The 10 Best Books and Pieces of Arab Literature by North African Authors
By: Claire Boyle / Arab America Contributing Writer
The region of North Africa is a beautiful area of the world shaped by majestic terrain and landmarks such as the Sahara Desert, Atlas Mountains, the Nile River, and Delta as well as the cavernous souks in many cities. North Africa is also home to many artists, authors, and poets who continue to amplify the magnificent splendor of this area, too. Did you know that some of the most famous figures in the field of Arab Literature are from North Africa? These are the 10 best books and pieces of Arab literature by North African authors, please join me!
Perhaps, you also might like to know how we came to this conclusion that these books are the ten best. I scoured through book review websites and researched numerous authors. I read the content they produced and found positive images of Arabs, Arab Americans, and the Arab World. Additionally, I included Arabs whose work was distinguished and won awards. Finally, you will see that since North Africa has only seven countries, so three countries will be repeated. I hope you will enjoy taking this journey with me to learn more about the North African Arab World. Maybe these books can help us escape from our current stresses into another exciting world of possibilities!
We are going to take a little world trip around North Africa, so be sure to grab your passports. Let us get started learning about these amazing books and their authors! We will be traveling to the countries of Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Sudan, and Tunisia! In no particular order – except alphabetical by country name, that is,- it is time to enjoy some amazing literature!
1. Algeria: “Women of Algiers in Their Apartment” by Assia Djebar
Fatima Zohra Imalyen, who went by her pen name: Assia Djebar, was an Algerian novelist. She also worked in the film and translation industries as well as being a professor. Djebar lived from 1936 to 2015 and was an award-winning author as well. Her stories are known for describing how women’s plights change when their countries are transitioning from colonialism to postcolonialism. She then tackles the emotional wherewithal required of women with these experiences.
Djebar was highly accomplished. The Guardian reports that Djebar was a frequent contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature. In addition, she was awarded the 1996 Neustadt International Prize for Literature. In June 2005, she was the first North African writer elected to the Academie Francaise.
“Women of Algiers in Their Apartment,” written by Assia Djebar in 1980, is a collection of short stories. It honors the strength and dignity of Algerian women of the past and present. The book features stories of women dealing with the challenges of the political revolutions of their lands. Her goal was to celebrate women and admire them for their diverse strengths. The book interweaves the lives of three Muslim Algerian women’s stories as well. Now, it is time to pack up our new find and travel to the next country. We will now be going to Egypt to discover two amazing works by renowned authors from the country.
2. Egypt: “Midaq Alley” by Naguib Mahfouz
Naguib Mahfouz was an Egyptian novelist, screenplay writer, and civil servant. He was considered to be one of the greatest writers of Arab Literature. Mahfouz lived from 1911 to 2006, and he was very famous for his exploration of existentialism. He was also the first Arab writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988. Mahfouz published over 30 novels, hundreds of short stories, many movie scripts, and a few plays. Mahfouz’s favorite genres were the short story and the novel. He only wrote his books in Arabic and Egyptian Arabic.
For this piece, “Midaq Alley” was chosen which was written by Naguib Mahfouz. You will notice his literary prowess and his ability to carry out numerous character studies, altering perspectives.
“Midaq Alley” is set in the Midaq Alley in Khan el-Khalili, a famous souk in Cairo. This one street is a microcosm of the world even if it is only the stretch of an alley. We also see trends of using the cultural setting as something that Mahfouz takes influence from within this work. Moreover, the novel takes place in the 1940s with Cairo on the verge of becoming a modern city. Midaq Alley is basically a character study of how people live and survive even during very tough circumstances.
Mahfouz actually considers this book to be satire. Although he does not satirize the character, but rather, the character type. Every character has some kind of flaw as all humans do, but their stories are all woven together by Midaq Alley. Additionally, we see themes of dealing with issues of colonialism, love, and grief. Midaq Alley is a must-read!
3. Egypt (again): “The Journey: Memoirs of an Egyptian Woman Student in America” by Radwa Ashour
This was an opportunity not to pass up and this piece features another Egyptian novelist and scholar, Radwa Ashour. Radwa Ashour was born in Cairo and she lived from 1946 to 2014. She received her academic training from Cairo University with Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees. Subsequently, she was the first graduate of the newly-created Ph.D. program in African American Literature at the University of Massachusetts. She was a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Ain Shams University in Cairo. Finally, Ashour was also an esteemed Arabic translator and editor and wrote books in both Arabic and English. In fact, the most famous work that she edited was Vol. 9 of the “The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism.”
“The Journey: Memoirs of an Egyptian Woman Student in America” was written in 1983. It chronicles the years in the 1970s that she spent in the US as a Ph.D. student at the University of Massachusetts. We see numerous themes of anti-colonialism, popular struggles, peoples’ liberation movements, and how her scholarship was linked to her practical work on the ground. It was originally published in Arabic and has since been translated into English. Other recurring themes include how an Egyptian woman must navigate her identity in a foreign country. This is especially complex in a divided America. She then couples those struggles with her own experiences as a young girl growing up in the sixties generation in the Arab World. Her book continues to be effective today as we are still witnessing liberation movements such as Black Lives Matter.
4. Libya: “Zodiac of Echoes” by Khaled Mattawa
Khaled Mattawa (1964–) is from Libya. He is best known as a poet, Arabic translator, essayist, and Arabic poem translator. Currently, he is a professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan. His poetry focuses on the intersections of culture, narrative, and memory. Furthermore, he is a highly-awarded poet in that he has been selected for the esteemed MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the University of Michigan’s Regents Award for Public Service. His writing career includes numerous original books of poetry, critical literary studies, and essays.
“Zodiac of Echoes” was written in 2003. The collection of poems focuses on the cross-cultural perspectives of those in both “North Africa and the American South coupled with traditional Arabic verse and Euro-American modernism”. He mixes themes of traversing on the Mississippi River and then suddenly he is in Cairo. We see themes of globalization, linguistic trends, shifts between solemn verse, jokes, and identities. In fact, Jahan Ramazani, a professor of English at the University of Virginia remarked in a review that “[t]hese dazzling lyrics and sequences create one of the most compelling portraits we have of a mind, a sensibility, [and] a language emerging from the hybridization of cultures.” Essentially, Mattawa’s work is one of ethereal beauty, timely tales of intercultural awareness, and the ever-changing world.
5. Mauritania: “L’amour Impossible” by Moussa Ould Ebnou
Moussa Ould Ebnou (1956–) is considered to be one of the greatest Mauritanian writers. He is a novelist and has written two books; “Le Barzakh” and “L’amour Impossible.” His writings deal with relationships, mysticism, history, and other topics. He is part of the postmodern literary movement, although he is not well known outside of the North African world. Finally, he writes his novels in both Arabic and French. He even published the works in a double version which contains both languages.
“L’amour Impossible” or “The Impossible Love” is a love story. It portrays a complex relationship between the protagonists in the setting of a nameless war between females and males. The war pervades their relationship as both men and women no longer love each other and do not have children. It is an interesting tale as we see themes of love, leaving, and despair. They rise above impossible circumstances and the damaging effects of this entanglement between the sexes.
6. Morocco: “The Polymath” by Bensalem Himmich
Bensalem Himmich (1948–) is a Moroccan novelist, philosopher, and professor at Mohammed V University in Rabat, the capital of Morocco. He has written over 20 books and served as the Minister of Culture from 2009 to 2012 in Morocco. He focuses his writings on the fields of science and literature. His philosophical works are generally about the modern problems and issues that are faced by Morocco today. Lastly, Himmich is a greatly-awarded writer. He won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature (named after the legendary Egyptian write who appears earlier in this list). It was won for the best contemporary novel, “Al-‘Allamah” or “The Polymath” about the famous Arabic writer, Ibn Khaldoun.
“The Polymath” is about the interesting and, at times, stormy life of the great Arab philosopher, Ibn Khaldoun. This book is a historical novel that utilizes historical sources and some of Ibn Khaldoun’s own writings. One of the main storylines throughout the book is the uneasy relationship between scholars and authorities which also seems to address a similar issue that we see even in modern times.
“The Polymath” is broken up into three parts. The first is about how Ibn Khaldoun conducts his own work. In part two, we hear about how the familial losses in his life influenced who he was. In part three, we see him trying to tone down the effects of an invading army. Finally, Himmich recounts how the impending political issues continue to affect his life. I highly recommend this work to historians because of how Himmich utilizes historical sources despite the book being historical fiction.
7. Morocco (again): “Year of the Elephant: A Moroccan Woman’s Journey Toward Independence” by Leila Abouzeid
Leila Abouzeid (1950–) is a writer from Morocco. She is famous for being the first Moroccan woman writer to have her works be published in English-language translation. Her books deal with issues such as Morroco’s post-colonialism from France and identity. In her works, she indirectly advocates for increasing the availability of education to women in the country. Finally, she writes all her books in Arabic to uplift and preserves Morocco’s linguistic heritage.
“Year of the Elephant: A Moroccan Woman’s Journey Toward Independence” is a fictional tale of a Muslim woman who is navigating the changing social structures in Morocco while the country is seeking independence from France. We hear about a personal and family crisis for the protagonist. This includes her divorce from her husband, which informs her worldview. “Year of the Elephant” is considered to be a feminist novel and is one in the modern realist style. Abouzeid uses Islamic history as a metaphor for the Moroccans fighting for their independence; this is also where her title comes from. We see themes of memories, female identity, Moroccan culture, and the protagonist’s inner conflict between the past and present.
8. Sudan: “Season of Migration to the North” by Tayeb Salih
Tayeb Salih (1929-2009) was considered to be one of Sudan’s greatest authors of the twentieth century. He was educated at the University of Khartoum with a Bachelor of Science degree. Salih also worked as a schoolmaster, as a broadcaster, and UNESCO worker. He then wrote novels as well as numerous columns during his broadcasting career. The themes of his writing include his personal experiences growing up in a village, cultural issues between the West and East, Islam, and post-colonialism.
“Season of Migration to the North” is a pure Arabic postcolonial novel that was written in 1966. The work focuses on British colonialism and its negative impact on African societies, specifically those in Sudan. One must remember that Salih was from Sudan, and he also experienced these effects as well during his lifetime. We see themes of the negative impact of colonialism, memories, changing narratives to post-colonialism, tragedy, and death. The novel ends on a cliffhanger, but leading literary figures, including Edward Said, have named it one of the six greatest novels of Arabic literature.
9. Sudan (again): “The Translator” by Leila Aboulela
Leila Aboulela (1964–) is a writer from Sudan. She graduated from the University of Khartoum with a degree in Economics and from the London School of Economics with a Master of Science and a Master of Philosophy in Statistics . Aboulela writes short stories and full-length novels in English. Her Muslim faith informs much of her writing. Aboulela focuses on the complex challenges that Muslims face in Europe, identity, migration, and Islamic spirituality. She is also an acclaimed author as she has won numerous awards in the literary world. Finally, Aboulela’s literary influences include Tayeb Salih and Naguib Mahfouz. Both are mentioned in this list.
“The Translator” is considered to be Aboulela’s most famous work. The novel is loosely based on her own experiences of being a young research assistant in Aberdeen, Scotland. In the story, Sammar, a Sudanese widow who lives in Aberdeen as a maid and Arabic translator, is attempting to adjust to her new life. She starts falling in love with Rae, the head of a department at the University of Aberdeen. She begins this relationship with Rae to get rid of some of her loneliness. However, if they are to become a couple, they must compromise with each other. They must also overcome religious and cultural barriers, as he is not Muslim. Aboulela frequently describes it as a “Muslim Jane Eyre” novel. Is it their destiny to be together? Find out by reading the book!
10. Tunisia: “Gloire Des Sables” by Mustapha Tlili
Mustapha Tlili (1937-2017) was a famous writer from Tunisia. He received his education from the Sorbonne as well as in the United States. Additionally, he also served with the United Nations (UN) from 1967 to 1982. At the UN, he worked in various programmes including those dealing with Anti-Apartheid, Palestine, and Decolonization. Towards the end of his life, he worked as a professor at Columbia University and New York University.
“Gloire Des Sables” or “Glory of the Sands” was written in 1982. Tlili confronts numerous issues dealing with corruption among the aristocracy in Tunisia in this work. This is a common theme throughout all his works. His writing uses the elements of “humorous cynicism” and “playful anger” towards the aristocracy in society. Tlili’s wrote in French and Arabic. Yet, he did not confine himself to either culture. Tlili was one of the first French-educated Maghribi writers to branch out and explore new cultures and languages. Thus, he explored elements of cultural liberation among those French-educated Maghribi writers. Consequently, they were prompted to write about these experiences as well as to craft their own narratives and identities.
We have now concluded our journey through the beautiful literature and lands of North Africa. In these books, we saw common themes of love, life, death, despair, hope, strength, beauty, exquisite writing, loneliness, foreign worlds, and stories of post-colonialism. These authors deeply loved their homelands and consistently included them. There are certainly more books to be explored, but those are for another day. Thank you for joining me on this magnificent journey through North Africa! I hope you will join us again!
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