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Cities of Salt (series of five novels)
by Abdelrahman Munif

Don't let these five books scare you. First of all, only three have been translated into English, so you aren't able to read all five if you are an English reader. The first two books, Cities of Salt and The Trench begin this great epic series and are enough to give the reader a strong sense of the political realities of the Middle East, both past and present. These novels, written by a Saudi Arabian writer who has also lived in many other countries in the Mideast, introduces us to the Bedouin communities and what happens to them when the Americans discover oil in the 1930's. The strange Americans and their odd ways cause alarm, danger and much humor.

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"Brings to life many of the political issues that have plagued the Mideast for most of this century.Munif writes from a unique vantage point: English-language readers have been given few opportunities before now to look at this situation through native eyes." – Publishers Weekly

"The only serious work of fiction that tries to show the effect of oil, Americans, and local oligarchy on a Gulf country." – Edward W. Said

"Wadi Aluyoun: an outpouring of green amid the harsh, obdurate desert, as if it had burst from within the earth or fallen from the sky. It was nothing like its surroundings, or rather had no connection with them, dazzling you with curiosity and wonder: how had water and greenery burst out in a place like this? But the wonder vanished gradually, giving way to a mysterious respect and contemplation. It was one of those rare cases of nature expressing its genius and willfulness, in defiance of any explanation." – Cities of Salt, Vintage Books, 1989 edition.

Palace Walk
by Naguib Mahfouz

Palace Walk is the first volume of a trilogy (Cairo Trilogy) by Naguib Mahfouz, Nobel Prize winner for fiction. This first book is set in Cairo in the early 1900's. There is no doubt that after finishing this book the reader will have a much better understanding of Egyptian culture and society. Mahfouz uses one family, the family of al-Syyid Ahmad, a middle class merchant, to illuminate a society ruled by the Koran. The father of the family, while living rather freely himself, keeps his daughters and wife close to the home, and is quite strict with his sons. This novel reads very much like a sociological study of Egyptian society. The writing is superb and the characters vivid and unforgettable.

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"Much of the novel is devoted to the immemorial rhythms of family, life behind the walls of the house on Palace Walk, the morning baking of bread, the coffee-hour conversations of the mother and her children, the teasing and bickering among the siblings, the yearnings each of them feels to escape a tyranny they are bound to by religious law and a tyranny that they also love and respect." – Richard Dyer, Boston Globe

"Palace Walk, first published in 1956, is the best of Mahfouz's work. He drew heavily on autobiography (like the character Kamal, he was the younger son in a large merchant clan). He writes about family, and to understand the Egyptian family is to understand, more clearly than any political treatise can explain, the soul of the country." – Christopher Dickey, Newsweek

"She woke at midnight. She always woke up then without having to rely on an alarm clock. A wish that had taken root in her awoke her with great accuracy. For a few moments she was not sure she was awake. Images from her dreams and perceptions mixed together in her mind. She was troubled by anxiety before opening her eyes, afraid sleep had deceived her. Shaking her head gently she gazed at the total darkness of the room. There was no clue by which to judge the time. The street noise outside her rooms would continue until dawn. She could hear the babble of voices from the coffeehouses and bars, whether it was early evening, midnight, or just before daybreak. She had no evidence to rely on except her intuition, like a conscious clock hand, and the silence encompassing the house, which revealed that her husband had not yet rapped at the door and that the tip of his stick had not yet struck against the steps of the staircase." – Palace Walk, Random House, 1990 edition.

Out of Egypt
by André Aciman

Out of Egypt is a memoir of a Jewish boy growing up in the Sixties in Alexandria, Egypt. The experience of being Jewish in a primarily Muslim country holds an interest for those of us concerned about peace in the Middle East. The sights, sounds and colors of Alexandria, the fascinating relatives, the politics swirling around him all catch the writer's eye and ear. A fine memoir by an excellent writer.

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"A skillful portrayal of an extraordinary clan." – Kirkus Reviews

"Uncle Vili knew how to convey that intangible though unmistakable feeling that he had lineage – a provenance so ancient and so distinguished that it transcended such petty distinctions as birthplace, nationality, or religion. And with the suggestion of lineage came the suggestion of wealth – if always with the vague hint that this wealth was inconveniently tied up elsewhere, in land, for example, foreign land, something no one in the family ever had much of except when it came in clay flowerpots." – Out of Egypt, Riverhead, 1996 edition.

Among the Believers
by V.S. Naipaul

Naipaul took a seven-month journey exploring the countries in which Islamic fundamentalism had been growing. He visited Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia. Published in 1981, he explores the different strains of Islam as well as the difficulty the Islamic world has in coming to terms with modernism. We can read in this book the seeds of terrorism and the West's sudden awakening to conflicts that may lie ahead. Naipaul is an excellent writer and brings to life the people he meets. No matter where he goes he finds characters of interest who represent the world he explores with such passion and depth.

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"A timely and profound inquiry: yet it is also a lively travel account, full of quick vignette, word sketches and pieces of conversation – a pleasure to read." – The Wall Street Journal

"Mr. Naipaul is a remarkable diagnosticianan admirable, thinking travellera born narrator in the small or large scene. Every place and person and mind comes to life." – The New Yorker

"The Hyatt Omar Khayyam Hotel was in business, in spite of its name. Upper-class pilgrim traffic maintained it in all its American-international opulence: a big marble hall, elaborate lighting, a swimming pool (different hours for men and women), a sunny coffee shop separated by glass from the green, unmatured garden, a darker, carpeted formal restaurant with a black-suited maître. Strange, this style in the holy city of Mashhad; and then stranger, in this hotel setting, to find among the give-aways in the room a cake of Meccan or Medinan clay tastefully folded over in a brown face-towel: the sacred soil of Arabia, courtesy of Hyatt." – Among the Believers, Vintage Press, 1982 edition.

Eight Months on Ghazzah Street
by Hilary Mantel

A British couple moves to Saudia Arabia for a year, the wife joining the husband with the hope of understanding the Muslim culture that surrounds her. What she finds is a claustrophobic life, full of mysteries, and unexplained cultural phenomenon; a sometimes strange and hostile world. Mantel, with all her skill as a novelist, paints a picture of a culture quite unlike anything in the West.

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"At once a riveting thriller and a subtle political tale, set in a place as harsh and unforgiving as the desert." – Kirkus Reviews

"Andrew's letters had been short, practical. They told her to bring flat sandals, British postage stamps, a bottle of Bovril. His voice on the phone had been hesitant. There had been the odd expansive silence. He didn't know how to describe Jeddah. She must, he said, see for herself." – Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, Picador, 2003 edition.

Land of Marvels
by Barry Unsworth

Booker Prize winning author, Barry Unsworth, has written a captivating historical novel set in 1914 just before the outbreak of World War I. The story of Western nations inserting themselves into the region centers on a British archaeologist and his wife, along with an American geologist and an Arab spy. An absorbing read, and one that brings to the fore many of the problems confronting the Middle East and its relationship with the West.

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"There is something of E.M. Forster in Unsworth's knowing depiction of a decaying empire." – The New Yorker

"In elegantly modulated prose, Unsworth creates a tapestry of ambition and greed while, at the same time, foreshadowing the current conflict in the region." – Publishers Weekly

"(The sun) was above the horizon by the time he reached the tell and bright enough to dazzle the eyes, although there was no warmth in it yet. He stood for a while in the shadow of the mound, strangely at a loss now that he was here, uneasy, almost, at the silence of the place, at the sense it gave of violation, this ancient heap of earth and rock and rubble, gashed and trenched for no purpose immediately apparent, as if some beast of inconceivable size had raked it savagely along the flanks. Before long it would resound to the thudding of the pick and the scraping of the shovel, the shouted orders of the foremen, the cries of the two hundred and more Bedouin tribesmen, who would come with their baskets and harness – valuable property, often fought over – to resume their antlike task of carrying away the loose earth and stones from the digging." – Land of Marvels, Doubleday, 2009 edition.

A Perfect Peace
by Amos Oz

A Perfect Peace takes place on a kibbutz in Israel before the six-days war. The founders of Israel and the following generation confront differences in the way they view themselves and the future of Israel and the Mideast. Oz writes an honest book about compromises leaders choose to make, and how they can either build or destroy a dream. An ambitious book that mixes the personal and the political. Very thought-provoking.

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"(Oz's) strangest, riskiest, and richest novel." – The Washington Post Book World

"In A Perfect Peace, (Oz) examines the disjunctions of history and the ways in which a people – and finally it is more than just the Israeli people to whom he speaks – transcend such divisions." – Grace Schulman, The New York Times

"His plan was to go far away, as far as he could get, to a place as different as it could be from the kibbutz, from the youth camps, from desert bivouacs, from the long lines of hitchhiking soldiers at road junctions blasted by hot dry winds and the stench of thistles, sweat, dust, and dried urine. Perhaps a strange, truly big city, with a river, with bridges, and towers, and tunnels, and fountains with monstrous gargoyles sprouting water – fountains nightly fingered by a rare, electric light, where a lonely woman might be standing, her face turned to the light of the water and her back to a square paved with cobblestones. A faraway place where anything is possible – love, danger, arcane encounters, sudden conquests." – A Perfect Place, Mariner Books, 1993 edition.

Jerusalem: The Biography
by Simon Montefiore

What a wonderful idea for a narrative of a great city – to treat it as a biography. Simon Montefiore brings his skills as a storyteller and writer to the rich history of this great city. Never overly erudite to lose the reader, the book is full of fantastic facts and interest for both the traveler as well as the historian. Many personalities range through this book such as: King David, Herod, Cleopatra, Truman, Rasputin, and even Obama. A book to savor long after a visit to Israel.

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"At once a scholarly record and an exuberantly written popular tour de force." – The New York Review of Books

"This monument of scholarly research is also a compelling story: of human foibles, lust, bravery and chicanery." – The Times of London

"The city that Titus saw for the first time from Mount Scopus, named after the Greek skopeo meaning 'look at,' was, in Pliny's words, 'by far the most celebrated city of the East,' an opulent, thriving metropolis built around one of the greatest temples of the ancient world, itself an exquisite work of art on an immense scale. Jerusalem had already existed for thousands of years but this many-walled and towered city, astride two mountains amid the barren crags of Judaea, had never been as populous or as awesome as it was in the first century AD: indeed Jerusalem would not be so great again until the twentieth century." – Jerusalem: The Biography, Vintage, 2012 edition.

The Yacoubian Building: A Novel
by Alaa Al Aswany

The Yacoubian Building is a decaying building in the center of Cairo. The characters are the poor souls who live in the building and are struggling to get along in a politically corrupt and repressive society. It is clear, after reading this novel, what helped cause the eruption of the Arab Spring. Comic in parts, it is easy to become involved with these characters and wish a better future for them. A very close and well-observed look at modern Egyptian society.

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"Captivating and controversial an amazing glimpse of modern Egyptian society and culture." – The New York Review of Books

"Packed with uncomfortable truths. … It is as much about the human condition as the Egyptian character." – Robert Siegel, NPR

"The distance between Baehler Passage, where Zaki Bey el Dessouki lives, and his office in the Yacoubian Building is not more than a hundred meters, but it takes him an hour to cover it each morning as he is obliged to greet his friends on the street. Clothing-and shoe-store owners, their employees (of both sexes), waiters, cinema staff, habitués of the Brazilian Coffee Stores, even doorkeepers, shoeshine men, beggars, and traffic cops – Zaki Bey knows them all by name and exchanges greetings and news with them." – The Yacoubian Building, Harper Perennial, 2006 edition.

The Pigeon Wars of Damascus
by Marius Kociejowski 

This non-fiction book is a sequel to The Street Philosopher and the Holy Fool:  A Syrian Journey. Published before the recent Syrian uprising, the roots for struggle are well documented here. The pigeon wars turn into a metaphor for Syria itself.  The book is the most interesting when people the author talks to tell their own story.  Although no one is travelling to Syria at the moment, this is an insightful and enjoyable glimpse inside this multi-faceted society. 

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"The Pigeon Wars of Damascus is a fascinating and at times challenging book that reminds us, ‘We cannot feed on the picturesque alone.’”  – Jess Woolford, The Winnipeg Review

"A pigeon fancier said to me, ‘If you want to understand the Middle East, just look at my birds.’  It was approaching evening and on a rooftop in Damascus, several miles from its ancient centre, amid minarets and satellite dishes, the cooing of Waseem’s pigeons, sixty or seventy of them, mingled oddly with the electronically amplified cry of a muezzin in the near distance.  Waseem scowled the scowl of one who feigns to despise what he loves.”  – The Pigeon Wars of Damascus, Biblioasis, 2011 edition.

The Mantle of the Prophet
by Roy Mottahedeh

Although this is a book that one might assume was too scholarly to be of interest to the layman, this is untrue. The Mantle of the Prophet is full of information and insights about the Shi’a philosophy and culture. Yet it is also written in an engaging and novelistic way. The author follows the lives of several fascinating people in Iran and we learn about daily life and culture under the Ayatollahs. Because so much depends upon the Westerner understanding and appreciating the Islamic mind, I believe this book tops the list of important books to read about the Middle East.

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“The beauty of (Mottahedeh’s) book is in his ability to explain sophisticated ideas and difficult subjects in a way which is widely accessiblex...xan extraordinary book.” – London Review of Books

“The graceful prose and factual command … make (this book) a fascinating read.” – San Francisco Chronicle

“Three things had inclined Ali Hashemi to become a mullah: his father was a mullah, Ali was clever at religious studies, and he was born and raised in Qom.xxAli has a far earlier memory. The trees in his very first memory are the small fruit trees that are grown with such solicitous care in the difficult soil and hot climate of Qom. Ali, who was then about three, was at one of the smaller shrines, one called in Persian ‘the Gate of Paradise,’ with his mother. It was afternoon. A flock of green finches had landed on the trees of the orchard that surrounded the small brick building of the shrine. Ali remembers that a woman bent with age was bringing a pitcher of water and people were saying, ‘The birds are pilgrims too.’” – The Mantle of the Prophet, Oneworld Publications, 2000 edition.

 

The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East
by Sandy Tolan

The Lemon Tree is a touching and true story of Bashir, a Palestinian man, and Dalia, an Israeli woman whose family took over Bashir’s house when he and his family fled during the occupation. After reading this account I felt I was finally beginning to understand the complex history of Palestine and Israel. For this alone I would recommend the book. But on top of that, the story of these two entangled lives is engaging and authentic. Their improbable friendship gives one hope that there may be ways to unwind the historic and violent web of this most intractable history.

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“Extraordinary … A sweeping history of the Palestinian-Israeli conundrum ... Highly readable and evocative.” – The Washington Post

 “Humane and literate – and rather daring in suggesting that the future of the Middle Eat need not be violent.” – Kirkus Reviews

“The stone lay cool and heavy in Ahmad’s open hands. Pock-marked and rough, the color of cream, it was cut in foot-thick slabs, with the blunted right angles of the stonemason’s chisel. Its dips and rises defined a landscape in miniature, like the hills and wadis of the Palestine it came from.x… The year Ahmad Khairi built his house, Arab farmers in Palestine would produce hundreds of thousands of tons of barley, wheat, cabbage, cucumber, tomato, figs, grapes, and melons. The Khairis tended oranges, olives, and almonds in a communal waaqf, land owned collectively by the extended family and administered under Islamic law.” – The Lemon Tree, Bloomsbury USA, 2006 edition.