4 Page-Turning Arabic Novels That Will Reignite Your Love of the Arabic Language

In honor of Arabic Language Day

The recipe of a great novel is similar to that of a coveted dish. You’re never too sure about what exact spices were used, but you can usually make out the basic ingredients. When it comes to books,  you can almost always expect well-developed characters who support a unique plot, for a page-turner that will keep you glued to the pages. Arabic literature, however, is different as readers often look for more when browsing their bookshelves.  

This is where the language plays a pivotal role, especially in an era where the 422 million Arabic speakers are exposed to tons of bilingual content and the chances of grasping Al Jahiz’s Kitāb al-Hayawān or Iben Tufail’s Hayy Ben Yadhan are little to none. 

Unless there is a smooth and eloquent prose, themes, characters, or plot twists are no longer the criteria we set when choosing the next Arabic book on our reading list. Taking into consideration the need of the new generation and the versatility of the Arabic language, we’ve rounded up a list of Arabic novels that will get you hooked while reigniting your love for the language, in honor of Arabic Language Day celebrated on Dec. 18.  

Empty Cages by Fatma Qandil

Few biographies are as fun and intriguing to read as this genre-defying novella from the Egyptian poet Fatma Qandil. With the eloquence of a poet and an exquisite mix of memories and imagination, Qandil pours her heart out in her debut novel while covering herself from any stigma by highlighting “what Fatma Qandil didn’t write”. 

The novel tells the story of many middle class Egyptian women, their untold trauma, and the violence they experience throughout their lives.  Qandil’s conciseness is exactly what makes this Mahfouz Medal-winning novel an enjoyable yet easy read.

Labyrinth Maps by Buthaina Al-Issa

When asked about the wherefores behind this novel on Goodreads, the Kuwaiti novelist Buthaina Al Issa replied that her husband pushed her to write a novel about “a kid who gets lost in the midst of a crowd”. The idea grew full-fledged in a chunky novel of 405 pages. 

Labyrinth Maps traces the story of a couple who, after losing their child in a flood of pilgrims and embark on a journey to find him, start fathoming their identity, relationship, and life values. Despite its length, the novel pushes the readers not to put down the book until they get answers about the events and a full understanding of the characters.  From one chapter to another, questions start to pop up in one’s mind: “What pushes people at the margins of society to turn to crime?” and “Why do people resort to faith in times of crisis while others are keen on questioning divine justice?” With each question, a burgeoning impulse to finish the book in one sitting starts to hit you.

The Baghdad Eucharist by Sinan Antoon

Dubbed by the Argentine-Canadian novelist and thinker Alberto Manguel as “one of the great fiction writers of our time”, Sinan Antoon is an Iraqi novelist, poet, and translator determined to put back Iraq on the international cultural map. Shortlisted for the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, The Baghdad Eucharist  unfolds in one day in violent Baghdad, tracing the story of Maha who sought refuge at a distant cousin’s house after a series of attacks on Christians in her neighborhood.  

Maha who was born in the interminable years of sanctions and wars got to know a first account of Iraq’s good years from Yussef (her cousin) who recalls them dearly and hopes one day the “beautiful Iraq” will be back. The story wraps up with desperate prayers to Maryam, or Mary, summarizing a story of one Christian family both torn and reunited by the war. 

Gaza Weddings by Ibrahim Nasrallah 

One of the greatest Palestinian novelists, Ibrahim Nasrallah started in 1985 a big personal, yet national, literary project labeled  Al-milhat al-filastiniyya  or the Palestine Comedies, through which he strives to trace 250 years of Palestinian history through a series of novels. 

Inspired by  Balzac’s Comédie humaine, Nasrallah used his prose, untold stories, and creativity to restore a history at stake. While you may be expecting a heart-wrenching series, the multi-award winning novelist knows exactly how to blend comedy, sarcasm, and drama for an unimpeachable page-turner. 

Gaza Weddings portrays contemporary Gaza with all of its contrasts, suffering, and trauma through the story of twin sisters Randa and Lamis and their friend Amna, who are determined to live life against the odds. Affirming life instead of simply surviving is the quest that makes the novel insightful and inspiring.

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