ottoman Empire. A broad sweep of 20th-century Afghan history can be found in M. E. Hirsh's big family saga Kabul, which is far superior to Khaled Hosseini's bestseller "The Kite Runner."