Whether you’re preparing for a trip, wanting to read a book in the language that you’re studying, looking to explore a new culture, or searching for the next great book to read, you'll love my list of five must-read books by Arab authors.
In addition to Arabic being one of the most beautiful languages — though I am from Morocco, I promise I am not biased (well, maybe just a little) — its literature is so rich and fascinating, it will be hard for you not to fall in love with it.
Here's a list of some of the most recognized works of Arab literature along with their English translations. They are all fantastic reads and some of my favorite bedtime reading companions. Although they were originally written in Modern Standard Arabic, you don’t have to learn Arabic to read them, but I can’t promise you won't be tempted to do so once you have.
1. One Thousand and One Nights — ألف ليلة وليلة
ألف ليلة وليلة [Alf layla wa-layla], often known in English as “The Arabian Nights,” or “One Thousand and One Nights,” is a magical set of Middle Eastern ‘stories within stories’ that has enchanted readers for centuries, and gives a very vivid picture of ancient and medieval Baghdad, Cairo, Basrah, Damascus, Turkey, Greece, India, and China.
2. Season of Migration to the North — موسم الهجرة إلى الشمال
موسم الهجرة إلى الشمال [Mawsim al-hijra ilâ ash-shamâl] is a beautiful contemporary novel by the novelist Tayeb Salih. It narrates the experiences of its two protagonists — the nameless narrator and Mustafa Sa'eed, two generations of the European-educated Sudanese elite through the period of domination by the British. It was selected by the Arab Academy of Damascus (the oldest academy regulating the Arabic language) as the most important Arab novel of the twentieth century.
3. Cities of Salt — مدن الملح
مدن الملح [Mudun al-Milh] is an epic contemporary novel by the Saudi writer Abdelrahman Munif. The first volume — and the most interesting one of the trilogy in my opinion — tells the story of a village somewhere on the Arabian peninsula, during a period when oil was discovered and utterly transformed the local way of life. The book was first published in Beirut in 1984 and was immediately recognized as a major work of Arab literature, as it charts the effects of the American colonization and the Arab regimes on local communities.
4. The Days — الأيام
الأيام [Al Ayyam] is an absolute classic among Arab literature. It is a three-part autobiography written by Taha Hussein — one of modern Egypt’s greatest thinkers and a leading cultural and public figure in the Middle-East and North Africa.
Each part of the book represents one of the three different stages of the life of an exceptional boy who overcame blindness and misery to achieve the highest education and earn his sobriquet as the ‘Dean of Arabic Literature.’ He was a widely recognized writer and intellectual, minister of education, and fourteen times Nobel prize nominee in literature. This unique autobiography is a story of hope and love, and it is an inspiration to anyone who reads it.
5. Miramar — ميرامار
ميرامار [Miramar] is among the powerful short novels written by the Egyptian Nobel Prize-winning author, Naguib Mahfouz. It is set in Alexandria in the early 1960s, and tells the story of Egypt and its revolution through the intertwining lives of a group of men living in an old boarding house, the Miramar, as they interact and hover around Zohra, a beautiful peasant girl who has run away from her village to avoid a forced marriage.
The character Zohra is the backbone of the novel, and she symbolizes the modern Egypt ideal in a turbulent historical period, as she is beautiful, intelligent, hardworking, and honest, but uneducated and constantly being pulled by different forces.
As you can see, reading literature from other parts of the world is a great way to be exposed to new ideas and perspectives and to explore other cultures. Looking to take your language-learning adventure to the next level? Learn Arabic and explore Arab cultures with Mango Languages’ practical Arabic (Modern Standard) course, which introduces you to Arabic vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, and culture — all through the context of real-world conversations.
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Are you a fan of Arabic literature? If so, share your favorite book with us in the comments section below!