Five Middle Eastern Novelists You Should Read Right Now

By Gareth Rees
13 January 2019
Books, Authors, Middle East
The list includes some of the finest writers from Iraq, Egypt and Palestine

It’s time to add the work of some of the Middle East’s most talented novelists to your bedside pile and catch up with your regional reading. Here are five of the best.

1. Nihad Sirees

Syrian writer Nihad Sirees’ output includes several plays and the acclaimed television series The Silk Market, set during the political mayhem of ’50s and ’60s Aleppo – but he is best-known as Syria’s foremost contemporary novelist.  Sirees, a self-proclaimed “realist”, published his first novel, "Al-Saratan" (The Cancer), in 1987, and has gone on to pen six more. "The Silence and the Roar", the tale of a writer struggling with censorship in a Syrian dictatorship, was published in English translation by Pushkin Press in 2013, winning the Pen Award for outstanding writing in translation. His latest novel, "States of Passion", an English translation of 1998’s Halet Shaghaff, explores Aleppo’s ’30s golden age and the world of the banat al-ishreh, a society of female singers and dancers.

2. Ahmed Saadawi

In 2010, Hay Festival, the UK literary spectacular former US President Bill Clinton once referred to as “the Woodstock of the mind”, named Iraqi novelist Ahmed Saadawi one of the Beirut39, a list of the 39 hottest Arab writers under the age of 39. In 2014, Saadawi won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his 2013 novel "Frankenstein in Baghdad". Published in English translation by One World in February this year, the story of Hadi, a modern-day Dr Frankenstein who stitches together human body parts scavenged from the streets of Baghdad during the US occupation unwittingly creating a monster, was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2018.

3. Ahmed Khaled Towfik

The sad news: Egyptian physician and pioneering writer of genre fiction Dr Ahmed Khaled Towfik died in April 2018. The good news, if you read Arabic: Towfik, the first Arab writer to explore the horror, medical thriller and sci-fi genres, wrote more than 500 books in his native language – so there’s plenty to choose from. If not, "Utopia", his dystopian vision of a future Egypt in which the division between the impoverished and the wealthy is so vast their realities are entirely separate, is his only novel available in English translation.

4. Muhsin al-Ramli

Muhsin al-Ramli, who left his native Iraq for Spain in 1995, attracted attention with his first novel, "Scattered Crumbs", in 2000, fuelling the clamour with his second, "Dates on My Fingers", in 2008. His third, "The President’s Gardens", made his name. Longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2013, the novel described by fellow Iraqi author Ali Badr as “a hard critical examination of the power held by Saddam Hussein”, won a PEN Translated Award in 2016, and was finally published in English translation by MacLehose Press in 2018.

5. Mahmoud Shukair

Mahmoud Shukair is best-known as one of the most notable exponents of the short story form in the Arab world, but it transpires the Palestinian writer, who won the Mahmoud Darwish Prize for Freedom of Expression in 2011, is also a darn fine novelist. His 2016 novel, "Praise for the Women of the Family", the story of the Al-Abd al-Lat Bedouin clan related by its womenfolk, was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. It will be published in English translation by Interlink Books in November.