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Best Arab American Books of 2020

posted on: Dec 30, 2020

By: Yidan Fan / Arab America Contributing Writer

Arab American writers have been contributing to literature and culture in both the Arabic speaking world and American society. Their creative and scholarly writing has become an important part of Western culture as well. Here we have selected eight amazing Arab American books to introduce to you that were published in 2020. Enjoy your reading time!

You Exist Too Much– By Zaina Abafat

On a hot day in Bethlehem, a 12-year-old Palestinian-American girl is yelled at by a group of men outside the Church of the Nativity. She has exposed her legs in a biblical city, an act they deem forbidden, and their judgment will echo on through her adolescence. When our narrator finally admits to her mother that she is queer, her mother’s response only intensifies a sense of shame: “You exist too much,” she tells her daughter.

Told in vignettes that flash between the U.S. and the Middle East―from New York to Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine―Zaina Arafat’s debut novel traces her protagonist’s progress from blushing teen to sought-after DJ and aspiring writer. In Brooklyn, she moves into an apartment with her first serious girlfriend and tries to content herself with their comfortable relationship. But soon her longings, so closely hidden during her teenage years, explode out into reckless romantic encounters and obsessions with other people. Her desire to thwart her own destructive impulses will eventually lead her to The Ledge, an unconventional treatment center that identifies her affliction as “love addiction.” In this strange, enclosed society she will start to consider the unnerving similarities between her own internal traumas and divisions and those of the places that have formed her.

Opening up the fantasies and desires of one young woman caught between cultural, religious, and sexual identities, You Exist Too Much is a captivating story charting two of our most intense longings―for love, and a place to call home.

If you are interested in purchasing the book click here!

The Arabic Quilt: An Immigrant Story- By Aya Khalil

Kanzi’s family has moved from Egypt to America, and on her first day in a new school, what she wants more than anything is to fit in. Maybe that’s why she forgets to take the kofta sandwich her mother has made for her lunch, but that backfires when Mama shows up at school with the sandwich. Mama wears a hijab and calls her daughter Habibti (dear one). When she leaves, the teasing starts.
That night, Kanzi wraps herself in the beautiful Arabic quilt her teita (grandma) in Cairo gave her and writes a poem in Arabic about the quilt. Next day her teacher sees the poem and gets the entire class excited about creating a “quilt” (a paper collage) of student names in Arabic. In the end, Kanzi’s most treasured reminder of her old home provides a pathway for acceptance in her new one.  
This authentic story with beautiful illustrations includes a glossary of Arabic words and a presentation of Arabic letters with their phonetic English equivalents.

If you are interested in purchasing the book click here!

The Thirty Names of Night- By Zeyn Joukhadar

Five years after a suspicious fire killed his ornithologist mother, a closeted Syrian American trans boy sheds his birth name and searches for a new one. He has been unable to paint since his mother’s ghost has begun to visit him each evening. As his grandmother’s sole caretaker, he spends his days cooped up in their apartment, avoiding his neighborhood masjid, his estranged sister, and even his best friend (who also happens to be his longtime crush). The only time he feels truly free is when he slips out at night to paint murals on buildings in the once-thriving Manhattan neighborhood known as Little Syria.

One night, he enters the abandoned community house and finds the tattered journal of a Syrian American artist named Laila Z, who dedicated her career to painting the birds of North America. She famously and mysteriously disappeared more than sixty years before, but her journal contains proof that both his mother and Laila Z encountered the same rare bird before their deaths. In fact, Laila Z’s past is intimately tied to his mother’s—and his grandmother’s—in ways he never could have expected. Even more surprising, Laila Z’s story reveals the histories of queer and transgender people within his own community that he never knew. Realizing that he isn’t and has never been alone, he has the courage to officially claim a new name: Nadir, an Arabic name meaning rare.

As unprecedented numbers of birds are mysteriously drawn to the New York City skies, Nadir enlists the help of his family and friends to unravel what happened to Laila Z and the rare bird his mother died trying to save. Following his mother’s ghost, he uncovers the silences kept in the name of survival by his own community, his own family, and within himself, and discovers the family that was there all along.

Featuring Zeyn Joukhadar’s signature “magical and heart-wrenching” (The Christian Science Monitor) storytelling, The Thirty Names of Night is a timely exploration of how we all search for and ultimately embrace who we are.

If you are interested in purchasing the book click here!

Beyond Memory- By Pauline Kaldas, Khaled Mattawa

This anthology brings together the voices of both new and established Arab American writers in a compilation of creative nonfiction that reveals the stories of the Arab diaspora in styles that range from the traditional to the experimental. Writers from Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Palestine, and Syria explore issues related to politics, family, culture, and racism. Coming from different belief systems and cultures and including first- and second-generation immigrants as well as those whose identities encompass more than a single culture, these writers tell stories that speak to the complexity of the Arab American experience.

If you are interested in purchasing the book click here!

Poets of Visibility in the Contemporary Arab American Novel- By Mazen Naous

“This work is absolutely convincing and compelling. Naous’s book will join and nicely fit into a growing corpus of work dedicated to the study of contemporary Arab American literature that seeks to deconstruct stereotypical representations.” —Nadine Sinno

“The Poetics of Visibility offers a vantage point and a level of expertise that has been missing in Arab American literary studies. This book will finally allow us to examine Arab American novels not merely as testimonials of a community but as the burgeoning literature of a people.” —Moustafa Bayoumi

How might art disrupt Arabophobia and Islamophobia in the US? In Poetics of Visibility in the Contemporary Arab American Novel, Mazen Naous argues that fiction is one of the ways in which Arab Americans can correct dominant narratives of themselves with a representation of their lived realities. Looking at both the aesthetics and politics in contemporary Arab American novels, Naous demonstrates that the novels’ poetics cannot be extricated from or subsumed under political content. In his finely textured analyses of form and style, Naous uncovers crucial transcultural and trans-poetic solidarities that extend beyond the politics of representation.

Naous’s book offers analyses of Diana Abu-Jaber’s Arabian Jazz and Crescent, Rabih Alameddine’s Koolaids: The Art of War, Laila Halaby’s Once in a Promised Land, and Mohja Kahf’s The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf as ways to answer this question. Naous explores how these novels negotiate queer desire, music, Western and Middle Eastern art, gender, and relationships between other minorities. These poetics enable readers to see the nuance and richness of the Arab American experience. Naous ultimately argues that fiction creates crucial spaces for reimagining and redefining intercultural relationships.

If you are interested in purchasing the book click here!

A Lantern in the Shade- By Jacob Nader

A Lantern in the Shade is an epic historical fiction saga that draws on a blend of Middle Eastern cultures and poignant, dramatic prose to tell the story of an Arab immigrant family’s quest for truth and honor –– offering a unique perspective that heralds the rich and vibrant history of the Middle East, while unveiling oppressive challenges some marginalized communities face in their day-to-day lives, including the struggles for women’s rights and LGBTQ acceptance.

If you are interested in purchasing the book click here!

Arab Intellectuals and American Power- By M.D.Walhout

Edward Said, the famous Palestinian American scholar, and activist, was one of the twentieth century’s most iconic public intellectuals whose pioneering and – to some – controversial work on Orientalism shaped Middle Eastern and postcolonial studies and beyond. But how exactly did he arrive at his famous maxim to ‘speak truth to power’?
This dual biographical study examines the lives of Edward Said and the eminent Lebanese philosopher and diplomat Charles Malik, a distant relative 30 years his senior who Said knew from childhood as “Uncle Charles.” To Said, Malik was no ordinary relative; in his memoir, he called Malik “the great negative intellectual lesson of my life” and was to describe him as “an ideal as I was growing up” only to later claim Malik “went through an ugly transformation that I could never come to terms with”. M.D. Walhout charts the development of these two remarkable figures, reconstructing in the process the way in which American power in the Middle East came to have a defining effect on Arab intellectuals in the twentieth century. Exploring issues of religion and nationalism, Walhout shows how Said came to reject much of what Malik stood for: Christian faith, hardline anti-Communism, and the benign nature of American power. He argues that the example of Malik was instrumental in the development of Said’s later belief that the true vocation of the intellectual was not to compromise with power but to resist it.

If you are interested in purchasing the book click here!

Arab Americans in Films- By Waleed F. Mahdi

Dr. Waleed Mahdi’s book, Arab Americans in Film: From Hollywood and Egyptian Stereotypes to Self-Representation (Syracuse University Press) offers a comparative analysis of the portrayals of Arab Americans in film and interrogates how such representations have been, and continue to be, disrupted and challenged. By approaching such cinematic representations as a critical site of inquiry from which to analyze the shape of national identity, then, Arab Americans in Film questions the role of cultural productions in perpetuating images of exclusion and inclusion, and the possibility of re-narrating the Arab American experience beyond such imperatives. In examining the cultural production of Arab American identity in film, Arab Americans in Films importantly unsettles ‘the national’ as a theoretical category of analysis to illustrate how the construction of Arab American ‘Otherness’ is not simply a product of U.S. orientalist histories but of constructions of the ‘Self’ and ‘Other’ which exist in both US and Arab state national narratives. In so doing, the book captures the multi-layered articulations of Arab American subjectivity across US and Arab collective memories and filmmaking industries in an effort to explore the heterogeneity of Arab Americans’ consciousness in ways that locate their narratives at the crossroads of the individual and the collective, the local and the national, and the national and the transnational. Through an in-depth discussion of a wide variety of films from three distinct, and yet comparable, cinematic genres – Hollywood cinema, Egyptian cinema, and Arab American cinema – Arab Americans in Films traces the competing narratives of Arab American belonging to enhance the understanding of how Othering is at once constructed and challenged, and what is at stake in those ongoing, parallel processes. Waleed Mahdi is an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma with joint affiliations in the Department of International and Area Studies and the Department of Modern Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics.

If you are interested in purchasing the book click here!

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