The best books by Arab authors in 2023

The best books by Arab authors in 2023
Book Club: As 2023 comes to an end, The New Arab have chosen 10 of the most brilliant, relevant, and thought-provoking books written by Arab authors this year.
9 min read
27 December, 2023
From Algerian surrealism to Sudanese messiahs, 2023 has been an exciting year for Arab literature

We conclude this year with reflections on the plethora of exceptional literary releases from Arab and Muslim authors. 2023 saw a large burst of Arabic-to-English translations, leaving an indelible mark on the global literary canon.

Authors from Algeria, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Kuwait, Egypt, Morocco, and Sudan comprise the New Arab’s list of the top ten books of 2023.

Many of the books chosen echo the ongoing generational trauma of war and the violence of colonialism in these countries. Their stories will resound for years, reminding readers that literature is critical in challenging the status quo.

This year has been eclipsed by the ongoing genocide of Gaza and the occupation of Palestine. Social media is now inundated with horrific images of death and human brutality. So, books by Palestinian authors such as Isabella Hamad, Sheikha Helawy, and Etaf Rum are some of the most impactful titles to be released.

"Despite their regional and cultural disparities, these tales are inextricably linked by their themes of resilience and decolonisation"

Narrating their experiences has become an urgent act of survival and advocacy. Moreover, we have handpicked an array of idiosyncratic authors and tales for this list. Algerian author Ahmed Taibaoui debuted with his noir fiction, The Disappearance of Mister Nobody. Syria’s beloved novelist, Khalid Khalifa, gave us his final piece on 20th-century Aleppo, Nobody Prayed Over Their Graves, before his sudden death in September.

In contrast to these fictional novels, The New Arab found Avi Shlaim's memoir, Three Worlds, which expounds on the loss of Iraqi Jewry and Traces of Enayat - And Other Stories by Iman Mersal, on the ill-fated Egyptian writer, profoundly inspirational. These are some of the dynamic titles that have made their imprint this year. Despite their regional and cultural disparities, these tales are inextricably linked by their themes of resilience and decolonisation.

1. The Disappearance of Mister Nobody by Ahmed Taibaoui

At just over a hundred pages, Ahmed Taibaoui makes his English language debut with his noir fiction, The Disappearance of Mister Nobody. Set in the post-colonial suburb of Algiers, Rouiba, an unnamed narrator recounts his bizarre predicaments.

Perpetually on the margins of society, this enigmatic man attempts to settle in Rouiba for escape but ends up the caretaker of an abandoned old man with dementia.

The nameless man struggles to keep the man alive and becomes involved with several dubious individuals. Taibaoui’s novel exposes the reader to society's rapacious and patriarchal face.

Police spies, shady clerics, and grave robbers form the characters of this lyrical and haunting novel. The consequences of socioeconomic status the rampant corruption in the aftermath of war and colonialism, are masterfully illustrated in this macabre story of an unknown man. It is a candid and critical commentary on how society condemns the denigrates it produces without remorse.

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2. Traces of Enayat - And Other Stories by Iman Mersal: Translated by Robin Moger   

Traces of Enayat is an all-encompassing genre tinged with elements of autobiography, travelogue, and investigative journalism. The author, Iman Mersal herself, is a celebrated Egyptian academic who, in this book, has painted a stunning portrait of the forgotten Egyptian author, Enayat al-Zayyat.

Her only novel, Love and Silence, propelled Mersal to investigate Zayyat's life and unravel a pandemonium of secrets and truths. In 1963, Enayat committed suicide, never seeing the publication of her work.

Mersal meticulously sifts through interviews with her family members, friends, and archives and finds that Enayat’s story is one of depression, domestic abuse, a fractured marriage, and survival.

Despite her talent, her suicide fades her into obscurity until Mersal brings her back into the global landscape. As the culture of post-war Egypt is explored, the parallel between author and subject is perhaps the most striking feature of this work.

3. River Spirit by Leila Aboulela

River Spirit is a mellifluous story that elucidates a period of Sudanese history in the final years of Ottoman rule. Set in the 1800s, young Akuany witnesses the relentless pillaging of her village.

The already dwindling power of the Ottoman Empire paved the way for the volatile Mahdist revolution. A man proclaims himself the Mahdi, a prophesied figure in Islam who is to redeem the Muslim world. He quickly begins to exploit the desperation of his people through violent manipulation.

His rise and fall are witnessed through Akuany’s eyes in Aboulela’s novel. She navigates her orphaned life amidst incessant plunder and weds a thoughtful and spiritual man while her country burns in the backdrop. Sudanese liberation, a nuanced and balanced depiction of Islam, and discernment of human complexity are threaded into the fabric of this novel, making it a profoundly rewarding experience.

4. An Unlasting Home, by Mai Al-Nakib

An Unlasting Home is an insightful novel focusing on the resilience of women in a society set up to fail them. This multigenerational saga oscillates between the stories of Kuwaiti philosophy professor Sara and her grandmothers, Yasmine and Lulwa, and her two mothers, Noura and Maria.

The novel spans from the 1920s to the present day, interweaving the regions of Lebanon, Iraq, India, the United States, and Kuwait. The book focuses on Sara and her current dilemma as a fired philosophy professor awaiting prosecution for blasphemous comments made during a lecture.

In 2013, the Kuwaiti parliament passed a law punishing blasphemy with execution. The tales of the women before her are those of failed aspirations due to war and patriarchy. But their strength resulted in Sara’s success.

The novel reveals the geopolitical forces of the Middle East, the unique lives of Muslim women, and the psychological ramifications of living in the diaspora.

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5. Three Worlds By Avi Shlaim

Avi Shlaim is an Oxford historian who recalls his enchanting childhood in Baghdad in his memoir Three Worlds. The Jewish community of Iraq dates back to 2,600 years and was once a thriving society.

Once an integral part of Iraqi society, identifying as Arabs practising the Jewish religion, Shlaim details their tragic exodus from the Arab world. The oft-repeated story is the incompatibility of Jewry with Islamic nations.

Yet, Shlaim offers another perspective in which Iraqi Jews and Muslim elites fostered friendship and community. He recalls that Zionism was a notion for European Jews and the settlements in Palestine were rejected. While antisemitism simmered in the backdrop of Iraq and Zionism was gaining its foothold, Iraqi Jews were left in a precarious state. His story exposes a unique stance on the nature of Zionism, nationalism, and Arabness.

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6. History of Ash, by Khadija Marouazi

Khadija Marouazi debuts with her lyrical novel, History of Ash. The story of Mouline and Leila takes centre stage. Their perspectives and timelines shift throughout the book to illustrate the rampant corruption in the Moroccan judicial system.

Both arrested during Morocco’s “Years of Lead,” the reader bears witness to their survival under torture and harrowing prison conditions and their re-assimilation back to public life after their eventual release.

This era of Moroccan history is tainted with heavy state repression and unjust imprisonment of dissidents. The fictional tale of these characters vividly echoes the reality of this period. Marouazi is a human rights activist and a literature professor at Ibn Tofail University in Kenitra, Morocco.

"Many of the books chosen echo the ongoing generational trauma of war and the violence of colonialism in these countries. Their stories will resound for years, reminding readers that literature is critical in challenging the status quo"

7. Enter Ghost By Isabella Hamad

Enter Ghost is Hamad’s second novel, an evocative tale of Palestinian experience and exile. Sonia Nassir is a rising actress in Britain who returns to Palestine to visit her older sister, Haneen, to escape her chaotic love life.

Longing for quiet contemplation, fate would have it that she joins a West Bank production of a classical Arabic translation and interpretation of Hamlet.

Despite spending years avoiding her homeland, this play reawakens her politically. She is forced to confront her family, heritage, and identity.

Written with acuity and enchanting prose, Sonia becomes acquainted with the various cast members and their lives in the West Bank. Through Sonia, the story examines the complex psychological impacts of living in a diaspora and displacement. It is a thoughtful and passionate portrait of present-day Palestine.

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8. They Fell Like Stars from the Sky Palestine by Sheikha Helawy

They Fell Like Stars From The Sky comprises 18 short stories that animate the lives of Palestinian Bedouin women. Translated by Nancy Roberts, Helawy pulls the curtain on a rarely documented aspect of Palestinian life.

The rich, convoluted, and traditional lives in these villages are passionately revealed in the dynamism of these characters.

Each story is a mere few pages investigating the lives of adolescent girls coming to terms with their changing bodies' minds, reckoning with the contradictory cultural restrictions inflicted upon them, all the while living under the shadow of Israeli occupation.

Helawy herself is from the forgotten village of Dhail El E'rj. The residents of this village were forcibly displaced by Israel to create a railway. Her own experience is deftly infused in these short yet emphatic vignettes.

9. Evil Eye by Etaf Rum

The release of Etaf Rum’s novel Evil Eye became eclipsed by the attack of October 7th and the looming genocide that would precede it. Still, the story of Yara, a young Palestinian-American woman, is more timely than ever.

She is an art lecturer and mother who must confront the trauma of living a sheltered life in displacement. After reacting to a colleague's racism, she is put on probation and mandated therapy.

Despite living under the family’s strict restrictions, she completed her education, forged a career, and started a family. Her family’s conservatism and superstitions come back to haunt her when her mother blames her situation on a family curse. This poignant novel explores multigenerational issues of trauma, misogyny, and complex mother-daughter dynamics.

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10. Nobody Prayed Over Their Graves by Khalid Khalifa

Nobody Prayed Over Their Graves is an intergenerational epic on the friendships of Zakariya, Hanna, and the multiple individuals that would be inextricably bound to them.

It is an evocative portrayal of Syrian life in the remaining and tenuous years of Ottoman rule. Despite their religious disparities, Zakariya was from a prominent Muslim family, and Hanna was a Christian orphan; they grew up to be close friends, sharing lustful exploits and indulgences.

However, a tragic flood in their village near Aleppo would change the trajectory of their lives. The novel follows Hanna’s life before and after the torrent, uncovering an intimate look at Syrian social and political life at the beginning of the 20th century. Khalifa’s tale is one of hope in which religious and ethnic differences do not fracture but rather unite a community. It is an exhilarating story of poetic brilliance.

Noshin Bokth has over six years of experience as a freelance writer. She has covered a wide range of topics and issues including the implications of the Trump administration on Muslims, the Black Lives Matter movement, travel reviews, book reviews, and op-eds. She is the former Editor in Chief of Ramadan Legacy and the former North American Regional Editor of the Muslim Vibe

Follow her on Twitter: @BokthNoshin