10 to try: Arabic novels

We've picked out 10 of the top reads to try if you're looking for something different to get stuck into this week

The Knowledge
Essential Tawfiq Al Hakim compiled by Denis Johnson-Davis
Essential Tawfiq Al Hakim compiled by Denis Johnson-Davis
Cell Block Five by Fadhil Al Azzawi
Cell Block Five by Fadhil Al Azzawi
Sunset Oasis by Bahaa Taher
Sunset Oasis by Bahaa Taher
Chicago by Alaa Al Aswani
Chicago by Alaa Al Aswani
The Essential Yusuf Idris compiled by Denis Johnson-Davies
The Essential Yusuf Idris compiled by Denis Johnson-Davies
Butterfly’s Burden by Mahmoud Darwish
Butterfly’s Burden by Mahmoud Darwish
Taxi by Khaled Al Khamissi
Taxi by Khaled Al Khamissi
Under The Naked Sky compiled by Denys Johnson-Davies
Under The Naked Sky compiled by Denys Johnson-Davies
Karnak Café by Naguib Mahfouz
Karnak Café by Naguib Mahfouz
In A Fertile Desert, selected and translated by Denys Johnson-Davies
In A Fertile Desert, selected and translated by Denys Johnson-Davies
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1 Essential Tawfiq Al Hakim compiled by Denis Johnson-Davis
A selection of the most important prose and stage works of the Egyptian playwright, this includes his best known full-length plays, The Sultan’s Dilemma and The Tree Climber, as well as an extract from his most popular novel, Diary Of A Country Prosecutor, drawing on his own experience as a public prosecutor in the Egyptian countryside.
Dhs105, Magrudy’s says: Perfect for your first taste of classic Arabic prose.

2 Cell Block Five by Fadhil Al Azzawi
Plucked from a Baghdad café and deposited in a cell for political prisoners, the plight of Cell Block Five’s hero Aziz mirrors that of the author’s own incarceration in Iraq. It’s a tribute to the prison’s men – both inmates and guards – and an indictment of man’s gratuitous inhumanity to man, showing how the transition from abused to abuser, tortured to torturer, can be all too easy.
Dhs77, Magrudy’s says: A truly compelling story that transcends cultural boundaries.

3 Sunset Oasis by Bahaa Taher
Winner of the first Arabic Booker Prize, Sunset Oasis is a historical tale set in late 19th century Egypt. Mahmoud, a disgraced Egyptian officer, is posted to the remote desert town of Siwa, accompanied by his Irish wife. But neither is prepared for the stultifying heat, the hostility of the townspeople, or the disturbing events that befall them in the other-worldliness of the Sunset Oasis. This is a tale of mystery and frustrated passions set against the backdrop of an exotic locale. The English translation is due out in October.
Dhs85, Magrudy’s says: Everyone’s talking about the forthcoming release of Sunset Oasis.

4 Chicago by Alaa Al Aswani
A competition to find the nation’s favourite book, launched at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair earlier this year, saw people vote in droves to name Chicago the winner. On the campus of the University of Illinois Medical Centre in a post-9/11 Chicago, a medley of Egyptian and American lives collide. Among the players are an anti-establishment American professor, whose relationship with a younger African-American woman becomes a moving target for intolerance; a veiled PhD candidate whose conviction in the code of her traditional upbringing is shaken by her exposure to American society; an émigré who has fervently embraced his new American identity, but cannot escape his Egyptian roots when faced with the issue of his daughter’s ‘honour’; and an Egyptian state security informant who spouts religious doctrines while hankering after money and power.
Dhs98, Magrudy’s says: One of the best examples of contemporary Arabic fiction.

5 The Essential Yusuf Idris compiled by Denis Johnson-Davies
Yusuf Idris wrote 12 collections of superbly crafted short stories, mainly bringing to life the experiences of ordinary, poor people. He also wrote numerous plays, novels and novellas, the best of which are also sampled here.
Dhs98, Magrudy’s says: Yusuf Idris is widely celebrated as the father of the Arabic short story.


6 Butterfly’s Burden by Mahmoud Darwish
One of the most acclaimed contemporary poets in the Arab world, Palestinian Darwish is also a prominent spokesman for human rights who has spent most of his life in exile. Butterfly’s Burden is a translation of his three most recent works: ‘The Stranger’s Bed’, about love as a private exile, not exile as a public love; ‘A Stage Of Seige’, in response to the second Intifada (uprising of Palestinian Arabs); and the 47 short lyrics of ‘Don’t Apologise For What You’ve Done’, an incarnation of the poet after the carnage.
Dhs150, Magrudy’s says: The place to go for your first taste of contemporary Arabic poetry.

7 Taxi by Khaled Al Khamissi
Taxi has been widely credited with reviving an interest in reading in the Arab world, instantly topping the sales charts in Arabic-speaking markets. Bringing together 58 fictional monologues with Cairo cabbies, recreated from the author’s own experiences, it paints the taxi driver as an urban omnivore whose high-speed colours, habits and moods reflect Cairo’s surrounding life and chaotic streets.
Dhs60, Magrudy’s says: Another essential example of the modern Arabic novel.

8 Under The Naked Sky compiled by Denys Johnson-Davies
This anthology of short stories portrays a colourful mosaic of life as lived by Arabs from Morocco to Iraq. There’s the old Moroccan peasant woman who kills snakes; an Iraqi soldier who returns home as a stranger after years as a prisoner-of-war; a repairer of lost virginities in a Tunisian village; the ill-fated attraction of a boy to a magical bird in the deserts of Libya; and a novel way of hunting ducks in the Nile Delta. Take it along when you catch the metro as you can read it in short bursts before reaching your stop.
Dhs105, Magrudy’s says: An important anthology of short stories collected from across the Arab world.

9 Karnak Café by Naguib Mahfouz
This is one of the Nobel Literature laureate’s most pointedly critical works, as relevant and incisive today as it was when first published in 1971. At a Cairo café, a cross-section of Egyptian society, young and old, rich and poor, are drawn together by the quality of its coffee and the allure of its owner, legendary former dancer Qurunfula. But when three of the patrons disappear for prolonged periods, customers display varying reactions to the news. On their return, they recount horrific stories of arrest and torture at the hands of the secret police, and the habitués of the café begin to withdraw from each other in fear, suspecting there is an informer among them. The café is transformed from a haven of cameraderie and bright-eyed idealism to an atmosphere charged with mounting suspicion, betrayal, and crushing disillusionment.
Dhs117, Magrudy’s says: A gripping novel from one of the most important Arabic writers of the 20th century.

10 In A Fertile Desert, selected and translated by Denys Johnson-Davies
Life before oil in the UAE was harsh, and many of the stories in this collection – by men and women from all corners of the country – tell of those times, as well as the almost unbelievable changes that have come about in the space of two generations.
Dhs77, Magrudy’s says: A revealing selection of short stories set in and around the UAE.

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