There are dozens of excellent books about the Arab World and books written by Arab authors. I have included the titles here that have been most interesting and enlightening to me. Check back often. I will be adding commentary and up-dating the list regularly. Books and posts on China and Mongolia will be featured later this year. (last updated on November 20, 2012)
Wilfred Thesiger(1910-2003), Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) and Freya Stark (1893-1993) were British travelers and explorers among the Arabs, along with the better know T.E. Lawrence- Lawrence of Arabia. Each was an adventurer, historian, linguist, scholar and -to varying degrees- political emissary/unofficial ambassador. They were independent, colorful, eccentric and brilliant trailblazers who developed a fierce devotion to Arabs and their way of life. Bell and Stark were truly exceptional women. Reading any books by or about them is the best way to understand the Bedouin roots of the modern Arab world. Their books are also fascinating accounts of what happened behind the scenes in the years leading up to and following World War 1.
Arabian Sands Wilfred Thesiger
The title speaks for itself. This book helped me better understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from both sides. A compelling story.
The Multiple Identities of the Middle East
Lewis has written several excellent books on the Middle East. If you want to delve deeper into the tensions of the region, this book offers interesting insights, although it is definitely “dry” and academic in tone.
The Arabs- Journeys Beyond the Mirage
Lamb gives a comprehensive overview of the Arab world. Very helpful and informative, and not too “heavy” a read.
Rachel Hajar, M.D.
Mt Life in Doha- Between Dream and Reality
This is a good, basic overview of daily life in Qatar and the adjustments required of Dr. Hajar, a Catholic cardiologist from the Philippines who married a Muslim cardiologist from Doha. The book covers many topics of interest, from religious customs to family relationships, in a light, frank manner.
Caliph’s House- A Year in Casablanca
This book makes you laugh out loud. Some of the hilarious scenes are almost unbelievable! It takes you on a wild romp through the first year of the author’s move from London to Casablanca, Morocco, and the chaotic renovation of the abandoned caliph’s house his family purchased there.
Marguerite van Geldermalsen
Married to a Bedouin
Set in glorious Petra, Jordan, this is the true story of the beautiful romance and marriage of Geldermalsen, a New Zealander, to a Bedouin living in this remote, mysterious rock canyon kingdom. A pleasure to read and a fantastic resource about the life of modern day Bedouins.
Queen Noor (of Jordan)
Leap of Faith
The American Lisa Halaby, who became the third wife of the late King Hussein of Jordan, tells their love story and, in so doing, also explains a great deal about the recent political developments in this part of the world. It is interesting just to read the many comments about this book on the Amazon website. It is somewhat controversial, as would be expected.
Don’t They Know It’s Friday?
This is a gem of a book, outlining with clarity and a light touch, the expectations for proper decorum in the Gulf Arab world, from attire and drinking coffee to how to engage in both social and professional conversations. It offers interesting glimpses into the way Arabs think and how they perceive Americans.
Girls of Riyadh
This is sort of a hybrid-type book. It reads like a modern novel but is a true story based on the lives of wealthy young women from Saudi Arabia. It is a quick, easy, soap opera read, quite a contrast from the other books on this list. By reading the reviews on Amazon, you can see that many people disliked it! I am including it because I thought the innovative plot structure was appealing. It is a series of emails narrating their experiences as they navigate their romances, friendships, families, educational and professional lives. It was first published in Lebanon. The author came to speak at the annual Literary Festival in Dubai.
The title says it all. Maalouf is a Lebanese novelist, a Christian, living in France, who explores the roots, fears, needs, and longings that divide and unite us all. An exceptionally provocative book.
Qatari Voices, Qatar Narratives, and Qatar The & Now
Edited by Carol Henderson and Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar
These three little books are real gems. They contain essays written by students in Qatar. Moving, informative and revealing. They are available on Amazon.
The novels below are set in different countries in the Arab world , Africa and South Asia. Each of them has taken me to a new level of appreciation and compassion, enlightenment and bewilderment….and a desire to know more.
Miramar– Naquib Mahfouz
Mahfouz was the first Arab writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. This novel tells the story of several individuals whose lives intersect at an inn in Egypt during a politically volatile period in the 1960’s.
The Sand Fish– Maha Gargash
The Bastard of Istanbul– Elif Shafak
A Fine Balance- Rohinton Mistri
This is one of the best books I have ever read that takes place in INDIA. Although it does not focus at all on the Arab world per se, it deepened my understanding of the complexity of India and, thus, my understanding of much of the work force in Dubai and Qatar.
Cutting for Stone- Abraham Verghese
Unimagined– Imran Ahmad
Sunset Oasis– Bahaa Taher
Minaret- Leila Aboulela
The coming of age story of a young Muslim woman whose life takes place in Khartoum, Sudan, and London.
Wandering Star– J.M.G. LeClezio
A moving novel about the diasporas of both Jews and Palestinians. It is a bit disconnected in terms of “voice”, moving from first to third person, with abrupt transitions, but I enjoyed it. The ending is realistic and ambiguous, offering a sense of closure and personal peace but without re-weaving all the loose narrative threads. It is ultimately a tale of survival, illustrating how much depends on the forces of faith and human connection as well as the healing power of storytelling, how nurturing the imagination is.
Shepherd of Solitude– Amjad Nasser
Any poems by Hafiz and Rumi open your eyes and your mind to the intricacies of the human spirit among Arabs and, in fact, all of us…
The Gift- Poems by Hafiz, The Great Sufi Master
Translations by Daniel Ladinsky
Rumi- Bridge to the Soul, Journeys into the Music and Silence of the Heart
Newley Translated Poems to Commemorate Rumi’s 800th Birthday