Books We Read by Arabs in 2021

Samia & Summer team-up once again for a silly little listicle…

A collage of all of the books mentioned in the listicle, superimposed over a few Etel Adnan paintings.
Collage by Umang Kalra. Background created from elements of three Etel Adnan paintings (Abstract Landscape, Impossible Homecoming, Untitled).

Introduction

I’ve read a little over 50 books this year. I spent the first 2/3rds of it reviewing before I realized I actually hated doing it monthly because it interfered with Reading as a Hobby, which is allegedly my favorite hobby! This isn’t necessarily a recommendation list, more a Set of Facts. Since I am on the board for RAWI, I feel a sense of responsibility to be well-read when it comes to Arab lit in English; despite that, I know my biases: generally American, generally Palestinian. It’s sort of comforting that even though I have an abundance of titles here, there is still more, more, more to read! I love seeing the emerging trends in our communities, the way they follow along broader trends I see in contemporary poetry scenes or the ways they diverge, the ways they predict what is to come. I likely left some names off here by accident, I didn’t include books I did unfinished-rereads of (Hijra by Hala Alyan comes to mind), nor did I include books I worked on at my job, etc etc. My year in books, abridged! –Summer

I’m on track to read about 23 books this year which is only one off my goal! I started off with a sort of plan to read 1 nonfiction book and 1 poetry or fiction book each month, but by the end of the year I pivoted to almost exclusively reading novels because it feels the most interesting for me right now. But I also read some great poetry and nonfiction! Almost all of the books I read by Arab authors this year (like 6/8) were published in 2005 or earlier, which is a byproduct of me reorganizing my mom’s library last year and stealing all her duplicate copies of Arab and Arab-American fiction and poetry (and some non duplicate copies… haha …). Because I had all these books already, I spent some time this year really trying to delve into previous generations of Arab writing and to try to understand the foundations that explicitly or implicitly inform me and my friends’ work. I think it’s also worthwhile to study how our communal and individual goals and the questions we are asking with our work changes over time. Also how the audience shifts over time… lots of interesting stuff to engage with there! It was also cool towards the end of the year to read a couple of newer Arab-American novels and see the ways they build or diverge from past works. Also, sorry for the excessively long blurbs, but in fairness Summer read like 3x as many books as me so it’s only fair that my blurbs be 3x as long :) — Samia

January

Palestine: A Socialist Introduction edited by Sumaya Awad and and brian bean

Starting with something controversial on January 1st, 2021 baby! Or maybe January 3rd, something like that. The good: I think it was successful in its attempt to illustrate that Zionism is incompatible with socialism. Like, fascism isn’t socialism, lol. The bad: many have critiqued it for dismissing PFLP ideology & dehistoricizing Palestinian leftist movements. There was a lot of discourse on this book but to be SO honest, I’m kind of dumb so I couldn’t really tell you what I agree with and what I don’t! I don’t have a complex understanding of different Marxist theories. I didn’t care for the chapter on Gender & Sexuality which is maybe the only thing I have ~complex understanding of, so who knows. It felt more like there wasn’t enough space with that one, though. Anyway, I’m sure something terrible will happen in Palestine that makes it to the global attention and Haymarket will make it free again. –Summer

Salat by Dujie Tahat

This was a wonderful chapbook! I remember racing through it and immediately re-reading, then sending the author some nice DMs which I am trying to do more often. I want to re-read it next year, let the meditative nature of the book really wash over me in another repetition. –Summer

Sitt Marie Rose by Etel Adnan

It feels slightly shameful that it took me this long to read an Etel Adnan book, but I stole my mom’s extra copy of this book when I was reorganizing her library late last year so it was the first book I read this year and such a wonderful, short read. Most of the books I read this year by Arab authors were from my mom’s library and I really made an effort to read older works by Arabs, like the “classics” of Arab and Arab-American lit. So this was a great way to start off I think and really made me excited to read more work by Arabs that isn’t explaining itself to a white audience. I was also really interested in how Etel Adnan portrays Arab masculinity and violence in this book. I really want to return to this book soon!! –Samia

February

The Book of Disappearance by Ibtisam Azem, translated by Sinan Antoon

I checked this book out from the library in early 2021 but couldn’t get into it initially (my brain didn’t want to read a novel) but I ended up reviewing it for Strange Horizons and WOW! So glad I took another shot. It’s incredible! It’s written in a series of journalistic accounts and diary entries; I recently read Dracula, which is also diary entries and letters, and thought “well normally I don’t really enjoy this format but this worked” but now I am remembering, Book of Disappearance is probably the best use of this form out there! There’s a beautiful tension between the journalistic and the diaristic, an amazing formal convention to illustrate the dynamic between the main characters. A brilliant work of speculative fiction and such a perfect text for anyone who doubts Israel’s fascism. –Summer

BINT by Ghinwa Jawhari

This is another book I reviewed. I cold-emailed the author after seeing Hala Alyan post her blurb and was like, if Hala Alyan loved this, surely I will too! And I did! A spectacular, tight little chapbook. Exactly what a chapbook should be. You can read my review here! –Summer

March

Quiet Orient Riot by Nathalie Khankan

This was cool because the author was my professor! A really stunning meditation on raising a Palestinian child with some cool formal tricks and linguistic turns. –Summer

Set Music to a Wildfire by Ruth Awad

One of my favorite books from the first half of the year! I’ve loved Ruth’s poems for a while and realized how ridiculous it was that I hadn’t read her actual book. Such a gift. Some of my favorite poems were “My Father is the Sea, the Field, the Stone,” “After”, and “Lessons in Grief”. –Summer

Men in the Sun & Other Palestinian Stories by Ghassan Kanafani

I really loved this one, I mean what can I even say about Kanafani that the world doesn’t already know. I am not always a huge fan of short stories but I really enjoyed these, and I would love to read more Kanafani! It does make me sad that I can’t read Arabic better though. I think my favorite piece was “Letter from Gaza,” but honestly I do need to return to this book too. –Samia

April

A Theory of Birds by Zaina Alsous

This was a re-read! I can’t remember why I did, but I think it’s good for the mind/body/soul to continuously read Zaina Alsous’s work. I will read “Violence” over and over and over again, forever. –Summer

Zaatardiva by Suheir Hammad

I became so utterly obsessed with this book that I actually read one of the poems as part of my wedding vows in June. I don’t even know how to talk about Suheir Hammad’s poetry and what it does to me. I think her language has a simplicity that I adore and envy. This book definitely changed my focus as a writer, or perhaps made me return to things I had lost in the process of pursuing capital W Writing. What I love about her poetry is that it doesn’t feel contrived in any way. Someone also rudely misplaced the CD that came with my copy, so I didn’t get to listen to her read all of the poems, but the ones I did find online (and the ones I’ve heard her read in person) are totally unparalleled. There’s only a few poems out there in the world that I constantly return to and ruminate on in my day to day life, but “be kafee” has now achieved that status for me. I also wrote a poem very loosely inspired by this book and Suheir Hammad’s style generally ❤. –Samia

May

50 Water Dreams by Siwar Masannat

Fargo Tbakhi recommended this book to me and cited it as an influence, so of course I bought it immediately. Haunting, stunning, some incredible anticolonial bangers. –Summer

Enemy of the Sun: Poetry of Palestinian Resistance edited & translated by Naseer Aruri and Edmund Ghareeb

Sweet George Abraham sent me a PDF of this jacked from the [redacted] library and oh shit! It feels so good to read some foundational texts and remember how this language and feeling lives within us, and have those feelings affirmed/reiterated by those who came before us. –Summer

June

When We Were Arabs by Massoud Hayoun

I loved this, lots of great history and a really beautiful work of political memoir! It’s different from what I normally read (as you can see this list is all poetry) and so I was glad to push myself. There’s been some critique that it romanticises pre-48 SWANA a bit too much, which like, yeah, sure. I think it’s in service of a larger narrative? But I get it. –Summer

July

Love is an Ex-Country by Randa Jarrar

As is the case with many prose works I find relatable, some of this book was hard to read (had to put it down for a few weeks after starting the chapter focused on eating disorders) but as always Randa is the best and I will read any work she puts out ever because I am always enlightened and ruined. –Summer

who is owed springtime by Rasha Abdulhadi

As a book object, I’m soooo enamored by this guy; a perfect little trim with a gorgeous cover and the softest pages? An incredible complement to the exploratory, beautiful poems within. Rasha is a new friend and being able to spend time with their words like this was a gift! –Summer

Field of No Justice by Sara Elkamel

I almost forgot this one since it’s not on my G**dr**ds list because it’s part of the African Poetry Book Fund chapbook set! I really want to get the entire boxset, but for now I’m thankful Sara sent me a copy of her MS. She’s one of those impeccable formalists who I will always be so, so inspired and impressed by. –Summer

Food for Our Grandmothers: Writings by Arab-American and Arab-Canadian Feminists edited by Joe Kadi

I have read this book in bits and pieces over the years but wanted to sit down and really read it all as one. It took me a while to get through but I’m glad I did it. It’s such a foundational text for me and I’m lucky to know many of the contributors (my mom has pieces in it). I have so many thoughts on this book, which is a much longer conversation for another time and project, but I think it’s rich and beautiful and offers many reminders for us to return to. It came out at a very interesting time, after both the first invasion of Iraq and the First Intifada but before 9/11, the second wave of imperialist wars in the Middle East, and the Second Intifada, historical experiences that seem so critical for how we define Arab and SWANA identities now. As a historian, I think it is a fascinating historical document of a moment in our communal history that we can never really return to, but also a moment in which the shifts in Arab and SWANA racialization that are now so ingrained in global consciousness were perhaps only beginning. So, parts of it are dated, but dated in an unbelievably interesting way. And also many parts of it are incredibly insightful and propose feminist understandings of ourselves and our community that are deeply necessary to return to and continue to engage with. I think this is a hugely important text for younger Arab feminists to return to and start conversation with and around. –Samia

August

Rifqa by Mohammed El-Kurd

This was another review, but of course I was going to read it no matter what! Spectacular, spectacular, I hope it gets into bookstores nationwide and drives sooooo many Zionists mad. I loved “Laugh,” and “Autobiography” the most. –Summer

staircase by Zein Sa’dedin

Another book by a sweet friend. Zein is so incredibly talented, and I read her full-length this year (unpublished) just for fun, which made me lose my mind honestly — I love to see her thriving. I interviewed her in Sumou mag and she really turned my whole world over when she said writing was a reductive act. Brilliant. –Summer

VILLAINY by Andrea Abi-Karam

This rocked! I also reviewed this book. It’s so cool to see a poet really find an incredible stride in their second book. I’ve recommended it to so, so many people and have been thinking about it in larger conversations with regards to poetry & activism, why these overlaps exist, and who they serve. Andrea read some of the opening poems from the book during RAWIFEST and oh my GOD they sound so fucking good aloud. –Summer

The Wild Fox of Yemen by Threa Almontaser

I saw Threa read at a virtual event through the Indigena collective and fell in love instantly. This book was on my radar, as most contemporary books by Arab Americans are, but I had told myself to give it a rest with the BUYING and ACCUMULATING BOOKS. But I couldn’t resist. It’s great! The poems are long & energetic & fun & complicated. It’s been getting a lot of recognition, too, which is so nice. Go Threa! –Summer

Emails from Scheherazad by Mohja Kahf

I read most of this book out loud with my partner which was super sweet and fun. I mention this mostly because it was really tied up in my reading of it. This book tells stories of Arab America, of Syria, and of the many ways people share identity across geographies. My partner, an Arab raised in the region, and I, an Arab american, found ourselves and each other and our friends and communities in these poems. I also especially loved the title poem, and (shameless self plug) wrote a poem after it. So cool to think about how our legends and modern technology and traditions and evolving ideas of gender and relationships intersect. Mohja Kahf gave me a lot of inspiration, which not every poetry book can do. –Samia

September

You Ask Me To Talk About the Interior by Carolina Ebeid

I’ve loved Carolina Ebeid’s poetry for a few years, and similarly to Ruth Awad, was just like: why don’t I have her book? I treated myself to it after a particularly rough month and WOW! What a gift. Her mind is so ethereal and I clutched my chest at so many moments, read so many of the poems aloud over & over again. I also read this book while high and let me tell you! That’s a good experience. I wrote a poem after reading this book, which is always the best feeling. I really love poets who create these sacred spaces in their work. We can inhabit the most ordinary of rooms but through their eyes it’s basically an astral plane! That’s how I felt reading this and how I want all of my poems to feel. My favorites in the collection were “Punctum/Metaphora” “Waiting Room” and “Errata”. –Summer

You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat

I read this book because Summer kept saying how good it was and I am very glad I did. This book was the first novel I read after many months of not reading novels and it reminded me that novels are fun! And wonderful! And I should read more! I loved this book and all the very human chaos it contains. It is primarily a portrait of relationships and you get to know the protagonist through her various relationships, which is a really interesting approach and one I enjoyed. She feels like a friend that you’re watching grow and change and engage in various degrees of self destruction, and all you can really do is care and hope for her. I like that certain relationships in this book remain deeply unresolved. It feels like a very real portrait of life. This one had a lot of annoying g**dreads reviews, which I should probably ignore, but I’ll just say that calling the main character unlikeable feels weird when she’s clearly being written with a lot of care and reflection and the whole book is about her trying to become better in the way she navigates relationships and grow and recover from trauma!! –Samia

October

Ms Marvel: Stretched Thin, written by Nadia Shammas, illustrated by Nabi H. Ali

Nadia is my friend!!!! I was ecstatic to see her get to write a Ms. Marvel graphic novel. I went to many comic shops to find this guy and they were all kind of grumpy about it, which made me have an existential breakdown over the difference between “comics” and “graphic novels” — it’s dumb! They’re the same. Nabi H. Ali’s (not Arab but you cannot talk about a graphic novel without talking about the art) art is really gorgeous and suited Kamala so well! Whenever I read something for children I just think about how warm I would have felt being a kid, reading it, getting access to characters like this. Nadia and I are very similar people, so seeing what she put into Kamala felt so validating and wonderful. Inner-child healing, etc etc. –Summer

The Arsonist’s City by Hala Alyan

I had a library hold on a copy of this book for TWELVE WEEKS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Let me tell you, the wait was worth it. Holy shit! I really liked Hala’s first novel, Salt Houses, and she is actually my #1 favorite living poet (don’t tell anyone else), but WOW I was kind of overwhelmed with how much I loved this book. It’s a juicy, family drama that weaves the multiple narratives perfectly and has incredible payoffs. It’s kind of cool to see Palestinians at the center even when the descriptive copy wouldn’t make you think so. I cried a lot during this, but in a different way than when I read Salt Houses? Which was kind of traumatizing lol. But ARSONIST’S CITY….I’m going to get my mom the audiobook. It’s perfect, perfect, perfect. Best novel of the year, which I can say because I only read like 3 novels a year. –Summer

Crescent by Diana Abu Jaber

This book genuinely made me cry, which is rare. I think my favorite part of this book was the magical story Sirine’s uncle tells her throughout the book that weaves its way through the primary narrative and ties in perfectly with the story. Extremely classic Arab uncle behavior. Parts of this book feel a bit dated, but I find it useful to read narratives about Arab identity from before everyone became super jaded about identity and representation, even if they seem simplistic. I adore the complexity of this novel and the truly stunning prose about food. This novel feels both mythical and incredibly real and human. It’s hard to pick favorites, but this was definitely one of my favorite reads this year.

Also I got mad after reading g**dreads reviews of this book and frankly I think white women in book clubs should be banned from reviewing certain books. Beyond some of them being just racist and islamophobic, I was honestly shocked at how many people described this book primarily as a romance, when it is in fact a very heavy narrative about war and exile (this seems like a common feature of BookTok too…. hmmmm). Also people seemed to really dislike the 3mmo story and to that I say you are simply wrong. –Samia

The Thirty Names of Night by Zeyn Joukhadar

I loved reading this book immediately after reading Crescent because they feel deeply connected as part of a lineage of Arab-American magical realism. There are many similarities, particularly the abundant sense of community built through the novels in a way that feels very natural and familiar, and the shifting between two interwoven narratives, one historical (or mythical), and one present, with both narratives intersecting throughout. The subjects of the works are very different, but both of these novels were among my most joyful and engaging reads of the year, for similar reasons I think. If anyone has suggestions of books with a similar feel, I would love to check out more.

On its own, The Thirty Names of Night is a really beautiful and emotional story with so much careful detail. It is an incredibly visual book and the art described in its pages feels real to me. I also loved the ideas this book has about history, both the histories of our ancestors and the histories unfolding before our eyes (represented particularly well through the memory knots, one of my favorite details in this book). Overall would highly recommend!! –Samia

November

In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country by Etel Adnan

Oh, what a bittersweet memory. I finished this book on a Saturday, the day before Etel Adnan died. It is my favorite work of hers. Samia tells me a lot about booktok and we make fun of people’s “BOOKS EVERYONE SHOULD READ” list because they just look like an American high school English class syllabus, but this is MY BOOK EVERYONE SHOULD READ BEFORE THEY DIE! I think it touches on feelings that, if you’re not already feeling them, you really should be. I feel so lucky to have been able to savor this text with the knowledge that I was sharing an Earth with Etel Adnan. –Summer

Like We Still Speak by Danielle Badra

This was the winner of the 2020 Etel Adnan prize! I wasn’t familiar with Dani’s work before they were announced the winner, but WOW. Holy shit man. This book is an absolute masterclass on form and all of the ways it can enhance things you cannot say. It’s contrapuntal city in here! Danielle uses poems from her late sister to build many of them, and so the really intricate language is just imbued with that much more emotionality? Ridiculous, beautiful, an ode and elegy and honor. Definitely one of the most impressive poetry books I’ve read. My favorite poem was titled “Inheritance.” –Summer

December

Food for Our Grandmothers: Writings by Arab-American and Arab-Canadian Feminists edited by Joe Kadi

I’d read excerpts from this collection while I was working on my senior thesis (which was on food and Palestinian American women poets) but finally was motivated to read it in its entirety by Samia! There are some spectacular essays in here, some that are very dated, some that left me wanting to fight the author if I saw them at a RAWI event (I’ll never tell which ones), and others where you’re like, yeah, true! I feel so lucky to have access to this lineage, so queer and feminist and anti-war right off the bat. It was also cool to be like “oh my friend’s mom wrote this :)” –Summer

Dancing on the Tarmac by Tarik Dobbs

Tarik is also my friend!!!! And another person whose unpublished full-length I read this year, lol. This chapbook rocks. Tarik is so, so good with space and text art and writes some absolute nail-biters. Underneath the visually complicated or interesting works are always stunning words that complete the power of the image. –Summer

Next up

Summer:

So, I technically still have 4 books left on my G**dr**ds goal. I probably won’t make it, but I’m currently reading From Spirit to Matter: New & Selected Poems, 1969–1996 by Carol Lee Sanchez, a Lebanese and Laguna Pueblo poet. She was recommended by Ahimsa Timoteo Bodhrán during RAWIFEST, who cited her as absolutely foundational, so here I am! I really want to finish Thirty Names of Night, which I had a hold on that lapsed, and also read Zeyn Joukhadar’s other book Map of Salt and Stars. I always say I want to read more novels and don’t. I’ll probably make a concerted effort to read more broadly across SWANA (even with regards to Arab authors lol), as my list is always….very Palestinian. I want to read more works in translation, more foundational texts and more educational or critical works, and as always, keep up with all of the poetry. Would love recommendations! Others on my to-read:

Crescent by Diana Abu Jaber (thank you Samia!)

Love Letters by Khalil Gibran and May Ziadah, translated and edited by Suheil Bushrui and Salma Haffar al-Kuzbari

Opening the Gates: An Anthology of Arab Feminist Writing edited by Margo Badran and miriam cooke

DEAR GOD. DEAR BONES. DEAR YELLOW. by Noor Hindi (new release!)

SQUIRE by Sara Alfageeh and Nadia Shammas (new release!)

Bride of the Sea by Eman Quotah

Samia:

I’m still building my 2022 to read list and welcome suggestions (especially novels! And maybe more literary nonfiction) for books by SWANA writers that I should check out. I’m currently reading Randa Jarrar’s Love is an Ex-Country, which will likely be my first book finished in the new year. Here are a few others that are either waiting on my shelves or I am desperately trying to get a copy of:

The Arsonist’s City by Hala Alyan (shoutout to Summer for hyping this up so much)

Words Under the Words by Naomi Shihab Nye

Conditional Citizens by Laila Lalami

Contortionist Tongue by Dania Ayah Alkhouli

Baddawi by Leila Abdelrazaq

I would also really like to read more Diana Abu-Jaber books, but I’m not sure whether I want to start with Arabian Jazz, Birds of Paradise, or her memoir The Language of Baklava. And I have a couple of recent Mizna issues that I need to work my way through!

Like Summer, I also would like to aim to read more works from authors across SWANA and more non-Arab SWANA authors, and I would also like to read more newer works since so many of my books this past year were older. I am super open to recommendations!

Summer Farah is a Palestinian American poet and editor. She co-writes the biweekly newsletter Letters to Summer.