READING THE WORLD: BOOKS FROM ARABIA
Bahrain is a small island of about 1.5 million people, but surprisingly, there are a few books available in English. "QuixotiQ" by Ali Al Saeed won the Bahrain Book of the Year Award in 2005. It is a story of love, hate and dark secrets, about a troubled young man with shattered dreams living a mundane life, which eventually drives him to violent and reckless extremes. "Yummah" is written by a young Bahraini author Sarah A. Al Shafei as a tribute to her grandmother.
- YUMMAH BY SARAH A. AL SHAFEI -
The novel is about a woman, Khadeeja, who entered into an arranged marriage at the age of twelve, had nine children and whose husband left her when she was pregnant with the ninth. Enduring various tragedies in her life, she managed to pull through, have a positive spirit and survive to have numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Her husband, who left her for a better life, returns after many years, filled with regret and in poor health. Though Khadeeja was hurt and angry she opens her arms to him with love and forgiveness, and watches him die in her arms.
Kuwait prides itself on being a democracy, however the government has banned thousands of books including "A Hundred Years of Solitude" and "1984." Their own authors are not immune to the ban either. "Mama Hissa’s Mice" by Saud Alsanousi was banned on the grounds that it advocated sectarianism and fanaticism. It is a book about three Kuwaiti boys of different faith and ethnicity, each finding a way to survive in a war-torn country. Alsanousi's newest book, "The Bamboo Stalk," touches on racism, forbidden love, and xenophobia in the region. A novel featured in this post is "The Pact We Made," a book about the experience of being a modern woman in a patriarchal society with outdated gender roles.
- THE PACT WE MADE BY LAYLA AL AMMAR -
"The Pact We Made" is the author's debut novel, exploring the lives of young women living in modern-day Kuwait. The story features Dahlia and her two friends, young women striving to live modern lives, while still respecting the restrictive culture. At nearly thirty, time is running out for Dahlia to find a suitable match. The pact she made with her friends when they vowed to be married on the same day when they were eight has long since expired. Now, past her prime marrying years in Kuwaiti culture, Dahlia straddles two worlds--one in which she’s a modern woman living in a modern city, and another where she faces pressure to adhere to social customs.
Layla Al Ammar was born in Kuwait to an American mother and a Kuwaiti father. She studied at an all-girls Arabic school and completed her master’s degree in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh in 2014.
The main form of literature in Oman, as in most Arab countries, is poetry, and novels began to flourish only in this millennium. A couple of novels by authors from Oman have been translated into English. "Earth Weeps, Saturn Laughs: An Omani Novel" by Abdulaziz al-Farsi is about an Omani man who is going back to his small home village after working in the big city, into a community torn between those who want change and those who will do everything in their power to keep things they way they are meant to be. But the book and author that brought Omani literature to the world stage was "Celestial Bodies" by Jokha Alharthi.
- CELESTIAL BODIES BY JOKHA ALHARTHI -
Jokha Alharthi was the first Arabic-language writer to win the Man Booker International Prize with her novel "Celestial Bodies." She was also the first Omani author ever to have her novel translated from Arabic into English. The book explores the hopes and frustrations of three Omani sisters, disillusioned by marriage. Mayya, the eldest, prefers not to challenge the parents and marries Abdallah, a son of a wealthy merchant and a textbook upper-class patriarch, whom she does not love. Asma, the second sister sees marriage as "her identity document and a passport to a world wider than home." She marries Khalid in hopes that this will help her pursue her dreams of education. But Khalid is a self-obsessed artist, a modern man whose constant talk about class and inequality masks the internal misogyny. Khawla's husband, her first cousin Nasir, is her childhood sweetheart, who spends most of his time with his lover in Canada and brings "fancy clothes from Canada for his children but never in the right sizes because he did not know how old they were." The book is a look into the emancipation of women, the social structure of the traditional Omani society, the country's struggle with tradition and modernity, and its history of slavery, which was only abolished in 1970.
Jokha Alharthi was born in Oman and obtained her PhD in classical Arabic literature from Edinburgh University. She is currently an associate professor in the Arabic department at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat.
Like in other Gulf countries, novels are relatively new in Qatar, mostly published after the oil boom started. Perhaps the best known is "The Corsair" by Abdulaziz Al-Mahmoud, published in 2011, which tells a story of a pirate in the early 19th century when the British where trying to gain control of the Gulf area. His second book, "The Holy Sail," is a love story from the times when the Portuguese fleets in the Arabian Gulf were looking at securing the profitable spice trade in the fifteenth century.
- THE GIRL WHO FELL TO EARTH BY SOPHIA AL-MARIA -
The Girl Who Fell To Earth by Sophia Al-Maria, published in 2012, is a family saga and a coming-of age memoir of growing up between the different cultures of her mother's America and the father's Bedouin society. When Sophia moves to her father's homeland Qatar she finds a labyrinth of tribal relations, dozens of new-found cousins, and on top of that, his father's second wife. The book is about the struggle of fitting in and finding a home between the Pacific Northwest and the Middle East.
Sophia Al-Maria is a Qatari-American artist, writer and filmmaker. She studied comparative literature at the American University in Cairo, and aural and visual cultures in the University of London.
The most conservative of the Arab nations, literature in Saudi Arabia has been encumbered by censorship and many authors have encountered political opposition. One of the most important Arabic writers is Abd Al-Rahman Munif who is considered the father of Saudi literature. His book, "Cities of Salt," published in Beirut in 1984, was banned in some Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia. It is a monumental book of 600 pages and examines the effects of the discovery of huge reserves of oil in a once-idyllic oasis community. It is all seen through the eyes of a large cast of Bedouin characters whose lives were disrupted and never the same. Two Saudi books, "The Dove's Necklace" by Raja Alem and "Thowing Sparks as Big as Castles" by Abdo Khal have won the Arabic Booker Prize.
- THE DOVE'S NECKLACE BY RAJA ALEM -
The book starts with a young woman's body being discovered in the Lane of Many Heads, an alley in a poor section of modern-day Mecca. Identification is complicated because of the collective shame of her nakedness. The author paints the world of crime, religious extremism, and exploitation of foreign workers by a mafia of building contractors, who are destroying the historic areas of the city.
Raja Alem was born in 1970 in Mecca. She has published several plays and novels and she became the first woman to win the International Prize of Arabic Fiction for "The Dove's Necklace."
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
Quite a few novels have been written about life in Dubai with its wealth, stunning beaches, glittering parties and glamor. Jo Tatchell, who was born in Abu Dhabi wrote her memoir, "A Diamond in the Desert," about the changes in the Abu Dhabi society from a fishing village to a wealthy capital with a focus on culture. "The Sand Fish" by Maha Gargarsh published in 2009 is about a penniless 17-year-old Emirati who was forced in to an arranged marriage as the third wife of a much older wealthy man. A movie based on the novel is currently in production.
- THAT OTHER ME BY MAHA GARGASH -
"That Other Me" is the author's second novel, published in 2016, and the story is set in mid-1990s in Dubai and Cairo, focusing on how the secrets and betrayals consume three members of a prominent Emirati family. Dalia and Mariam are cousins who are controlled by the same despotic and conniving Emirati man Majed, father of Dahlia. Majed stole his older brother's company and his niece Mariam is left with no fortune. Dahlia is a love child of her father's secret second wife, and mostly ignored by Majed who divorced her mother and left hem in the slums in Egypt.
Maha Gargash was born in Dubai to a prominent business family, studied in Washington, DC and London, and resides in Dubai.
Only a few books by Yemeni authors are available in English. Mohammed Abdul-Wali’s novella "They Die Strangers," published in 1971, is considered to mark the beginning of popular literature in Yemen. Abdul-Wali died tragically in an aviation accident, and his stories were collected after his death. Born of a Yemeni father and an Ethiopian mother, his stories are filled with nostalgia and the bitterness of exile. "The Hostage" by Zayd Mutee' Dammaj, published in 1994, was selected by the Arab Writers Union as one of the 100 best Arabic novels of the 20th century. Told from the perspective of the young narrator imprisoned in the governor’s palace to guarantee his family’s obedience to the Imam, the novel paints a snapshot of authoritarianism and tyranny.
- A LAND WITHOUT JASMINE BY WAJDI AL-AHDAL -
Wajdi Al-Ahdal’s "A Land Without Jasmine," published in 2008, is a satirical detective novel about the sudden disappearance of a young female student from Yemen's Sanaa University. Her disappearance is linked to the sexual harassment and repression of women in this patriarchal society. Each chapter is narrated by a different character, beginning with Jasmine herself.
Wajdi al-Ahdal was born in 1973 in Yemen and studied at the University of Sanaa. He has published four novels, four collections of short stories, a play and a film screenplay.