The best books by Arab authors in 2020

The best books by Arab authors in 2020
Book Club: From fiction to insightful memoirs and social commentary, The New Arab rounds up some of the best books written by Arab authors this year.
9 min read
22 December, 2020
2020 was yet another year of compelling book releases from authors of Arab heritage. [Getty]
This year may have been unforgiving for several reasons, but at least we had plenty of new books to offer us some form of escapism from the pandemic and headache-inducing US Presidential Election. 

More importantly though, 2020 was yet another year of compelling book releases from authors of Arab heritage. From engrossing new fiction to insightful memoirs and thought-provoking non-fiction titles, here's The New Arab's roundup of books – published in English first – by Arab authors in 2020. 

Of course, this is not a definitive or exhaustive list, but you've come to the right place if you're looking to update your TBR stack or want to diversify your bookshelf ahead of your next online video call.


The Beauty of Your Face – Sahar Mustafah

A poignant, engrossing coming of age story told with heart. The Beauty of Your Face highlights how immigration and the yearning for home can affect one's sense of belonging, especially in the wake of a family member gone missing. Told through flashbacks as the main character deals with a horrific school shooting in the present, Sahar Mustafah explores complicated family dynamics as well as cultural and religious identity. Featuring cameo appearances of delicious Palestinian food.

Read The New Arab's review here

The Thirty Names of Night – Zeyn Joukhadar

The Thirty Names of Night begins five years after a fire kills the mother of a closeted Syrian-American trans boy, who is searching for a new name. He has been unable to paint and as his grandmother's sole caretaker, he spends his days inside their apartment – except on the nights he slips out to paint murals. On one of these nights he stumbles upon the journal of a Syrian-American artist and discovers a link with his late mother. Readers will learn about French Mandate Syria, a former Manhattan neighbourhood called Little Syria, trans history, ghosts, birds and more.

Against the Loveless World – Susan Abulhawa

The highly acclaimed and internationally best-selling author of Mornings in Jenin is back with her third novel, a searing and lyrical story set in Kuwait, Jordan, and Palestine under Israeli occupation. The plot is centred around Nahr, a young Palestinian refugee, as she slowly becomes radicalised while searching for a better life for her family. A story of love, defiance and rebellion against oppression, and a celebration of the power of Palestinian women.

Between Beirut and the Moon – Naji Bakhti

Naji Bakhti's debut novel is a coming-of-age tale that evolves around the hilarity and hardships of adolescence against the backdrop of political instability and Hezbollah's war with Israel in 2006. Through the teenage narrator Adam, Between Beirut and the Moon explores how the Lebanese are constantly faced with the choice of emigrating or staying, while also embracing Beirut's paradoxes and complexities, defects and limitations, and freedoms and joys. As relevant for Lebanon today, in the wake of the political crisis and Beirut blast, as it would have been 14 years ago.

Read The New Arab's review here

Alligator and Other Stories – Dima Alzayat

This debut short story collection from Syrian-American writer Dima Alzayat captures the many ways we can be displaced and made to feel "other". Comprised of nine compelling tales of grief, hope and search for meaning, Alligator and Other Stories explores identities caught in the crossfire between two cultures as well as the reality of the female migrant experience.

You Exist Too Much – Zaina Arafat

A captivating debut novel in which readers follow a Palestinian-American woman from adolescence to adulthood as she embarks on a journey of self-discovery while caught between two worlds. Zaina Arafat deftly explores themes around mental health, sex and bisexuality, family, and the fragmented sense of home that comes with being part of the Palestinian diaspora. In addition, the unnamed narrator's cultural background and sexuality are able to just be, without the white gaze interfering.

Hijab and Red Lipstick – Yousra Imran

Yousra Imran's debut novel tells the story of a Sara, a British-Egyptian teenage girl, moving to the Gulf with her family when her conservative father gets a job there. In a desperate bid for freedom, Sara makes a judgement call that threatens to ruin her dysfunctional father-daughter relationship forever. Honest and unflinching, Hijab and Red Lipstick highlights numerous examples of the reality of being a woman in a country where the patriarchy and misogyny rule supreme. 

Read The New Arab's review here

Belladonna – Anbara Salam

Belladonna is a coming-of-age, angsty queer-themed story of obsession, friendship and jealousy set in the late 1950s in the closed-off world at the Academy, a boarding and art education institution for young ladies in northern Italy. Anbara Salam explores desire, class and race in an era shortly before the second feminist wave.

Even in the Breaks – Hend Hegazi

Even in the Breaks is an intriguing tale about the strength of women who refuse to let adversity defeat them. Ayda is an uncompromising woman who focuses solely on her work, while Didi is fun loving and looks forward to the day when she and her husband will become parents. With contrasting and vivid characters, Hend Hegazi's latest novel is a thought-provoking emotional journey through life's highs and lows, and on who we choose to call family and what difference they make in our lives.


We Are Not Here to Be Bystanders – Linda Sarsour

Linda Sarsour begins her memoir with a powerful anecdote about the moment she decided to wear a hijab at 19, when she was married and pregnant with her first child. Weaving in a story from her childhood right through to her rise to prominence as a Palestinian-American activist and co-organiser of the Women's March, Sarsour explains her sometimes complex relationship with her identity, and the importance of speaking up and being yourself in a world that might not accept you.

Read The New Arab's review here

The Wolf of Baghdad: Memoir of a Lost Homeland – Carol Isaacs

The Wolf of Baghdad is an audio-visual memoir charting the experiences of Iraqi Jews who had a thriving community in Baghdad in the early 20th century, before they endured persecution and expulsion from the 1940s to the 1970s. Culturally Arab at home and British outside, Carol Isaacs longed for a country forever present in her family's food and language, but one from which she was always absent. Isaacs' visual storytelling is a journey of discovery around her heritage with the help of quotes and family photographs, and a soundtrack performed by 3yin, a Judeo-Arabic band from London.

Ouch!: A memoir with a twist… – Chaker Khazaal

Born and raised in Beirut's Bourj el Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp before obtaining Canadian citizenship, Chaker Khazaal has witnessed his fair share of explosions and trauma. However, the combination of the Beirut blast in August and the pandemic on top of his experience returning to the Lebanese capital unleashed a creative spurt that led him to writing his latest book – a memoir that reads like a thriller and recounts a dark and painful journey with an emphasis on mental health.

The Wandering Palestinian – Anan Ameri

Anan Ameri was born in Palestine before 1948, raised in Jordan and subsequently educated in Cairo. In The Wandering Palestinian, she takes readers on a journey from when she leaves Beirut for Detroit in 1974, and how she overcame culture shock and isolation to find her independence and become a driving force in Detroit's large and politically active Arab-American community. Ameri went on to help establish the first and only Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

Read The New Arab's review here

Politics & Social Commentary

Conditional Citizens – Laila Lalami

In this essay collection, Pulitzer Prize-finalist Laila Lalami taps into history, politics, and literature to explore what it means to belong in the US. Underpinned by Lalami's own journey from Moroccan immigrant to US citizen, Conditional Citizens sheds light on the privileges and instabilities of citizenship for someone who doesn't "look" American, and provides a call to action for a shift in what society views and deems acceptable for who fits into the definition of American.

Me and White Supremacy – Layla F. Saad

Me and White Supremacy teaches readers how to dismantle the privilege within themselves so that they can stop inflicting damage on people of colour, and in turn, help other people do better too. The book came about after Layla Saad, a British writer and podcast host born in Zanzibar to a family of Omani heritage, began the #MeAndWhiteSupremacy Instagram challenge and the viral response it prompted. A timely, pertinent book given the recent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The Hundred Years' War on Palestine – Rashid Khalidi

A landmark history of 100 years of war waged against the Palestinians by a distinguished Palestinian-American historian of the Middle East. Rashid Khalidi's latest book recounts the history of the Zionist settler colonial conquest of, and resistance in, Palestine – drawing on a wealth of untapped archival materials and the reports of generations of family members - mayors, judges, scholars, diplomats, and journalists - to upend accepted interpretations of the conflict.

Read The New Arab's review here 

Notable mentions

There are plenty of other titles that could've been added to this list. It's no secret that the art of poetry is so ingrained in Arab cultures, and building on this great tradition this year are Raya Tuffaha's To All the Yellow Flowers, Tariq Luthun's How the Water Holds Me and Birthright by George Abraham. 

On the other hand, if you have kids and want to set a good example for them, consider the first two books in the Farah Rocks series released this year by Susan Muaddi Darraj, or Salma the Syrian Chef by Danny Ramadan for younger readers. For YA fiction fans it's worth checking out The F Team by Rawah Arja or This Is All Your Fault by Aminah Mae Safi.

Meanwhile, it'd be foolish to not mention two brilliant cookbook releases this year that focus on celebrating Palestinian cuisine: Falastin, co-written by Tara Wrigley and renowned chef Sami Tamimi; and Craving Palestine – a collection of recipes from various prominent Palestinians, including US congresswoman Rashida Tlaib,  writers  Naomi Shihab Nye and Susan Abulhawa, and Mohamed Hadid, the father of supermodels Gigi and Bella Hadid. Proceeds of Craving Palestine sales go towards education, health and development programs aiding Palestinian refugees.

Read The New Arab's review here

While this article only highlights books published in English first, it'd be silly to overlook the large number books by Arab authors that were translated into English this year. Among them are Passage to the Plaza by Sahar Khalifeh (trans. Sawad Hussain), God 99 by Hassan Blasim (trans. Jonathan Wright), The Magnificent Conman of Cairo by Adel Kamel (trans. Waleed Almusharaf) and the highly-acclaimed Minor Detail by Adania Shibli (trans. Elisabeth Jaquette).

Prior shortlistees of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction have also made their way into English-language bookstores for the first time, such as The Frightened Ones by Dima Wannous (trans. Elisabeth Jaquette), Summer with the Enemy by Shahla Ujayli (trans. Michelle Hartman) and The Slave Yards by Najwa Bin Shatwan (trans. Nancy Roberts).

Finally, a couple of books by lauded North African authors first published in French have also been an English re-release. These include Sex and Lies by Leïla Slimani (trans. Sophie Lewis) and A Country for Dying by Abdellah Taïa (trans. Emma Ramadan).

Elias Jahshan is a freelance writer based in London. He is a contributor to Arab, Australian, Other: Stories on Race & Identity, out now through Picador. 

Follow him on Twitter: @Elias_Jahshan

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