10 Arab Books to Read to Learn About Social Issues
By: Lindsey Penn/ Arab America Contributing Writer
If you’re looking for a new book to add to your list, look no further. These next ten books give you an insight into a few of the most pressing social issues in the Arab world.
Although a fictional book, The Bride of Amman (cover above) highlights struggles of gender and sexuality in Amman. Zaghmout published the book in Arabic first in 2015, and it immediately became controversial.
The book follows the stories of four women and one man. Each storyline discusses a major social issue that each faces and the pressures that society places upon them. Rana, a Christian woman, falls for a Muslim man, when her conservative family forbids inter-religious relationships. Meanwhile, Salma is thirty years old and has been written off by her family as too old for marriage. Leila is Salma’s younger sister and believes in the idea that women need to get married after college graduation, but not so much that she doesn’t recognize the paradox in getting a better job means they are less likely to get married. Hayat has an abusive father and tries to find a way to escape. Ali, an Iraqi refugee, is gay, but struggles with his sexuality in a society where it is taboo.
Zaghmout is praised for his commentary on the women’s and LGBT issues. He looks into subjects typically avoided and confronts issues of self-acceptance and independence.
Beirut Noir is a collection of fifteen short stories, all from people based in different neighborhoods in Beirut. One section is written in English, the other two sections are originally in French and Arabic but translated into English. Published in 2015, each story is connected in one way or another to the Lebanese civil war.
By covering multiple neighborhoods in Beirut, the stories cross multiple economic classes, family histories, languages and life experiences. All stories discuss the corruption and destruction by the city’s government, painting a picture of Beirut during and in the aftermath of the civil war. The noir style gives the stories a darker aura of life in Beirut.
Al-Shaykh published this book in 2009. It tells the story of her mother, Kamila, who can’t read or write, so al-Shaykh wrote her story down. Her mother grew up in the 1930s in Lebanon, forced to work in the wheatfields after her father left. At thirteen years old, Kamila’s half-sister died and she was forced to marry her brother-in-law, who was widowed, and much older. She is expected to be a traditional wife, but does not want to be one. After having two children, she meets another man and falls in love with him. Eventually, she leaves her family to marry her lover.
The story shows oppression, marginalization and poverty in the life of al-Shaykh’s mother and how she navigates those constraints in her life.
The Lady from Tel Aviv was first published in 2009. Walid Dahman, the main character, is a Palestinian returning to Gaza after thirty-eight years away. On the flight home, he meets an Israeli, Danah, and they talk, revealing their lives to one another. Walid’s character is based on al-Madhoun and his life as a Palestinian refugee. As Walid is talking, he reveals more about his relationship to his homeland and his connection as someone who lives in the diaspora. The book covers the dislocation that many Palestinians feel with their homeland and their culture.
The original book in Arabic follows Walid’s story in the first half and Danah’s in the second half. However, the English version only follows Walid as he works through his nerves of returning to his homeland.
Written by nine Syrian refugees in the Shatila refugee camp, this book is a collaborative fiction. Each refugee wrote a section, basing what they wrote on their own lives and experiences. Shatila Stories avoids talk of politics and the refugees’ journey to the camp, but instead talks about their experiences in the camp and the hope they have for their futures.
The book talks about life in the refugee camp. In the story, Adam flees with his family from Syria and settles in Beirut’s Shatila refugee camp. He lives through the tough conditions in the camp and sees the strained relationships in the camp, from a father trying to save his daughter’s life, a gang trying to expand, and the impact of drugs on a family. Then he meets Shatha and sees the camp through her view.
The book was published in Arabic in 1974 and later translated to English. Although it is an older book, it is still relevant and has become a minor classic. In the book, Saeed enters Israel after the Nakba. He ends up becoming a paid informant for the Israeli government, until his son is killed fighting in the resistance, forcing him to confront his cowardice and his identity as an Arab living in Israel, following how he lives in a state that does not recognize him as a citizen.
Habiby’s style is similar to Voltaire’s Candide, finding humor in dark and tragic events. The concept of “pessoptimist” comes from there, as a combination of pessimism and optimism. His story highlights the life of an Arab living in Israel in addition to the outlooks that many Palestinians have on the conflict.
Taking place during the Arab Spring in Syria, Nadia and her family are living in Aleppo when bombs start destroying the city. She sneaks out to get food, and in the process, her leg gets hit by shrapnel. When her family decides it’s time to leave, she ends up getting separated from her family and has to find her own way to the Syrian border.
Instead of telling the tale only of a refugee’s path to safety, Senzai focuses on Nadia’s path out of a dangerous country. Senzai tells the story of Nadia’s path and growth as she finds her way to the Syrian border and starts life as a refugee.
When We Were Arabs showcases the intersectionality of the Arab identity. Hayoun’s family is from Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia, and they are also Jewish. He tells the story of his grandparents in a Jewish Arab community and follows his family’s story. This book is Hayoun telling the story of his Jewish Arab past.
This book is Mustafa’s memoir of living in underground Syria during the civil war. Mustafa gives context of what modern day Syria and Lebanon look like through history and legends of the Levant, describing the different religions, prejudices, sects, prejudices, and geography of the Levant. He explains his time in a prison in Syria and what he encountered during that time.
Voices of Jordan tells the story of life in Jordan through multiple people, such as a political cartoonist, a woman in Jordan’s Parliament, and more. She sheds light on how people are changing their own lives. Where global news and publications are focused on politics, Sweis talks about the social and cultural changes that the individuals are experiencing. Her interviews of various people in Jordan highlight the intersectionality in Jordan and the pressures they face in a changing Jordanian society.
Compiled by Arab America
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