19 Arab Authors on Their Favorite Reads of 2017

Each year, ArabLit knocks on the doors of a range of Arab novelists, poets, and memoirists, asking for their favorite reads os 2017. This year’s list was co-edited and -translated by Mahmoud Hosny and M Lynx Qualey:

Salim Barakat (Syrian-Kurdish poet and novelist)

I didn’t get many books this year. So I reread:  Interpretation of the Qu’ran by Ibn Arabi (تفسير القرآن لابن عربي) for the third time in nine years. And also I reread Ibn Kathir’s exegesis of the Quran, تفسير القرآن لابن كثير, for the second time in eleven years.

I reread the complete works of Nietzsche, The Art of Always Being Right by Arthur Schopenhauer, and Repetition by Søren Kierkegaard.

Haytham El-Wardany (Egyptian writer)

Actually, I feel confused by “book lists,” and I feel we need another, better way to value literature. But if there are three books inspired me lately, they are:

The Arabic translation of Collected Articles, by Serge Daney.

How to Mend: On Motherhood and Its Ghosts, by Iman Mersal.

The Shell, by Mustafa Khalifa.

Muhammad Abdelnabi (Egyptian novelist and translator)

Among the best novels I’ve read this year were Printed in Beirut, by Jabbour Douaihy, and All the Battles, by Maan Abu Taleb. Both works open up onto very particular worlds, and draw us in, and in the process the works draw on many rich layers of mankind and our violence in Maan’s novel, and the city and the book-printing profession, in Jabbour’s.

The best poetry collections I’ve read this year are two: 77 by Ahmed Shafei and My House Has Two Doors by Fatima Qandil. Both of these are prose poetry, each taking its own path without resembling any other on the questions of humanity, isolation, and distance from the world and from each other.

The nonfiction (well, sort of) books that I enjoyed were also two: How to Heal: Motherhood and Its Ghosts, by Iman Mersal and The Book of Sleep by Haytham Wardani. Both of these books are a deeply personal experience of literary contemplation, and unique treatments of isolated islands of experience, such as maternity as a wound and sleep as a mystery.

Hisham Bustani (Jordanian short-story writer)

Luay Hamza Abbas, Near the Tall Tree قرب شجرة عالية (Azminah, 2017)

Although he has three published novels, Luay Hamza Abbas identifies himself, first and foremost, as a short-story writer. Given his creative and innovative powers at the genre, I can’t agree with him more. His new, fifth, collection maintains the “newness” of approach and form that he explored in his previous works, moving brilliantly within the current that I call “New” Arab Writing. Deep, transparent sadness engulfs this excellently-written short story collection, styled in a simple, yet lyrical, language. Almost all of its stories deal with boundary-events, with characters negotiating two worlds, having one leg in reality, the other in dreams. Abbas, in many of the stories of this collection, writes about extremely violent and painful subjects employing a single, neutral, narrator, almost devoid of emotions (bringing to my mind Yasunari Kawabata’s magnificent, dissective, approach in his Palm of the Hand Stories); as if it was an elderly voice that has seen it all, the memories now distant, transformed into some kind of contemplated questioning, or wisdom.

Safia Elhillo, The January Children (University of Nebraska Press, 2017)

This poetry collection, the recipient of the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets, is a powerful and fresh exploration of “identity” and “color” as social, manufactured, constructs. Often setting the seeker of such explorations on a turbulent, unyielding path,  Safia Elhillo, a Sudanese-American, or an American-Sudanese, or someone lost in the distance between them, manages, with poetic intelligence, to transform an extremely personal, internal experience, that takes its anchor in the Egyptian pop-cult icon singer of the 1970s, Abdelhalim Hafez, and one of his famous songs: Asmar  Ya Asmarani, into and external  exploration of gender, race,  politics, society, and power structures. The poetic voice Elhillo utilizes, mobilizing Arabic words, phrases, and sometimes written directly in Arabic within the otherwise English poems, also serves as an exploration of language and language (cross)boundaries, making this surprising first collection a very worthy read in both subject and form.

Abdel-Salam Saleh, More Than an Illusion أكثر من وهم (Fada’at, 2017)

Departing from the over-used clichés of the weak, subordinate, hesitant, exploited, shy, woman, the protagonist of this novel is nothing but. Here, Sama’ (a female name meaning: sky) is wicked, lustful, daring, approaches and uses men sexually and professionally. She knows what she wants, and goes after it with no concessions. Not wanting to marry or have children, she seeks to build her career with resolve, while her “lover”, a depressed, withdrawn, defeated, leftist militant, is struggling to maintain sanity on the backdrop of malformed, soul-killing city: Amman. The non-compromising approach is also manifested in the language of writing: Saleh not only uses dirty slang and swearwords openly, he writes entire segments with spoken-Arabic, the colloquial Ammani dialect, with nice flow and complete absence of pretention. In this novel, Saleh deconstructs and questions not only patriarchy, but also its political and authoritarian material roots; an excellent accomplishment in an era where the trend is to blame it all on “culture”.

Basma Abdelaziz (Egyptian novelist, psychiatrist, and columnist)

Fiction: Haffat Al Kawthar (The Edge of al-Kawthar), by Ali Atta (2017)

A charming novel, which I guess is more likely the personal experience of the writer himself, as many critics have noted. The protagonist is a man with a psychiatric disorder who is working in a newspaper, and who passes short periods of his life in a mental hospitals. From my personal experience as a psychiatrist, the detailed description of symptoms throughout the novel is so accurate, and it pays so much sensitive attention to the psychological suffering and the feelings of the patient himself, as well as his way of dealing with the illness and the surrounding environment, the atmosphere of the hospital. It is a courageous novel, especially when the reader can note the areas of similarity between the hero and the author, which are plenty.

Nonfiction: Hezb Balata (Flag Party), by Nabil Noor Al-Din (2017)

For me, it was of great importance to read this book, because the author is one of the well-known Egyptian leftists. Here, he tells about his political experience first as a university student, as a man working among laborers, and then connected to other respectable, leftis, thinkers and public intellectuals. It is a rich story, full of hopes and failures, as one would expect.

Political Science: Arabic translation of Why Leaders Lie, by John J. Merscheime (2016)

This book is based on a very interesting and creative idea, tackling the American presidents’ lies in the foreign affairs and their consequences. A prominent example is how George Bush Sr. lied to lead the US to the war on Iraq. The difficulties the writer, who is an academic professor, has found on his way toward gathering information and documents are of great importance, especially as he’s talking about a nation which is said to have a considerable amount of transparency and a trustworthy political system. The book has been translated into Arabic and published by Alam Al Ma’arefa. The original English book was published in 2013.

Geography and birds: Tuyoor Masr (Egypt’s Birds), by Mohamad Mohamad Anany (1993)

A scientific book that gives the story of birds in general, their lives and migration processes, and then focuses on the birds which are considered Egyptian birds, those that live most of their lives in the north or south Egypt, giving their names, origins, characteristic behavior, and periods of migration. it is an amusing book, rare in its genre among scientific books in Egypt. The author states that Egyptians are not really interested in watching birds as other people are in the West, and I guess he is somehow right, I rarely meet someone whose hobby is to follow birds. He died before seeing his book published, but his son carried out this mission. Thanks to him.

Maan Abu Taleb (Palestinian-Jordanian novelist)

This has been a year of slow and deliberate rereading for me. I reread Salter for pleasure, I memorised some passages by Barry Hannah, I reread Philip Roth to learn how to rage without ranting, Conrad for construct, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian for everything. I reread Macbeth about sixty-two times. I reread The Return by Hisham Matar, which at first reading struck me with the elegance of its prose, and in the second with the depth of its anguish, an anguish we all better get used to.

I reread Rakha’s the Sultan’s Seal, a severely underrated achievement in my opinion, to take a closer look at how Rakha moves between different registers in Arabic – something I try to do in my own writing – and inhabits the diction and syntax of different characters across geographies and centuries.

I reread The Five Wounds” by Kirstin Valdez Quade, several times. The more I read that story, the more I am unsettled by the stunning beauty that takes shape towards its end.

This rereading meant I did not read any 2017 releases, although I intend to start before the year is out with Omar Robert Hamilton’s The City Always Wins.

Mansoura Ezz Eldin (Egyptian novelist)

I read the collection Fear of Objects, by Yasser al-Zayyat, in manuscript form, and it will be issued in January 2018 by Dar al-Mutawasit. In this book, the author of My Blood is Tainted by Love creates a poetic composition characterized by a brilliant imagination rarely found in poetry and a high narrative sense that doesn’t diminish the poetry of the texts.

Naked or Covered: From a Simple String to a Three-piece Suit, by Mineke Schipper, translated by Abdel Rahim Youssef (Dar Safsafa). Years ago, I read Never Marry a Woman With Big Feet, by Schipper, and I liked it so much that I didn’t hesitate to read Naked or Covered as soon as its Arabic edition was published. And indeed, the book didn’t disappoint. Through narrative and culture, Schipper deals with the problematic relationship between the body and the history of its covering, as well as the different ideas of shame through different times and cultures. Altogether a thoughtful and interesting book.

The collection 77 by Ahmed Shafei (Kotob Khan). Ahmed Shafei is one of my favorite poets, and what I enjoy about his poetry is that it always prompts me to think about the nature of poetry and how we define it as a literary genre.

The collection My House Has Two Doors, by Fatima Qandil (Dar al-Ain). A sensitive dissection that’s wise to the self and the collective. The poems in this collection are written with raw nerve without giving up a calm, contemplative tone. The self here is observed, as if from a calculated distance, separated from her life, seen as though it’s a building and it’s her role to guard the door. Many places turn to grief, but never self-pity.

Their Libraries, by Moroccan author-translator Mohammed Ait Hanna (Dar Toukbal). This is a clever and astute book that’s difficult to slot within a particular genre. It’s the author’s reflections on writing, reading, authors, and readers, and about the idea of the library and its various iterations. Because of the intensity of my enjoyment, I read this book very slowly, and in stages.

You Said It, by the Dutch novelist Connie Palmen, translated by Lamia al-Mokadem. This novel reconstructs the thorny relationship between the English poet Ted Hughes and the American poet Sylvia Plath. I liked the novel, particularly the author’s intimacy with the two main characters, not only their shared biography, but also their philosophical ideas about art and its relationship to selfhood, life, myth, and metaphysics, based on Hughes’ visions, in contrast with Plath’s.

Narrative and Gender in the Storytelling of the Bani Hilal, by Dr. Mohammed Hassan Abdul Hafez(Sharjah Heritage Institute). The author attempts to a new approach to how previous researchers have linked to the popular biography of the male world, presenting the narrative of Bani Hilal as a tale of the creation and creativity of women, “while men are the guardians of hymns, narrators, and performers, allowing them the freedom to reformulate the work in poetic forms characterized by difficulty.” From their position as guardians, men have the power to confuse feminine traits and patterns within the work, and to label them in accordance with their vision.

Voices in the Evening, by the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg, translated by Amani Fawzi Habashi (Dar al-Karma). Ginsburg is an ingenious writer who has mastered the art of ambiguity, concealment, and hinting as the doorways to her art. In her work, the dialogue plays a key role, and here she says a great deal with the fewest possible words, through which we learn about the characters’ interior worlds, their emptiness, and the tendency of some of them to gossip endlessly while their interlocutor is silent. Dialogue here is not a tool for communication, but for revealing the self and other.

Sátántangó, by László Krasznahorkai, translated by Al-Harith Al-Nabhan (Dar Al-Tanweer).

Ahmed Naji (Egyptian novelist and short-story writer)

My three choices are:

Coptic Food, by Charles Aql(published by Kotob Khan)

This is a unique book in the Arabic library. Charles takes us on a deep trip inside Coptic cuisine: What the Copts eat when they feast, and what the connection between that food and the egyptian history. all that mixed with charl personal story and his lovely style in writing.

The Critical Case of K, by Aziz Mohamed (published by Dar al-Tanweer)

So finally the Saudi novel has gotten away from history and boring realism. This is the first novel by Saudi novelist and writer Aziz Mohamed. It’s a very refreshing novel, with a new rhythm and narrative. I don’t think it will get the attention that Saudi novels usually get, because it’s not about social gossip, but its artistic values will announce itself.

The Book of Sleep by Haytham Wardani (published by Dar al-Karma)

Yasser Abdellatif (Egyptian novelist, poet, short-story writer)

I think this year’s excellence was to be found in its nonfiction. There were three very distinguished books in this genre: The Book of Sleep, by Haytham al-WardaniHow to Heal: Motherhood and Its Ghosts, by Iman Mersal, and Coptic Food, by Charles Aql. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that writers from the 90s generation, such as Mersal and al-Wardani, approached this genre with such boldness. They have experience with similar writing, such as Mersal’s academic writing and al-Wardani’s on Walter Benjamin and other attempts. Yet it’s surprising to find a young writer such as Charles Aql coming out with a debut in this genre, with such audacity, amidst censorship and the shininess of the novel and the temptations of its prizes. On its face, Coptic Food is a book on cooking and the Coptic cuisine, yet it’s also a deep dive into the sociology and anthropology of insular groups, as well as a new move within Arabic literature. The revival and the creative power of nonfiction Arabic prose, to me, clearly indicates the crisis of the Arabic novel, and stands at the crossroads between what is literary and what is a literary commodity.

In poetry, I read several notable books, including 77 by Ahmed Shafei and A Box of Colorful Stones by Asmaa Yasin, and two collections that emerged at the end of 2016, but I didn’t see them until this year, and they are veteran Syrian poet Rasha Omran’s She Who Lived in the House Before Me and the collection Naive and Cinematic by Egyptian poet Hoda Omran. It seems to me there’s been a wonderful female invasion of poetic territory. Or, as my friend Alaa Khaled said, Poetry lately has recovered its female character. From Syria alone, recent years have brought forward dozens of distinguished poets, among them a large number of Kurdish women writing in Arabic, and sometimes Kurdish. In Egypt, too, there is a clear quantitative and qualitative superiority of women poets over men.

Donia Kamel (Egyptian novelist)

My Name is Light, by Elsa Osorio

This novel was published in 2010, but the Arabic translation came out in 2017. It is a beautiful piece about Argentina’s history, the dirty war and the enforced disappearance of 30,000 political prisoners in the 70’s. It is a story about identity, family drama and a quest to find a long lost parent. The father/daughter relationship is beautifully written.

Once Upon a Time, Tomorrow, by Hilal Chouman

These are stories about post-war Beirut told by authentic Lebanese characters in a bittersweet — almost cynical — tone. There is no order for events, no chronological pattern, only stories of traumatized, resisting characters trying to survive their own post-war trauma.

Baligh, by Talal Faisal

This is a story that takes place mainly in Paris and moves to Berlin. It’s about an Egyptian psychiatrist obsessed with the composer Baligh Hamdy, who he sees as a reflection of his dramatic life and his broken relationship. An interesting docu-drama about the late composer which intersects with the writer’s own biography.

From the Window, by Ahmed Khair ElDeen

I loved this collection of stories. Basically, it’s a documentary series of different occurrences that happen inside a police van to different sorts of people who – mostly – have been illegally detained. Realistic and intense.

Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado

A collection of short stories mostly connected with the intense, sometimes magical, tales of women exposed to different kinds of abuse. Violent at times, magically realistic at others, Her Body and Other Parties is an original piece.

I also finished reading the four novels of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series at the beginning of this year. They were not published recently, but I have to mention how affected I was by the four books, especially Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third in the series. The stories of women’s friendships and competitiveness, the violent environment, and the changes that happened to women’s conditions through the years are all things with which I can personally relate.

Jawdat Fakhreddine (Lebanese poet)

I continue to follow the publishing developments in poetry and the novel each year. But this year and the last one, there was nothing that made me surprised or that it could be an extraordinary start of a writer’s career. So I always go back to “Turath” التراث in poetry and criticism, to read and reread. Every time I find something new and different.

Saud Alsanousi (Kuwaiti novelist)

I think the Arabic translation of The Book of Lies: Twins Trilogy (The Notebook, The Proof, and The Third Lie) by Ágota Kristóf (released by Dar-Gamal) is one of the most important I’ve read this year.

In this continuous yet separated trilogy, first, I found a new world for myself as a reader. In its theme and techniques, it’s wonderful, pushing you to understand yourself and the confused characters who you may say are guilty without concern for the causes of their actions.

Golan Haji (Syrian poet and translator)

Homo Poeticus, by Danilo Kiš

Conversations with Lev Shestov, by Benjamin Fondane 

All Things are Possible, by Lev Shestov

Bissan Al-Sheikh (Lebanese writer)

The Good Spy, by Kai Bird

1984, by George Orwell (second time)

American Neighborhood by Jabbour Douaihy

Abdullah Nasser (Saudi writer)

The Anatomist, by Federico Andahazi

Juegos de la edad tardía, by Luis Landero

Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston

Mamdouh Azzam (Syrian novelist)

A Reader on Reading, by Alberto Manguel. I wasn’t able to move it from my desk. In each chapter there’s an idea, or information, or a deep view on a theme Manguel discusses.

A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn. This book was a happy surprise for me. I read about him 15 years ago in Karmal magazine in an article by Edward Said. This book is phenomenal historical writing.

The Craft of Fiction, by Percy Lubbock. I reread this book because of the exciting way in which he talks about writing as an art, demonstrating a deep love of novels and novelists.

Rasha al-Ameer (Lebanese author and publisher)

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,by Yuval Noah Harari

The Prophetess, by Inaam Kachachi 

Challenge of the Gods, by Mahmoud Hussain

At the Right Hand of the Lord, by Gérard Haddad

Walid El Khachab (Egyptian writer and poet)

A Box of Colorful Stones, by Asmaa Yasin

A re-reading of Akabilla, by Mai Telmessany

Solidiers, Spiers and Men of the Statem, by Hazem Qandil, is a book about Egyptian revolution.

Subhi Hadidi (Syrian writer, critic and translator)

In poetry, Secret Rain by the Palestinian writer Zuhair Abou Shaieb. He is a poet who belongs to a small group of contemporary Arab poets who have a special style and mature ways of writing. This collection is dedicated to the theme of love, which pushes its content to a challenging direction, in order to discover inner feelings and high aesthetics.

As for a novel, I’d point to Shadow Roar in Zeinobia’s Gardens, by Salim Barakat. Barakat exhibits one of his characteristic features, which is high tension and dense metaphors with a poetic essence in the narration.

Also: The Philosophy of Samuel Beckett, by British critic and publisher John Calder. He attempts to explain what Beckett tried to say in his works from a philosophical perspective. I think this may be one of the most important reasons why the Irish playwright and novelist became a universal writer, through his basic strategy: the absolute futility of the circle that his characters inhabit, which is deeper than the traditional binaries.

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