Summer Farah
48 min readJun 21, 2022


A collage of our favorite books from the first half of this year.


We hit 50 book reviews!! As a treat, we are releasing another installment of the Summer & Samia listicle series that probably no one but us will read in its entirety! And that’s ok! But if you’ve ever been like “I would like to read more books by SWANA authors but I don’t know where to start” here are 50 suggestions! (technically 47 because 3 of these were so nice we had to review them twice!!) Whereas last year our reviews were basically all positive, this year we both pushed through a few books that we did not like, so expect some hater reviews (but mostly glowing as usual)!!! Maybe this goes without saying, but please do not tag authors for the negative reviews, that is mean.

This year we both wanted to try to read more works from non-Arab and especially non-Shami authors since our list last year definitely had a heavy bias, so we decided to expand this to broadly include authors from or with heritage in Southwest Asia and North Africa. SWANA is obviously not a perfect category either, but this shift has pushed us to read much more broadly and diversely across the region and we hope it will encourage others to do the same. Of course, if any of the authors in this list don’t align with “SWANA” as an identifier, please let us know so we can make changes! This batch of the list also definitely still overrepresents Shami Arabs, but we are always seeking reading recommendations and always aiming to expand our scope. If you want to send us free books, that’s cool too :~)

Because this list is massive, we’ve split them up into shorter lists by genre if you want to browse your preferred reading material more closely. Miscellaneous includes mostly nonfiction and one graphic novel!

Happy SWANA book reading ❤

  • Summer & Samia





(1) The Arsonists’ City by Hala Alyan

It was a mistake to read this as my first book of the year because now how will anything ever compare again? Tbh I’m shocked how little hype this book has received outside of my SWANA writer circles since I’m pretty sure it’s the best book that came out in 2021 or possibly ever. I adore how this book builds a fantastically familiar narrative around the Arab urge to keep secrets, what secrets allow us to do and how they hurt us. I also love the development of Mazna’s character, the insight into Arab motherhood and womanhood from such a sharp and complicated character. Everyone in this story feels familiar in both lovely and uncomfortable ways. This book is just honestly so brilliant and funny and sad and the story is perfectly arranged. I thought a 400+ page book would take me ages to get through but I read this one in a little over 2 days. I rarely feel satisfied by the ending of books with this much build up, but this one was perfect!! I will now join all the friends who recommended this book to me in hyping this book up to anyone who will listen. — Samia

(2) Customs by Solmaz Sharif

I caved and pitched around a review of this book to a few journals at the end of 2021 because I realized I just couldn’t wait until March like a normal person to read it, and oh my GOD!!!! Solmaz Sharif, greatest of all time. I’ll link my review here, because I don’t think I need to reiterate everything, but goodness. This book! This book. I re-read it all through February while writing and not reading anything else, too. I will never forget, “A life is a thing you have to start,” from “Beauty,” the second poem in the collection. What a gift it is to live at the same time as her. — Summer

(3) The Language of Baklava by Diana Abu-Jaber

After Samia praised Crescent so thoroughly, I decided it was time to read a book that had been in the back of my mind for several years. Basically after the first chapter until the end I was mourning how I hadn’t read this SOONER? God, it’s just such an incredible contribution to Arab American literatures; so full of warmth and unravels the deep sorrow held in our families and the horrible little messes that come along with Arabness in such a natural and quite honestly fun way. There’s a section where Diana describes eating mansaf in Jordan with her Bedouin family and it literally brought me to tears! Food writing is something I’ve always aspired to and having this memoir as a new model has given me a renewed sense of excitement and ambition. Also, I’m completely devoted to this author and will be reading all of her books. I’m excited to try some of the recipes, too! — Summer

(4) Arabian Jazz by Diana Abu-Jaber

Clearly 2022 is the year of Diana Abu-Jaber. I decided to read Arabian Jazz next because it’s got a great title (and I’m obsessed with the extremely 90s original hardcover cover art please look it up) and while I didn’t love it as much as Crescent, it’s so fun and clever and weird and sometimes sad in the best way possible. Though it’s a bit confusing and disjointed in its narrative at times, it is a really beautifully written book. This book challenged a lot of my own expectations of what sort of Arab-American fiction could be published in the early 90s. I love the eccentricity of this book, especially the father who starts a jazz band and loves garden gnomes. I was also really intrigued by the relationships between the Ramoud family and the poor white community they’ve settled in, and particularly the connections Abu-Jaber makes between Arab womanhood and poor white womanhood. I’m really excited to read more of her work!! –Samia

(5) Look by Solmaz Sharif

This was a re-read, just so I could get a refresher before I wrote my review of Customs; I still think this book is a perfect book! It’s amazing to see how her work has grown between the debut and her second book, though–I didn’t think anything could be better than Look, but maybe Customs is….this is still a ringing endorsement, though, for a book I’ve read dozens of times & will carry with me forever. If you’ve not read it yet, you’re really missing out on a ground-breaking, generation-setting, foundational text for anti-imperial poetics & probably one of the #1 influences for SWANA writers today. — Summer



(6) Nothing More to Lose by Najwan Darwish, trans. Kareem James Abu-Zeid

I’d seen Najwan Darwish’s poems circulating on Twitter for a while and so when I saw this copy on an ill-advised used bookstore run, I knew it was time. This was a great read — I honestly normally get through poetry books really fast, but this one actually took me a few days to read. The poems aren’t dense, necessarily, but incredibly rich; I don’t often read high-contemporary poets in translation, but I definitely need to do it more often. — Summer



(7*) Customs by Solmaz Sharif

Ok I know we all know that Solmaz Sharif is the greatest poet of all time but this book genuinely blew my mind which I didn’t think was possible after Look. I literally don’t even have words for how much I love and respect her poetry, I just feel truly honored to get to read her. I was particularly interested in how she engages with wellness and self-help/self-improvement culture in this book. More generally, I really look to her work as such a powerful example of what it means to have a committed politic as a poet and to not let poetry exist for poetry’s own sake. I think she does so much analysis within these poems of her own shortcomings and commitments and frameworks, and above all I appreciate the honesty of this work. It’s so hard to put this book into words, so just go read it, or read it again!! — Samia

(8) The Other Americans by Laila Lalami

Ugh. Ughhhhhhhh. I wanted to like this book because I haven’t read anything by Laila Lalami yet and her books (including this one! Arab American Book Award winner!) are highly celebrated but this book sucked and made me so mad ughhhhhh. I went into it with some hesitation knowing it’s a mystery and there would be cops and a character who is an Iraq war veteran but I expected it to be handled better. The main thing I want to make clear is a bit of a spoiler but I think it’s important that people know this about the book because I didn’t going in and wouldn’t have read it had I known! So: the veteran character in this book is way more prominent than I expected, he is not just a veteran but, at the time of the book, currently a cop, AND he’s the love interest of the Moroccan woman main character!!! This book also switches first person POV each chapter and he gets by far more speaking time than any other character except Nora, more even than Nora’s mom, the wife of the man who dies. This book prioritizes white veteran perspectives over many of its own Moroccan characters & the way it was billed felt really misleading. I am just so sick and TIRED of Arabs and veterans being posed in media as inherently linked figures. I don’t care how much regret the veteran character has, I don’t want to read first person accounts of invasion as veterans’ trauma, especially in a book promoted towards SWANA audiences. The most generous read of this book is that at least the presentation of the veteran character is anti-war, but the same cannot be said for the presentation of the police. At no point are any of the cop characters engaged critically, the police are generally presented as helpful to this family dealing with a potential murder (unrealistic), and, perhaps my least favorite detail, there’s a police brutality case that keeps getting referenced in only the most oblique terms and is never contextualized at all. It’s literally just presented without comment and repeatedly brought up, possibly to signify critique of the police, but in the most limited way possible. It’s lazy and dehumanizing and bad!! Do not read this book! — Samia

(9) Washes, Prays by Noor Naga

This book was a co-winner of the Arab American Book Award in poetry in 2021; I hadn’t heard of it before then! I’m very intrigued by the recent surge of “novels-in-verse” and so I figured I had to read this one. Honestly, the really quirky prose poems that make up this book is kind of the best/only way to get me read a book with the premise of affair-with-older professor; the relationship is the thrust of the text, sure, but the prose poems are so WEIRD AND COOL AND GOOD that it makes the narrative far more interesting & surprising than it might have in plain narrative prose. Very quick and good read. — Summer

(10) Squire by Sara Alfageeh and Nadia Shammas

This is a graphic novel & it healed my inner child!!!! I’d been waiting for it since it was announced, basically, so it’s been my most-anticipated for basically three years. A fantasy-lite medieval setting inspired by the SWANA region with a vibrant cast of child soldiers led by the scrappiest girl with a sword…it was written for me! The story was beautiful, the art absolutely insane (Sara gives her characters the BEST facial expressions), and I cried a lot. Maybe too many times! It kind of hit all of the beats I need something to hit, but isn’t derivative or unoriginal–just familiar in an exciting way. Different than we’ve seen before, but warm. Everyone has to go buy it & read it so that the publisher sees how beloved it is and gives Sara & Nadia an advance large enough that it warrants all of the labor that goes into make a graphic novel and we get a sequel (which I do think it needs….I need to see Aiza and Basem and Husni again) — Summer

(11) Bride of the Sea by Eman Quotah

This was another recent SWANA-american novel that has been widely praised and frankly after The Other Americans I felt slightly skeptical that it would live up to the hype but this book did NOT disappoint and pulled me out of my grumpy reading mood. This book was much less focused on the action and drama of a kidnapping than I expected, which was honestly really refreshing. Instead, it’s more of a portrait of this expansive family and kinship network and the long-term trauma and ramifications of divorce, kidnapping, and immigration. It also paints a really interesting portrait of dissidence and violence in and between Saudi and the U.S. I think this book is witty and sweet and beautiful and challenging in its portrayal of family and kinship. Overall I really enjoyed this book and definitely recommend it ❤ — Samia

(12*) The Language of Baklava by Diana Abu Jaber

I loved this book! It was such a sweet little memoir mostly focused around her relationships with her family and her relationship with her father specifically. There’s a lot of sweet familial joy in this and it’s contained in the recipes as well (I can’t wait to make some!) I also love how it’s told as a series of vignettes framed around meals and food. A lot of memoirs are (understandably) heavy and focus a lot around family struggles and trauma, and this one feels a lot lighter and easier but still grapples with immigration and distance and other emotional challenges. I wish I had read this before Arabian Jazz just to understand the context better. It had so much of the quirky family joy of Arabian Jazz but a more cohesive narrative structure. Great read. — Samia

(13) Rifqa by Mohammed El-Kurd

This book is SO GOOD but my sole complaint is I wish there was an audiobook or some recording of him reading these poems because the few that I’ve heard (mostly older versions on his EP) are so much richer when he performs them. The page can’t fully capture the power of these poems, but god they’re still incredible on the page. I also really love the variety in these poems, and especially loved the short essays at the end to frame and explicitly name the decolonial power of this work and tell the beautiful story of his grandmother for whom the work is named. I adore how this work is framed as a continuation of her life and am honored to read it. — Samia

(14) Pilgrim Bell by Kaveh Akbar

I loooove Kaveh, his work is always so sweet and loving and careful but also wild and brilliant and I feel like I aspire to write like him more than almost any other poet. I read this book on a day when I was feeling meh and struggling to read other stuff and I read through it in under an hour. Kaveh’s poetry always makes me feel better, comforted. I was surprised that my favorite poem in this book was a longer one (“Forfeiting My Mystique”). Like Calling a Wolf a Wolf, I know I’ll return to this book often!! — Samia

(15) The Wild Fox of Yemen by Threa Almontaser

We’re powering through the poetry this month baby!! This book rocks. I’m newer to Threa’s poetry though I have read some of her work before I got this book but I am just enamored by the voice and the vibe of these poems. The poems in this book are mostly pretty long, so it took me a little longer to get through than some of the other books I’ve read recently, but it was absolutely worth it. The last 2 poems were my favorite I think, but it’s hard to choose! Summer says these poems are great to hear her read so I’ll be looking for readings!! — Samia

(16) Deluge by Leila Chatti

It took me too long to get to but now I have read it and I will not shut up about it!! Ok before I get to the poetry, can I just say that this book is such a beautiful little object, the inside covers, the cover art, etc., perfect. This is also one of the most effectively structured poetry books I’ve ever read, I’m really in awe tbh. There’s so much delicious variety in these poems, even between poems that deal with the same experiences and material. It seems so hard to do a book that is like a project book rather than just a collection of poems about various things but this is up there with Look for me as like the most effective examples of that. A true classic!! — Samia

(17) Contortionist Tongue by Dania Ayah Alkhouli

My last SWANA poetry for the moment!! Dania is a friend I met in the same workshop where I met Summer! I’ve had her book for a while and wanted to work through it along with other SWANA poetry books I’ve been meaning to get to. It’s a sweet quick read!! Some heavier stuff but Dania also has a witty voice that comes through in these poems. I especially liked the poems about her grandparents ❤ — Samia

(18) the magic my body becomes by Jess Rizkallah

Decided to to go back to a classic in the midst of a hard month! Jess was the first Arab American poet whose work I heard/read and also the first Arab American poet I connected with online. She is now one of my best friends and one of the most important people in the world to me! We were talking about old work and how we change/grow and she said she thought her book was cringe, I assured her it wasn’t, but then needed to confirm that it wasn’t, in fact, cringe–yeah! It’s not! Still a fucking banger, still an absolutely essential text for all of us. — Summer

(19) Articulations of Resistance: Transformative Practices in Contemporary Arab American Poetry by Sirene Harb

So I wrote my senior thesis on contemporary Palestinian American women poets and had a really hard time finding theoretical frameworks and previously published scholarly texts to pull from. God, I wish I had this book back then! There’s a really great overview of Arab American poetry in the first chapter and a nice diversity of both form and region covered in each section. This is a book of literary scholarship, so I don’t necessarily recommend it as a breezy read, but it was some good brain food for sure. — Summer



(20) The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine

I read this book on a recommendation from Zeyn Joukhadar after hearing his brilliant (brilliant brilliant!!) lecture “What is (not) a trans novel?” He mentioned this book as an example of “braiding time” in stories, which is one of my favorite elements of SWANA fiction that I’ve read (Crescent, Zeyn’s novel The Thirty Names of Night, etc.) so it motivated me to pick it up. I’m honestly in awe of this book and what it does with narrative. I just think it’s so artful and captures the intergenerational practices of oral storytelling so clearly and compellingly on the page. I was also surprised by how funny this book is?? Especially the “past” stories, which I thought would be dry or hard to get through, but were often like laugh out loud funny or weird or disturbing or just odd. And the “present” story is beautiful and a perfect family saga. I think this book is probably not for everyone, but it definitely felt like it satisfied my intense love for these deeply SWANA models of storytelling. It was nice to sink into something so long and complex after reading a lot of poetry!! — Samia

(21) Dear God. Dear Bones. Dear Yellow. by Noor Hindi

I read this in advance of an interview with Noor that didn’t actually happen, lol, for her DEBUT FULL-LENGTH!!!!!! It is so wonderful to see a collection come to life. I read an older draft of this book when she was shopping it around and oh my goodness, seeing it in its real (e-galley) form! What a gift! What a gift it is to have friends like this! I think I had permanent goosebumps for the entire last half. Noor is really good with last lines in poems. There’s this consistent breathlessness, like someone is looking directly at you, firmly, quietly, at the end of each one. As if they’re daring you to respond. It makes sense that “witness” is a theme so often throughout–witness, interruption, the repetition of glimpses of yellow. The symbols in this book are special. The poems are controlled until they’re not. Read, read, read! — Summer

(22) The Four Humors by Mina Seçkin

Ahhhhhh!!! This book was so good!! It has a lot of similar themes to The Arsonists’ City except from more of a new adult/coming of age framework and also the pacing is very different. It deals with grief, family secrets, Turkish political history, and weird relationship dynamics in a way that is so clever and sweet. The language in this book is really beautiful and poetic and I also loved the weaving of the four humors history through this book. I feel like it deeply satisfied my own love of weird bizarre elements in fiction. There was some intense portrayal of eating disorder in this book around the main character’s sister which was a bit challenging to read but on the whole this was really lovely and complex. I feel like I want to stay in this book’s world a little longer. This is such a great debut novel & I would love to read more from Mina Seçkin one day ❤ — Samia

(23) Bird Summons by Leila Aboulela

I felt wishy-washy on this until pretty close to the end, but upon finishing it my feelings are mostly positive. The book follows three women, connected through a Muslim women’s group, who go on a trip together. What I found most compelling from the start was the dynamic between the women, who are not really friends but are together by circumstance, and who are kind to each other but privately very judgemental. I found this dynamic engaging! A lot of my skepticism came from the fact that this judgment sometimes plays out in fatphobia and ableism (one of the women has a disabled son), and at times it felt unclear how much of that was on the part of the characters vs. the author. I still feel skeptical of the disabled son narrative because he is almost entirely absent from the novel despite driving so much of the story, but in the end I think the narrative focuses fairly positively on his mother unlearning her self martyrdom about having a disabled child (but I am not disabled so welcome other opinions). There’s some interesting reflection on SWANA patriarchy & I did really enjoy the magical realism of this book. It takes a pretty hard genre shift into the magical towards the end. Overall an interesting novel, but not one of my favs. — Samia

(24) The Mothers by Dorianne Laux & Leila Chatti

This was the third co-written chapbook I’ve read! They’re super interesting, especially since this is the first time I’ve read one where I am not familiar with one of the writers at all (Dorianne) vs very familiar with the other (Leila). As an object itself, this chapbook is GORGEOUS. It’s a weird trim size, a little bigger than your average book, but my goodness the paper feels SO nice and there’s a really lovely gold endpaper, as well as nice stitching. I think it’s a limited run because at the end of the book there’s a little line that says “This is the ___ printed copy” and mine was the 20th! Anyway, about the poems–I knew which ones were Leila’s and which ones were Dorianne’s only sometimes. It’s very possible they did an even alternation, but there were poems I’d heard Leila read before and there were poems that I knew were grounded in her specificity; co-written chapbooks are so interesting with regards to authorship and voice — this chapbook has a really nice blend, and the poems really do play off each other so nicely. I read it in two sittings, which is weird for me for a chapbook, but the poems really were so rich. — Summer

(25) If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English by Noor Naga

I read this book twice in one week, once as audiobook and once as physical book! And I will say, I’m not usually a fan of audiobooks, but this one truly rocks. And the physical book allowed me to engage more deeply with the text, so both good choices I think! I really didn’t know what to expect going into this but it was soooo fascinating. This story is really primarily about power and there’s so much interesting self critique of English literature and American perspectives engaging with Egyptian realities. For much of this book I was unsure how it was going to pull all of this critique together, but the ending is so successful and sharp and really makes the book a masterpiece. I think Naga really captures and engages the reader in the complex, sometimes unresolvable feeling of being caught between misogyny and violence and the desire to defend those perpetrators of violence from the western gaze, while also realizing that the western gaze will never really be able to capture the harm done to you. This book is challenging but I think ultimately such an important intervention into SWANA fiction & you can really tell Naga is a poet because the writing is soooo beautiful and the choices are so clear and intentional. This is one of the most successful examples I’ve seen of capturing the poetry of Arabic in English. I’m really excited about this book and hope that it sparks a lot of important reflective conversation. — Samia

(26) Exiles of Eden by Ladan Osman

This book I’ve been reading Ladan Osman’s work online for many years now but didn’t get her collections until recently; it was great to spend time with her work in this form! There were a lot of longer poems, which I generally am not as into (I have a bad attention span and read poetry because it’s short) but the voice is SO strong & attentive, there’s such a rich storytelling and intimacy that makes the length really well-suited. I realized that a lot of the books I gravitate towards kind of lean on the juvenile in terms of themes, or the Larger Colonialism and State Violence narratives–it was a good change of pace to read intimacies around more domestic issues, divorce, etc. The use of repetition throughout was so, so effective, but I think “NSFW” was my favorite instance. I can’t wait to read her other collection soon and try to get my hands on her chapbook. — Summer

(27) My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

Hm. This book should’ve been a short story. To be totally transparent, I am a hater by nature and I read this book on the assumption that I would hate it because everyone seems to love it and I did not vibe with the Moshfegh I had attempted to read previously. And I pretty much did! So no surprises there. I guess I can sort of see the appeal of this as like satire/critique, but the thought of reading a whole book that is so hateful, let alone a whole genre like this (the “unhinged” woman genre seems to be increasingly popular!), makes me nauseous. Also based on a lot of the TikToks I’ve seen, people are not reading this as satire and in fact find the protagonist relatable so! That’s upsetting!! I will also say that, though I understand that contextually the fatphobia in this book is positioned as critique, I do not think that’s necessarily true in the other book I attempted to read by Moshfegh, and frankly I think that a thin author can only use such vitriolic fatphobia in their unlikable narrators so many times before it starts to become suspicious to me!! — Samia



(28) Take Care of Yourself by Sundus Abdul Hadi

I started reading this when I was in a lot of physical pain that was affecting my brain and sleep and everything pretty much everything! It was really useful, honestly, specifically at this point in time — I struggle prioritizing myself and also taking care of myself? And feel anxious so often about my producivity while struggling to separate self-care & Capitalist Self-Care. This is a really accessible look at the relationship between art practice, activism, and care. There were a lot of things identified in the book that I hadn’t really thought as really part of care–like, speaking up at a colleague’s censored art. It made sense though, and when I think about it, my politic really boils down to wanting people to be safe and cared for. I love the structure of this book — each section opens with a tweet from Suheir Hammad, whose work as taught me so much. Putting these casual expressions into this specific context of care&art&movement work made so much sense. The middle has interviews with other artists and their approach to care, which makes so much sense–how can you have a book about community & care without including your community? Reading this made me feel really warm–the potential of a philosophical project that includes people you love in this really direct way and articulates really beautiful and simple truths. I’m glad I put down my big to-read and got to this book right after I got it. — Summer

(29) Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi trans. Marilyn Booth

I read this as part of an effort to read more Arabic fiction in translation. I had… complicated feelings! The first thing that I struggled with in this book is the translation. The thing about books translated by white translators for a white audience is that everything is obviously filtered through the white gaze. Something I greatly value in many works of fiction by Arab authors writing in English is the choice not to explain themselves to a white audience. This translation is not like that. I found it really jarring to see characters say “Papa” or “Gramma” or to have phrases like mashallah and bismillah translated within the text. White people can google! The second thing I struggled with in this text was the narrative structure and points of view. It’s a demanding read because it switches between tons of characters and moves in and out of time, often covering decades within a few paragraphs. This was challenging, but not necessarily a turn off. What I did find surprising and perhaps a bit frustrating is that, despite being billed as a story about three sisters, it’s really actually a story about Abdallah, husband to the oldest sister Mayya. We are anchored to his POV throughout the book and in between we get glimpses of the sisters and the families of Al-Awafi. This review presents a fairly generous interpretation of this choice, and while I did appreciate the perspective on perhaps the intentions of the narrative structure, I am not sure it really works for me. You spend so little time with any of the characters besides Abdallah, especially the women, that they fall flat. The last thing that I found difficult about this book, and the reason I can’t recommend it, is that there is a deeply upsetting thread of this book involving a disabled child, which wasn’t mentioned in any of the reviews I’ve seen. Disabled children in fiction is something I’m very wary of because they often serve as props for marital or familial strife. In this book the disabled child, Muhammad, is austic with high support needs and, like in many novels with disabled children, his high support needs and the limited ability of his family to communicate with him explain to the reader why we never hear his perspective. Of course, in a novel where we can inhabit anyone’s mind, the voicelessness of disabled characters is always a choice the author is making. As with Bird Summons, I kept wondering how this would play out, whether the inclusion of these silent disabled children would feel remotely justified. Unfortunately, in this book, the end leaves us with an ambiguous but deeply upsetting scene of implied violence against Muhammad by his father, Abdallah, literally in the final paragraph of the book. Until the last few pages, I was prepared to give this book a more generous review, but the ending left me rattled & not in a good way. — Samia

(30) Minor Detail by Adania Shibli trans. Elisabeth Jaquette

I read this in basically one sitting the day that I finished Celestial Bodies because it is brilliant and a perfect follow up to a frustrating read. It’s quite an intense novella, dealing very directly with the violence of Israeli colonization and occupation, but that’s so much of what makes it excellent, I think. This book never blinks, nor gives you a moment to do so. The translation here I think is also very successful, and the language and images are all so precise. In the first half, where we follow an Israeli soldier through his acts of violence, the language is sharp and repetitive, and there are these almost hypnotic descriptions of him doing something like shaving where every detail is explained. In the second section, a similar repetitive detail-oriented narration is used but with a lot more emotion and anxiety from the Palestinian woman narrator’s first person perspective. The tight writing of this novella draws the reader in to fixate on all its minor details. I found myself especially fixating on the repeated descriptions of plants. It’s so brilliant!! I don’t have the words!! — Samia

(31*) If An Egyptian Cannot Speak English by Noor Naga

Samia was SO persuasive about this book so I ended up buying it instead of waiting for the library to get an ebook and oh MY GOD? I am SO GLAD? Again, I was not really interested in this book based on the marketing copy, similarly to Noor Naga’s other book (read earlier this year) but holy shit dude. This was like, the perfect novel? The structure was incredible, I literally cannot emphasize enough how cleverly put together this book is–you can really tell she is a poet with the way that form complements content! Every detail in this book serves the really careful tension she’s working with. I think it’s definitely heavy–deals with misogyny and drug use and classism–but not gratiuitous, instead really carefully constructed in a way that communicates Difficult and Complicated Feelings. I don’t want to give away too much, but I think a book that anticipates its critics and then uses those critiques to bring its story to a close is so fucking smart. I was really struck by the way Naga writes self-awareness, especially of the American protagonist; there’s a lot of ways diaspora-girl-moves-to-homeland can be super cringe? Especially from a class perspective! But the way its written through with vulnerability and frankness is perfect, in my opinion. Guilt is boring and it wasn’t really present–and when it was, the formal choices to construct it complicated it, made it interesting. I think this self-awareness is why the ending lands so well instead of corny or egotistical. It’s kind of the only way you can end a novel like this–an address of the Western gaze of a book in a non-Western setting, understanding that intracommunity dialogues will be dissected by those outside of the community, understanding that anyone can flatten the events in the book depending on what they value. It’s so good! I can’t believe it! Novel of the year! I only read like 4 novels a year and this is it! — Summer

(32) Paper and Stick by Priscilla Wathington

This was a great little chapbook! I’m on the RAWI board with Priscilla and first heard her poems during RAWIFEST last year so this had been on my list since it came out. It’s a really effective book of docu-poetics, using a mixture of erasure/blackout and found-poetry using documents gathered by the Defense for Children International — Palestine and other documents related to occupation — my favorite poems were “INTERROGATE THE BREAKS” and “DOCUVERSE” (which has a ridiculously good line that gives the collection its title). I love poets who also do important work outside of their poetry & how that work informs their poetry! — Summer

(33) The Frightened Ones by Dima Wannous trans. Elisabeth Jaquette

I’m glad I gave this book a fair chance because I did really like it by the end, but I feel like the beginning, especially the first 30 or so pages, really doesn’t set the story up well at all. It does get a lot better, but I still feel it lacks a bit of depth in establishing the relationship between Naseem and Suleima prior to her reading his manuscript. But it is largely a beautifully written book. I wasn’t sure what to expect with this one, and kind of anticipated light psychological horror, which is definitely present, but it’s so rooted in the collective psychological horror of living through the Syrian revolution and experiencing state and community violence daily that it feels much more haunting and nuanced. This book has the same translator as Minor Detail and I found the translation slightly less effective in this one (it does the annoying white translator thing of translating words that should just be left in Arabic, like arak to moonshine, but then later goes back to using Arabic terms, which felt even weirder). On the whole I would recommend this one, but definitely read into it a bit before judging! — Samia

(34) Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season by Forough Farrokhzad trans. Elizabeth T. Gray Jr

I read a piece in the NYRB by Anahid Nersessian about this translation that was so convincing I bought it! I’d wanted to read Farrokhzad in general, and I’ve been thinking a lot about Solmaz Sharif’s poem “Into English,” especially the line “ It is very/ private / to be in another’s / syntax.” Every time I read a famous/iconic/established poet, I’m kind of like, oh wow! So that’s why they are so treasured and beloved! The language was more formal than I’m generally drawn to/used to, and of course I cannot comment on the translation, but everything felt so rich! So alive! There was a lot of wryness that came through in different parts, a lot of really tender contemplation. I feel like I’m receiving these poems at the perfect time in my life, too. I will be re-reading this collection forever. I love so much how repetition is used throughout her work, the way emotion is teased from words as phrases become fuller and more realized thoughts. It makes me appreciate “Into English,” more, too–”I think I will translate / Forough. / I am urged to translate / Forough / as soon as possible.” has that resonance that so many moments in this collection left me mouth-open. My favorite poems were “Lost,” “Grief-Worshipper,” “The Wind Will Carry Us,” “Realizing,” “I Will Greet the Sun Again” (shout out to this poem in particular for making me cry & entering my “poems that make me less suicidally depressed” hall of fame) and “The Bird is Mortal.” — Summer

(35) The Book of Disappearance by Ibtisam Azem trans. Sinan Antoon

I am constantly annoying Summer to read books that I love so of course I had to return the favor and read one of her top reads from last year. Also this was the only book in translation I read this month translated by an Arab author who is a native speaker, and I found the translation very refreshing! I am not the biggest SFF reader but this book is actually genius and so engaging that it didn’t matter (to be fair, it definitely leans more towards magical realism which tends to be more in my comfort zone — not heavy on worldbuilding). This book does what so many books try to do but can’t pull off, which is the dismantling of a violent worldview from within the perspective of someone who upholds that worldview. I have sooooo many thoughts on this book but I really think that they’re all summed up much better than I could in Summer’s review that was published in Strange Horizons!! You should seriously read it but as a taste, here is the opening paragraph: “I asked my mother, born and raised in Nazareth: what do you think would happen in Israel if all of the Palestinians disappeared? She said: they (the Israelis) would eat each other alive. I told her, yes, that’s what happens in the book I’m reading; she preened, proud of herself for knowing the outcome without any other details. She said, ‘That is what my dad used to say — if we weren’t there, they’d find someone else to hate.’” — Samia

(36) A Country for Dying by Abdellah Taïa trans. Emma Ramadan

Someone left this book on the “free shit” shelf in my apartment hallway and it’s by a SWANA author with a SWANA translator, so like yeah of course I’m going to read it. After finishing it I am mostly just confused. This book is super short (136 pages) and I don’t think it accomplishes what it wants or needs to in that space. The interrelated stories are a strange mix but all feel underdeveloped. The best part was the ending, which is written entirely as dialogue. The rest is written in a stream of consciousness internal monologue which is sometimes more effective than others. There are also several parts of this book that felt offensive or harmful to me, but ultimately I just don’t even feel like there’s enough there to definitively say that they are harmful. I think there were a lot of weird choices made in this book around race and I am not totally sure how I feel about the way the one trans character is written. It feels like the author is trying to be provocative while also trying to write about a group of deeply marginalized people honestly, and those goals feel frequently at odds. — Samia

(37) Sword in the Stars by A. R. Capetta & Cori McCarthy

This was super disappointing. I read the first book in this series when it came out in 2019 and was so so so disgustingly excited, lol. I’m unfortunately always into medieval Europe aesthetics and especially soft for King Arthur stories–thanks BBC Merlin!, so this series felt like it was kind of made for me–what if King Arthur was reincarnated into a queer teen girl and also it was a space opera? So fun! I didn’t even know that one of the authors was Lebanese when I started reading. If you told me a queer Arab wrote a space fantasy King Arthur story??? Even more on board! Unfortunately. This didn’t go very well. I thought the first book (Once and Future) was generally paced well and fun, the premise of a post-Earth story with an evil megacorporation-Nation-imperial-power akin to the US that was colonizing the rest of space is like, you know. Cool, generally what I expect and am excited for when I read SFF. The protagonst, Ari/Ara/King Arthur is part of a marginalized group in space, a people whose planet was destroyed (if I remember correctly) and made space refugees and also many of their people died out because of poisoned water by the Evil Corporation. We learn later that they were actually part of a people on Earth who were the first to come to space because their homelands were destroyed by war. And those people….are the Arabs? Ari is told by Morgana that the people she believes she comes from, the Ketchans, are actually called “Arabs,” and it’s part of a conspiracy by the evilcorporation to rid them of their identity, with this misnaming and obscuring of history. When I read books out of my age range, I try to put myself in the shoes of my younger self and think about how she would feel reading a story like this; is it useful for what I needed then? A queer, Arab space protagonist–fun! But twice-over-refugee who also experiences genocide? Even in this universe in which time travel, space travel, fast-healing-medications, etc exist? There is no hope? Well, that left me in despair. Not to mention the vagueness of “Arab” as a category, as if there aren’t Arab nations currently destroying other Arab nations, hegemonic Arabs in power harming marginalized and minority groups in their own countries, etc. The power imbalances…which Arabs get to be space Arabs? Why the trauma and futility of genocide in this story where it doesn’t really feel useful, especially for a teenage audience? Also, there are other racialized characters (some vaguely brown, others explicitly Black) that do not seem to experience Any discrimination; like, fine, we don’t need a world with racism, but why is it just “Arabs” experiencing it?! At first, the Ketchans are just coded as Arab–”war torn” region, vaguely Arabic names attached to certain things. Then, it’s clarified they ARE Arab. I understand this impulse in the reparative sense, especially considering the way orientalism plagues fantasy genres and the frequency with which SWANA cultures are fractured and utilized in the western imagination to build out exotic fantasy worlds, but the obscuring of difference across SWANA, constructing a monolithic Arab identity marked by destruction and genocide, and only alluding to it with a few linguistic terms and Being Brown is really not better at all. The handling of race was especially frustrating because queerness was done REALLY WELL (in book one, I had questions in book two!) Everyone is gay and trans and it’s super cool. Despite my qualms, I decided to read the second book because I just wanted to see if there was any payoff and I did like the characters! The second book was not much better; most of the positives from the first book slip away. The narrative is a mess: waaaaaay too much is happening, waaaaay too many threads occur, too many antagonists jumbled around. The characters leave their futuristic-space setting to go back to Medieval England to catch up with the First King Arthur and take the chalice from myth in order to stop the evil space corporation in the future. There is an INCREDIBLE amount of convoluted time travel stuff that I don’t think is very successful. Spoiler, but there’s a thing where Merlin ends up being the child of futureGwen, which as one Goodreads review stated felt like an incredible disservice to the queer-found-family nature of the duology; why do characters have to end up being blood related in order to validate that family dynamic? At the end of it all, it seems like Nimue was the root of all of the issues (including the genocide?!?!?!), which was confusing with regards to the the original legend and also feels very disrespectful to say the allegorical stand-in for US imperialism is triggered by a magical entity and not like, violent structures of white supremacy. I haven’t engaged with canonical Arthurian legends since I was in high school but there were a lot of choices I felt very confused or frustrated by; when carrying out a retelling, I think you need to locate what it is about the source material that appeals to you–even if that appeal is based in the harm of the material itself or its legacies. The reparative attempts of the text seem based in orientalism of SFF and the straightwashing of the medieval period — this is admirable, but unsuccessful, and I think replicates more harm than anything! I do not want to enter an imagination that not only flattens SWANA but dooms it in every reality. — Summer

(38) Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust

This was the first recommendation I’ve taken from TikTok and I really liked it! The short description that got me interested was “sapphic, standalone fantasy novel based in Persian folklore.” I haven’t read a lot of standalone fantasy but definitely want to read more, since I don’t really have the patience for series anymore — this story worked out super well on its own! The beginning started off really strong–it follows Soraya, a princess who was cursed at birth to have poison skin (anything she touches dies), and so is locked away from the public in isolation so as not to accidentally harm anyone. Right around her brother’s wedding, their royal guard captures a div–pretty much a demon–who she believes can help her with her curse. What follows is lots of manipulation and lies and complicated family dynamics! There’s a lot of interesting stuff about daughterhood; what do we owe our families, even if they’ve hurt us, despite that hurt not being intentional? Maybe that hurt is even coming from wanting to help us? The momentum dipped a little bit in the middle–I think there were too many double-crossings and maybe we could have condensed some parts–but overall I really enjoyed this book. I liked Soraya, I liked her [spoilers], and I thought the antagonist was interesting. There was a lot of work being done on like. Understanding why people come to the decisions they do, and a lot of that tension is reflected in Soraya’s wavering. This really was just a fairytale, deep down, and I’m a fan! It’s always refreshing to see different lores and mythologies being drawn from, too. I definitely will read this author’s other book! — Summer

(39) Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi trans. Jonathan Wright

What a premise! This was a great dip outside my usual genres (not too heavy horror). It was a slower read because the writing took a little while to get used to and it switches POV and time a lot in a way that wasn’t always clear, but I did enjoy it and ultimately was most interested in how it diverges from the original Frankenstein. I haven’t read Frankenstein since I was 14 and I wish I had a more recent read to more directly compare these, but a couple things stood out (mild spoilers ahead I guess). First, in the original Frankenstein, the creature experiences this deep loneliness and isolation that is central to the plot. Not true in Saadawi’s retelling, which has the creature (known as the Whatsitsname) very quickly amass an almost cult-like following of people who both fear him and assist him in his mission. Second, whereas Shelley focuses heavily on the role of Frankenstein and the need for him to be held responsible, Saadawi creates a much more complicated picture of collective responsibility for life and death and whether anyone in a community is truly innocent or guilty. It’s a rich text! This would be great to read alongside Shelley’s Frankenstein! — Samia



(40) about:blank by Tracy Fuad

I was introduced to Tracy during RAWIFEST in 2021 and thought her approach to work was super interesting; her book has been on my list since it came out but I finally read it this month, and oh my goodness! I love how weird these poems are. There are so many unexpected sentence formations that add texture–sometimes I think there is devastation in an unexpected grammar, or a forced sense of poingance? But that isn’t the function here. These poems are concerned with technology, surveillance, computer language–I think the fragmentary or broken nature of expression throughout the collection is really productive and a more interesting take on tech/computer/algorithm-y poems that I’ve seen before. I took one shitty computer science class in college and the thesis was basically you have to tell a computer exactly what to do, no missing steps that a human would just intuit–I think these poems capture that sense of lossed intuition really well. There’s a lot of humor in this book, too! I honestly wasn’t sure how to read some of the visual poems but I feel comfortable admitting that and I think it’s ok when poetry goes over your head, sometimes. My favorite section was “eject”. — Summer

(41) The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter

This is absolutely another new fav of the year! It’s a brilliant multigenerational story rooted in the author’s own family history that focuses on an Amazigh family from Kabylia, Algeria through three generations. Part I tells the story of Ali, the grandfather, as the Algerian war for independence begins and he is faced with difficult choices about how to align himself based on safety, class allegiances, and village power dynamics. Eventually, the family is forced to flee Algeria for France because of Ali’s collaboration with the French, and Part II follows his son Hamid through refugee camps, resettlement, and his adolescence negotiating complex relationships to race, nation, and power. Part III follows Naïma, Hamid’s daughter, in her adulthood as she is finally given a chance to confront a family history that is in part forever lost to her and return to Algeria. My favorite thing about this book was how it weaves its narrative like poetry. Though most of the book is written as fiction, the author includes historical research, Greek sagas, French colonial history lessons, and her own voice. Alice Zeniter deals beautifully with historical complexity and gray areas. It was a deeply emotional read for me and, I imagine, probably very healing in some ways to write one’s own family history in this way. I think that comes through in the work and leaves you fuller. — Samia

(42) Weren’t We Natural Swimmers by Aliah Lavonne Tigh

This was another Tram Editions chapbook from someone I met through RAWIFEST! God, I loved so many of these poems. Aliah has a really beautiful storytelling voice–there’s a lovely weight and resonance in presentation of the everyday. The poems aren’t very interior, more narrative, but still so so intimate. It’s something I think I struggle with in my own writing–if the tone is intimate, you’re inside my head, if the work is narrative, there’s distance in order to set the scene. Her word economy is so elegant and the long poems had really wonderful momentum. My favorite poems were “The Negotiations,” “A Dam is a Form of Failed Diplomacy,” and “Someone Said War Abroad Seems Preferred.” A great little chapbook! — Summer

(43) The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah

I liked this book so much! An Arab-inspired adult fantasy novel written by an American Kuwaiti author! It’s sort of a 1001 nights retelling, but moreso blends the tales and the framing into the world’s own mythology, which was a good take on a convention — I wasn’t super sold on the 1001 nights retelling description, so I’m glad it worked out like that. I haven’t read a series in a while (other than duologies) and haven’t read adult fantasy in a while, either, so reading this was satisfying in a lot of ways! I loved the tone of the narrative–it was fun and bouncy and each POV character felt distinct but very much grounded in a similar style-of-speech. Sometimes there’s a corniness to high-fantasy, especially with its attempt to sound Formal and Medieval, but I was thankful for the choices made. I loved the protagonists! Loulie and Mazen felt like unexpected main characters, especially as a pair–neither of them are a fighter or a soldier or like. Physically strong? Loulie, arguably the main-main character, is a traveling merchant who, with the help of her jinn friend Qadir and an echanted compass, sells magic objects in order to live. She’s scrappy and fun (with a tragic past, of course) and I like that she’s not good at combat, lol. Mazen–arguably the second-main character–is the sheltered Prince of the desert kingdom who loves storytelling and let me tell you! He is endearing as fuck! The Sultan recruits Loulie to track down a jinn in a lamp and means to send his eldest son, Omar (antagonist), but instead the brothers switch places and Mazen joins her (disguised as Omar). They travel, joined by Aisha (one of Omar’s 40 thieves. lol) and run into a lot of bad things along the way, etc, adventure book. They are a very endearing group to follow! I thought the choice to have the three of them who are traveling together be the POV character was an odd choice, but it definitely pays off at the end. The beats in the story were really well-paced, especially with the escalation of events–each Big Thing felt signficant but not no point of return in terms of the rise of action. I really liked the treatment of character development–since this is a series, the characters will have lots of time to grow, but this book first wanted to peel back everyone’s secrets and layers, and did so really elegantly; characters learn about themselves as they learn about each other, and we learn about them, too. Each reveal felt like a surprise (even though maybe it shouldn’t have been so shocking???) and I just didn’t want to put the book down!!! I thought the way Arabic was present felt really natural, and the care/grounding of the mythologies was so well done, too. It’s kind of exactly what you would want in a fantasy story using this setting. My only criticism is sometimes the big action moments felt little cluttered and rushed — something big would be happening, and then a realization would be made, and the action would fade but I wouldn’t really understand what had just happened and had to go back a few pages. But this is a debut! Everything can be tightened up. Overall though, it was a quick read and just so, so fun. I’m so excited for the next in the series, I don’t think it’ll be out for over a year but STILL! I can’t wait to spend time with these characters again. — Summer

(44) Savage Tongues by Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi

I think this may actually be my most disappointing read of the year so far, particularly because if it weren’t for a few bad choices I might have loved this book. This is the story of Arezu, an Iranian-american woman who is traveling back to Spain for the first time in 20 years since the summer that she was 17, when she was raped by and ended up in a deeply traumatic relationship with a 40 year old Lebanese man. This book is slow, deeply interior, and at times embodied in its attempts to process and dissect this trauma. It’s not an easy read, but I found parts of it to be beautiful and nuanced, especially its deconstruction of race and gender violence. What I couldn’t get past was the way it engages with Palestine. Arezu is accompanied in Spain by Ellie, an “Israeli” woman who ~supports the Palestinian cause.~ On the surface, this book certainly presents itself as pro-Palestine, though it never uses the language of Zionism or anti-Zionism, which is a limitation. We learn that Arezu and Ellie have traveled to Palestine and “Israel” together in the past as part of their effort to confront the places where their traumas lie. In vignettes of the trip Arezu makes constant reference to the violences of the occupation and to their privilege in traveling around with American passports, accompanied by Israelis (of course, always good, “anti-occupation” Israelis). But whereas the struggles of Palestinians are almost entirely presented on a collective level and in a factual way, the perspective of Israelis is presented in a very personal and emotional way through Ellie. Indeed, her life growing up as a settler against her will is presented as a trauma. Her political alienation from her family is the cause for her running away and ending up in an abusive relationship. Personally, I just don’t care to read about the trauma of being an Israeli and coming to terms with the inherent violence of that. I also felt that, for a book that otherwise makes incredibly nuanced assessments, there were some really unnuanced and uncritical choices in how Ellie’s identity is described. She is consistently referred to as “Israeli” uncritically despite the text telling us she was born in the U.S. to a family of European ancestry and, even worse, she’s repeatedly referred to and refers to herself as “Middle Eastern” in a way that is also unquestioned and uninterrogated in the text. I find this to be very lazy. The way that other SWANA characters interact with Ellie also feels deeply unrealistic. There’s an Egyptian man who identifies Ellie as “Middle Eastern” at one point having only seen her (especially funny in contrast to the constant references to her getting sunburned in Spain lol) and Sahar, the one named Palestinian character, is so excited to meet Ellie because she’s found an ~Israeli who supports Palestine~ whatever that means. Ugh! I could go on but I won’t. This book felt like such a waste. — Samia

(45) You Can Be The Last Leaf by Maya Abu Al-Hayyat trans. Fady Joudah

This was one of my most anticipated reads for 2022! Maya’s poems appeared in the LA Review of Books last year, with each translation read aloud by a different Palestinian American woman whose poetry I love which kind of immediately set me up for love/comfort/affection/etc; I took a one-day workshop with Lena Khalaf Tuffaha where we looked at Palestinian women in translation and we did read a few of Maya’s poems there, too — I hadn’t been among others in my critical reading practice since I graduated and so it was nice to situate her work alongside her contemporaries and those who came before her. I think both of these introductions to her work definitely made the overall reading experience better. It’s a selection of poems from her various collections in Arabic — I will say, I LOVE collected works. Hit me with the bangers and I’ll explore more later! In her blurb, Solmaz Sharif said the poems are told in “near aphorisms”; I think this is the best description. The poems have this grand specificity but not in the confessional sense; there’s this energy to the narration, that suggest they could be anyone, but this anyone has to exist in this context. A micro that is also macro? I don’t know! I generally associate that narrative style with older poetry, sort of like how I felt about the Forough Farrokhzad collection I read, but I think it also has a lot of similarities to Renia White’s Casual Conversations (which I also read this year); it’s SO impressive and beautiful and there were so many poems that I just GASPED at the ending. The translations felt successful! I didn’t feel like there were many awkward moments, although I would love to see the Arabic side-by-side. Highly recommend. — Summer

(46) As for the Future by Maryam Ivette Parhizkar

I read a poem by this writer in JewishCurrents, LOVED it, then immediately put her name down on my “people to follow up on” list. I was googling something? Some day? I don’t remember what exactly, but I ended up on a bookstore website that had a SWANA studies section — both her chapbook and this book were available, and I decided this one looked cool (despite it not really having an clear description of what it actually was, lol) and wanted to take a little risk. It turned out well! This was a very cool, quick read synthesizing thoughts on performance and broadly ~our place in the world~ through musician Sun Ra and writer Clarice Lispector. I love a little essay executed in interconnected parts. — Summer

(47) Fugitive Atlas by Khaled Mattawa

I am back to poetry momentarily lol!! This book is very good!! I wasn’t familiar with Khaled Mattawa’s poetry going into this so I had no real expectations but I was definitely impressed. This collection is long by poetry standards (120 pages) and very full but I think executed quite beautifully. I was particularly interested in how many characters this book seemed to contain from many different sources. I also loved the play with form! The prose poems added a lot of context that allowed the other poems to be more abstract but still hit hard. My favorite poem was “Occupation: An Index” which honestly floored me and which I will be thinking about for a long time. — Samia

(48) No Land to Light On by Yara Zgheib

I got an ARC of this book from a friend who had sent it over with two others, only one of which I was expecting. I had assumed it was a romance novel, since the others in the package explicitly were–it’s not!I do not think this subject should be tackled within the romance genre. I was really, really skeptical going in and I still feel mixed. The descriptive copy made it sound a lot more trauma-porny than it ended up being, which was a relief. One part DID make me tear up, but it didn’t feel gratuitous, I am just sensitive. There is a lot going on: the book follows Sama and Hadi, a young Syrian couple in the US who are expecting a child. Hadi is a refugee who has left the US to go bury his father in Jordan. Upon arrival back into the US, Trump’s executive order Muslim travel ban is enacted and he is unable to come home; he is pressured into signing documentation that revokes his visa and basically self-deports to Jordan, where he has a visa for a few more weeks (leftover from his funeral visit). Sama had meant to meet him at the airport; as word of the travel ban reaches the airport, it sort of erupts into chaos, and she goes into premature labor. Hadi is dealing with his impending paper-less status, navigating awful bureaucracy, while Sama is watching over their son in the NICU. There is a lot, already! The book also does flashbacks to both of their initial immigration stories, as well as meeting and falling in love (my favorite parts). Sama is an anthropology student writing her dissertation on bird migration; there are small snippets of bird facts interspersed throughout the book. There are federal documents, as well. I think this is too much! The documents are nothing the narrative cannot accomplish. The book is super short and honestly one of the quickest reads I’ve ever done, despite the topic being really heavy. The writing was crisp, but I don’t think there’s enough space to really go deep enough into any of these threads, and thus none of them are served well. There are times when the narrative touches on the simple trauma of waiting, which I think could have been its own book entirely; the story is based loosely on the author and her partner’s experience, except they are Lebanese and Sama and Hadi are Syrian; I think the Syrian-ness of it all is shallow. There was nothing I did not already know? My favorite scene is at Sama and Hadi’s engagement dinner; they are surrounded by other Syrians who came to the US for various reasons. Some before the war, some refugees, etc. etc. There’s a rich conversation that sort of revolves around guilt and who/what you can claim; I thought the tension was fantastic, and the voices felt right–but a conversation like that didn’t really happen again, and so we didn’t get more snippets, more opportunities to hear what else a bunch of Syrians around a dinner table would talk about. There are vague references to Trump (sort of a nudge nudge that guy) but even vaguer references to Assad; the vagueness feels like it comes from reluctance. There were continual references to the ~American Dream~, which, sure, and a kind of..attempt at portraying disillusionment with the US; this disillusionment was completely facilitated by the election of Trump which felt deeply disingenuous. Of course there are some Arabs that felt that way, but ALL OF THEM? No one else thought maybe this place is a little fucked up before? And no deeply conservative ones that align with the far right? Throw it in there! I don’t know. There are just SO many complexities rolling around in the text that I do not think can be properly addressed in the 280 pages — give these stories the space they need! — Summer

(49) The Idiot by Elif Batuman

This is a surprisingly hard book to review! I have mixed feelings, so I’ll start with what the book is essentially about: Selin, a Turkish-American college freshman begins her first year at Harvard, navigates meeting new people and not knowing what she wants, begins an email relationship with a Hungarian senior from her Russian class, and lives her life in a largely passive way. This was a challenging book to get into because the first section is mostly just about her going to classes and encountering various extremely pretentious people. Except she’s also quite pretentious, so it doesn’t feel like a satisfying “making fun of people” perspective to occupy. Perhaps if you went to a fancy private east coast school, or even a school big enough to have this degree of everyone behaving like they’re not a real person and have never spoken to a real person, you might find this more compelling. As it is, I went to a college that one journalist and fellow alum described as a “third tier regional university,” so I can’t say that this part felt particularly relatable or even interesting. In the next part, she starts this email relationship with a boy who keeps leading her on and acting incredibly strange. This was more compelling to me; who amongst us hasn’t been in a weird relationship where a man made you feel like he both liked you and hated you at the same time! This is the primary thrust of the rest of the book and there are moments of it that feel endearing, but on the whole it didn’t feel compelling enough to carry me through the story. And Selin’s narrative voice is so incredibly detached and unemotional most of the time that it didn’t feel like anything particularly interesting was being offered to help us understand the emotional weight of this experience either. It also feels almost strange to review this as a SWANA book because the book makes it quite clear that Selin (and perhaps by extension the author, as this is quite autobiographical) views her Turkishness more in relationship to Eastern Europeanness than to SWANA-ness or some “Middle Eastern” identity. This is not interrogated or questioned at all in the text, beyond one moment where a student stops her and insists that she must be Pakistani and she responds something like “I’m Turkish, we look the same.” I think on some level this identity framework goes hand in hand with the overall depoliticization Selin is working with (which again, feels so foreign to my own college experience that I can hardly understand it). All this being said, I am going to read the sequel because, from what I’ve read in interviews with Elif Batuman, the sequel was written to more directly address the depoliticization of Selin. More to come! — Samia

(50) The Thirty Names of Night by Zeyn Joukhadar

Every page of this book left my heart full; I think I was teary-eyed for the entire duration of reading it and then yes, sobbed at the end. The tone is such an achievement, so tender and introspective and loving but not saccharine, and still the story itself is so compelling, different mysteries getting the space to unravel and different characters getting to come alive. The book alternates between contemporary New York, following an unnamed-until-later narrator who is a Syrian American trans boy mourning his mother and taking care of his grandmother, navigating the world, all that good stuff and the journal of Laila Z, a Syrian American artist who immigrated to the US during the earlier waves of immigration in the 20th century. I think books like this are really important with presenting a counternarrative to the presence of Arab Americans in the US — it’s important to remember how many generations we’ve been here and the communities we have had and lost to the years. I love, too, how the historical narrative not only shows how long shamis have been around, but how queer Arabs have always been here, too. This is just an achingly beautiful book. I feel so thankful to have read it and to be in community with Zeyn. Honestly should be an instant classic of SWANA anglo lit. — Summer



I’m reading Ladan Osman’s Kitchen Dwellers right now, sort of into Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse by Anahid Nersessian, and about to start Sara Farizan’s If You Could Be Mine. I have the 2021 New African Poets chapbook box-set with has some North African writers in it, so I’m really excited to spend time with their work this August for a pseudo-Sealey challenge. Some other books on my to-read list (other than ones Samia has already recommended, of course) are:

  • Star Lake by Arda Collins
  • Girls That Never Die by Safia Elhillo
  • A Hundred Other Girls by Iman Hariri-Kia (MOST ANTICIPATED!!!!)

As always, I’m open to recommendations; I have a list of Armenian poets I’m hoping to read through but definitely want to hit more parts of the region. More good translations too! Also, literary nonfiction??? I want some essay collections!


Currently I am reading The Angel of History by Rabih Alameddine which is so far wonderful and funny and sad. I’m also reading An Unlasting Home by Mai Al-Nakib which is a recent release and a nice family saga about a woman accused of blasphemy in Kuwait and the women in her family who raised her. A few books I’m hoping to pick up next are:

  • Daughters of Smoke and Fire by Ava Homa
  • These Impossible Things by Salma El-Wardany
  • Three Apples Fell from the Sky by Narine Abgaryan trans. Lisa C. Hayden
  • Either/Or by Elif Batuman

As always, I very much welcome book recommendations, particularly literary fiction but also poetry and literary nonfiction! I’m especially hoping to read more work from North African authors (especially authors who aren’t Egyptian), Kurdish authors, Armenian authors, and generally other authors who aren’t Shami Arabs! Please drop me a twitter DM with your best recs I’m serious.



Summer Farah

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