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:
IRAN 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.
PAKISTAN 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.
ISRAEL 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.
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."