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A Literary Map of the Middle East

A Literary Map of the Middle East

Even now, or perhaps especially now—with the hope that has emerged with the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, and the potential for revolution in Syria (and less so in Libya)—the ever-pressing concern remains over the stability of the Middle East. And that’s not to mention the Israeli-Palestinian situation. Dictatorships, military rule, a peace process that may never come to pass: what good, one wonders, can come of all this strife? It brings to mind that wonderful quote from the film “The Third Man” about Italy having thirty years of warfare, terror and murder under the Borgias but producing Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance; while in Switzerland they had peace, democracy and five hundred years of brotherly love: “And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

The hope, then, is that all that strife will—at a minimum—contribute to the overall cultural value of the region, and it doesn’t take much digging to discover all that it has to offer in literary treasures. That said, with as many as thirty-eight countries (depending on your definition of “Middle East”) a literary review covering the region in its entirety is beyond the scope of this piece. Think of this more as a highlights tour, or an introduction.

The Arab World’s Most Prominent Writer(s)

That’s how the English paper The Guardian, labeled Naguib Mahfouz in their obituary for him five years ago. It doesn’t seem an exaggeration considering that the Egyptian writer of short stories and novels was, in 1988, the first Arab writer to win the Nobel Prize. While impossible to dilute over fifty published works, the three books that make up the Cairo Trilogy are commonly referred back to as his most famous. Palace WalkPalace of Desire, and Sugar Street together make up the 1500-page epic tale of a middle-class Egyptian family from World War I to the 1950s. The realist work offers detailed descriptions of everyday Egyptian life and made the author famous throughout the Arab world.

While we’re on the topic of Nobel Prize winners from the Muslim world, Turkey’s Orhan Pamuk put Turkey on the map when he won the prestigious prize in 2006. His oft-regarded masterwork, My Name is Red, is a post-modern work that is perhaps most appreciated for its ability to blend ideas both East and West, and in so, doing reflect the very nature of modern Turkish society itself.

Iran’s Revolutionary Literature

Literature is often best when it provides voice to those who have none, and the literature that has come out of and about Iran since the Islamic (or Iranian) Revolution of 1979 is a perfect example of this. Azar Nafisi’s astonishingly successful Reading Lolita in Tehran is about a professor of literature (Nafisi) confronting the changes her country went through under a fundamentalist regime and the ways in which Nafisi, after resigning from her post as a professor at the University of Tehran, rebelled against that regime and formed a clandestine book club with female students, in which they read and discussed banned Western literature, including Nabakov’s persistently controversial Lolita. WhileReading Lolita in Tehran is a memoir, it is well worth including here for its blending of politics and literature, for illuminating for the reader the outrageous restrictions put on women in Iran for the last thirty plus years, and for the light it sheds on some of the great works of Western literature.

Another must-read reactionary work about the Revolution in Iran is Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis. Satrapi’s tale is told mainly from her perspective as a girl. It was made into the world-acclaimed animated film of the same name in 2007.

Three of Israel’s Finest Scribes

Nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, David Grossman’s To the End of the Land, published this past fall in English (the paperback edition publishes at the end of July 2011), was beloved by the critics; in his New York Times review of the book, author Colm Tóibín closes by saying, “This is one of those few novels that feel as though they have made a difference to the world.” While strictly a work of fiction, the novel, about the emotionally draining existence of living with family members off at war, was completed at a time when Grossman lost his youngest son, who died fighting in the second war in Lebanon. The book wound up an echo of that terrible tragedy.

Harold Bloom compared A.B. Yehoshua, perhaps Israel’s most famous writer, to William Faulkner, who happens to be one of Yehoshua’s self-professed literary idols. Though experimental in style, Mr. Mani is generally regarded as his masterpiece and follows five generations of Sephardic Jews, and in so doing asks the big questions about Jewish identity: what it means to be Jew, but also about the roots and complexities of Zionism.

Finally, Amos Oz, who rivals Yehoshua in his renown and can be as political as his counterparts, has focused much of his vast narrative oeuvre around the everyday wonders that make up kibbutz life (the socialist commune-like micro-societies that were once such a prominent part of the Israeli landscape). His memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness is an excellent starting point for anyone interested in learning about growing up in Israel when the country was just being formed.

The Legendary Palestinian Poet

While certainly not the only famous Palestinian literary force, Mahmoud Darwish was considered one of the Palestinian people’s great poets. Darwish is the winner of the 1983 Lenin Peace Prize and 2001 Lannan Foundation Prize for Cultural Freedom, to name just a few of his accolades. Other than having his works published into some twenty languages, the poet and novelist is also noted for having written the Palestinian Declaration of Independent Statehood in 1988.

The Open Religion that is Fiction

In her 2010 Ted Talk entitled “The Politics of Fiction,” Elif Shafak, one of Turkey’s most famous authors (The Forty Rules of Love) decries the current trend toward labeling authors as ethnic writers (eg., calling Shafak a Muslim writer or an Arabic writer rather than just a writer). She makes the convincing case that fiction is for knocking borders down, not the reverse. What matters is the story and that seems particularly apt for a part of the world too often cursed with war, a place where Muslims, Christians and Jews have struggled for so long to co-exist. Literature, which is steeped most deeply not just in the world of ideas, but in the world of imagination—a world predicated on empathy—is the place in which all peoples of all nations of even the most strife-ridden regions can live together harmoniously. Literature, for some, is a religion. And what a wonderful religion as it invites all and excludes none.


This doesn’t even begin to cover the region, with apologies for not even mentioning Khaled Hosseini’s remarkably popular The Kite Runner, never mind not paying due tribute to Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet or Israel’s only Nobel prize winner in literature Shmuel Yosef Agnon (1966).