Magical Mashriq: 5 anthologies by Arab authors you need on your reading list

Students Reading in the Stacks of a Library (Photo by Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
6 min read
13 October, 2021

Book lovers across the world have carved a space for themselves on several social media platforms, including Instagram, Youtube, Tiktok and Twitter – dubbed as Bookstagram, Booktube, Booktok and Book-twitter, respectively. To highlight diverse reads on these platforms, readers attach different genres and themes to specific months of the year. For example, August is named ‘Women in Translation’ month; June takes the ‘Mid-Year Freak Out’ tag; October is Black History Month in the UK and short stories own September.

So, to commemorate the recently concluded #ShortStorySeptember, I will be recommending some short story collections by Arab authors for your reading pleasure. Some of these collections I had to read twice to fully appreciate their beauty and all of them will appeal to lovers of short stories who do not mind some creative twists in their short story collections. 

The Quarter by Naguib Mahfouz (trans. Roger Allen)

The Quarter is a collection of previously unpublished short stories by prolific Egyptian writer, Naguib Mahfouz. His daughter discovered the stories in 2019 after he passed away. The 18 vignettes have a theme of 'community' that is common to Mahfouz’s oeuvre. Each story is set in the Gamaliya quarter with an unseen force that is present throughout.

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Mahfouz uses stories like The Oven and The Scream to depict the patriarchal practice of ascribing a woman’s conduct to her family’s honour (and the harm this practice brings to said women). The Scream is particularly interesting because, at the beginning of the story, Mahfouz describes this scream at length for a reason that is not apparent till the story ends.

With Nabqa in the Old Fort and Son of the Quarter, Mahfouz tackles corruption and how people in positions of power – social, political, or religious – use their power to silence the masses. In addition to the stories, the collection also contains Mahfouz’s 1988 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, which is a firm reminder of the magic of his writing.

Elsewhere, Home by Leila Aboulela

Elsewhere, Home by Leila Aboulela is a collection of 13 short stories set in Sudan. The stories explore the African immigrant experiences. To accurately depict these experiences, each story employs varied themes: culture shock and homesickness; inferiority complex that often manifest; and the gnawing survival guilt of leaving one's country for greener pastures. I appreciate that Aboulela preserves the cultural authenticity of the Sudanese characters in each story, and I especially admire that she broaches the theme of hijab and Muslim women’s portrayal in literature in the story titled Pages of Fruit.

My favourite story in this collection is Something Old, Something New because of its warm depiction of a Muslim love story. Some stories like The Museum and Majed previously featured in anthologies that Aboulela previously contributed to, like Opening Spaces (edited by Yvonne Vera). Elsewhere, Home is indeed a collection that will see readers through varied emotions. I highly recommend it. 

A Bed for the King’s Daughter by Shahla Ujayli (trans. Sawad Hussain)

In the Translator’s note, Sawad Hussain reveals that many editors rejected this English translation of this collection by Shahla Ujayli (who was longlisted thrice for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction) for ‘being too short’. But in that shortness lies the appeal of this collection. Many of its 22 stories are no more than one page but are bound to leave readers stunned and stuck in a ‘what did I just read?’ mode. While Ujayli is a Syrian writer, the stories are not confined to Syrian culture or the Arab identity.

In fact, the opening story, The Memoirs of Cinderella’s Slipper, is a retelling of the popular folklore (Cinderella), but with an exciting twist that introduces readers to Ujayli’s brilliant writing style. In Christmas, a two-page story, Ujayli portrays Israeli apartheid in the emotions of Palestinian kids who await Christmas gifts from Baba Noel that cannot reach them behind the apartheid wall. In just two pages, Ujayli broaches the horror of Israeli oppression and its devastating effects on Palestinian kids who cannot even share in the childish joy of waiting on Santa Claus.

Some other stories, like Lilith and Greek discussions, reintroduce familiar figures such as Adam (the first human) and Greek gods (Zeus and Habeas). Through these retellings, Ujayli leaves many things unsaid and implied at the same time. It is the ultimate experience for lovers of short stories.

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Shatila Stories translated by Nashwa Gowanlock

This collection is perhaps the most exciting on this list because Syrian and Palestinian refugees from the Shatila refugee camp contributed the stories. But, do not doubt the quality of this collection because the nine contributors demonstrate their writing prowess and leave a remarkable literary mark. The contributors are Omar Khaled Ahmad, Hiba Marei, Safa Khaled Algharbawi, Nibal Alalo, Omar Abdellatif Alndaf, Fatima Omar Ghazawi, Safiya Badran, Samih Mahmoud, and Rayan Mohamad Sukkar.

Shatila Stories is a collaborative work between publisher Peirene and the contributors. In 2017, Peirene set up a creative writing workshop, which the contributors partook in, that ultimately birthed this heart-wrenching and authentic piece of work. Each entry depicts the hardships of displacement and the day-to-day life within the Shatila camp.

Readers will also get a first-hand account of the love, friendships, successes, heartbreaks, and disappointments that Shatila refugees experience – reminding us that living as a refugee does not erase one’s humanity. This fictional collection is unique and will appeal to short story lovers in pursuit of fresher perspectives.

The Sea Cloak and other stories by Nayrouz Qarmout (titular story trans: Charis Bredin; other stories trans. Perween Richards)

This debut collection by Palestinian writer and journalist, Nayrouz Qarmout, is my last read for #ShortStorySeptember. It contains 11 short stories that zero in on Gaza: a city that is no stranger to bombs and oppression.

The collection opens with the titular story, The Sea Cloak, where a girl recalls a scene from her past where children formed teams to play a game of ‘Jews and Arabs’ – a sharp reminder that Gazan children, unlike many others, have their childhood prematurely snatched from them. The narrator then describes how she only wants to swim and exist freely without the burden of what society expects from a Gazan Muslim girl. Another story, Black Grapes denotes a ‘forbidden friendship’ between a Palestinian man and an Israeli settler.

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This story is a classic example of short stories that begin with their end; only at the end of the story do you appreciate the atmosphere the author builds in the beginning. The Sea Cloak and other stories are unabashedly Gazan. The stories force you to pause and listen – beyond the distorted and biased media narratives – and they are bound to remain significant for years to come.

Aisha Yusuff is a book reviewer with a focus on African and Muslim literature. Her work can be found on @thatothernigeriangirl as well as in digital magazines like Rewrite London.

Follow her on Twitter: @allthingsaeesha