Armchair Travel: The Middle East

One great way to recover from your first half-marathon is to sit on the couch and catch up on all the wonderful books you’ve got checked out on your library card. Lately I’ve been dabbling in non-Western literature, and–with the help of this wonderful list from the Tacoma Public Library–familiarizing myself with the diverse range of fiction produced in the Middle East. Here are just a few of the titles I’m sampling this month.

dakhmehDakhmeh, Naveed Noori. Arash’s family fled to the United States when he was just a boy. As a man, he has returned to Iran against his family’s wishes, to try to understand his birthplace and its complex political problems. Aresh’s one-way ticket to Tehran buys him not only a consciousness-raising, but also a stint in prison, which the novel chronicles in a series of journal entries. The title–which roughly translates to “towers of silence”–implies that things will not go well for Arash, but, more importantly, for Iran at large either. A complex tale about a man trying to understand his heritage, but, possibly, too Westernized to fully grasp it.

Women Without Men, Shahrnush Parsipur. Banned in Iran for its frank discussion of women’s sexual desire, Parsipur’s tale parsipurexplores the inner landscape of the feminine in the post-WWII period. Who is a woman without a man? Per Parsipur, she is a lover, a fighter, a creative being, and a creature seeking justice or vengeance (and sometimes both). Struggling to escape the narrow confines of their world, Parsipur’s women realize–frequently to their horror–that once you have liberated yourself, the landscape of freedom poses its own problematic challenges. Read it and find out why the author was jailed, and now lives in the U.S. as a political exile.

hillsofgodOn the Hills of God, Ibrahim Fawal. In the summer of 1947 Yousif’s two main goals in life are to become a lawyer after high school and win the heart of the beautiful Salwa. Completely unaware of the political chaos brewing around him, Yousif does not realize that by the summer of 1948, his life in Palestine–soon to become Israel–will be very different. Fawal paints a complex, layered portrait of a period in history the participants themselves have not been able to parse out peacefully, giving the reader a front-row seat at what everyday life must have been like at the time. What’s really striking here is the loving attention to detail: houses, food, and the landscape are described concretely, yet simply, pointing out the jarring contrast between the larger currents of history and the daily routines that, somehow, always go on.

The Liberated Bride, Abraham B. Yehoshua. Set in and around Haifa University in the mid-1990s, this novel explores Jewish and liberatedArab intellectual circles, and their uneasy relationship to each other. Professor Yohanan Rivlin can’t figure out why his son’s wife divorced him, and neither member of the former couple will explain, which makes him even more determined to find out. Meanwhile, Professor Rivlin’s brightest student, who has just recently gotten married herself, alternately irritates and intrigues him as they work together on an Algerian history project. A bittersweet comedy of manners, that explores our need to know the truth, even when we don’t really want to know the truth. And by the way, what is “truth” anyhow? Polite, but with bite.

Season of Migration to the North, Tayeb Salih. A young man returns to Sudan after receiving a university education in England. When he arrives in his village, he meets and becomes obsessed with the mysterious Mustafa Sa’eed, a recent newcomer to the town. Over time the narrator learns the full truth of Sa’eed’s disturbing life story, but will it serve as a cautionary tale or a road map to ruin? Compared favorably by some critics to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, this novel is a fascinating tale of colonialism and psychological horror.

I don’t know much about the Middle East, but these novels have me itching to pick up some decent history books. Fiction-wise, I’m also planning to devour the titles on the Muslim Journeys booklists the library staff has created as part of a grant project, which you can read more about here. Do you have any other recommendations? Have you read any of these, or other works from the Tacoma Public Library list? What parts of the world have you explored in fiction, and where should I go next?

–Leigh Anne

stamping her metaphorical passport

4 Comments

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4 responses to “Armchair Travel: The Middle East

  1. A great list, ‘Women Without Men’ looks particularly interesting.

  2. I’ve enjoyed the graphic novels of Marjane Satrapi, beginning with Persepolis.

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