by Oset Babur
As the days get shorter and the weather gets chillier, few things sound more enticing than a cup of tea, a Friday night in and a good book. While it’s comforting to read stories about familiar territory, what better way to feel well-traveled than by reading about a region that you probably can’t get to so easily? Here are five female Middle Eastern authors who will transport you to exciting new places and entrance you with characters you’ll feel like you’ve known your whole life.
1. Elif Shafak
As Turkey’s most famous female author, Elif Shafak’s works are easy to find in many American bookstores. Her most recent book, The Architect’s Apprentice, uses the Ottoman Empire as a backdrop for the story of Jahan, an animal tamer in the sultan’s menagerie. Through a twist of good luck, Jahan finds himself as an apprentice to the empire’s famed chief architect and must learn to defend his aspirations from other members of the palace community. Shafak’s stories do an exemplary job of taking the aspects of Turkish culture and history that Turks know best and making them understandable and compelling to an outside audience. Her 2014 work, Honor, is ostensibly a heart-wrenching story about honor killings, but digs much deeper. We’re left not only pitying and worrying about the protagonist, but considering the broader questions about the dynamics between gender and religion, even in a secular country like Turkey.
2. Azar Nafisi
The cover of Reading Lolita in Tehran is one that adorned best-seller tables across the United States back in 2005. Azar Nafisi’s second work, The Republic of Imagination: A Life in Books, reads somewhere between a memoir and a series of book reviews. She looks back to her dreams of becoming an American citizen, largely shaped by the America she knew through works of fiction. It is a perfect sequel to Reading Lolita in Tehran because it gives context to why the author felt so strongly about teaching Western works to students in an oppressive regime. She wanted her students to find the same escape and fulfillment that she had found in those pages. Read the two in succession and you’ll feel like Azar Nafisi is a long-lost friend you can’t wait to catch up with over a cup of tea next week.
3. Nawal el Saadawi
The crushing hand of cards that Firdaus, the protagonist in Woman at Point Zero, is dealt will transport you to the most hopeless corners that women in Middle Eastern societies can find themselves in. However, the resistance and passion with which she fights back against her male oppressors is so inspirational that Saadawi’s book is one you’ll find yourself unable to put down. Saadawi’s books have largely been translated from Arabic to English, and while Woman at Point Zero is a captivating entry point to her work, you’d be missing out if you didn’t also try Circling Song and Memoirs of a Woman Doctor. In each, Saadawi begs important questions about family relations, genital mutilation and Arab society’s outlook on women in the modern age.
4. Basma Abdel Aziz
For lovers of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, Cairo, Egypt offers Basma Abdel Aziz. The Queue is a unique, addicting critique of totalitarian regimes and the psychological impacts they have on families living within them. Her use of dystopian themes to tackle the most difficult issues facing Arab society is incredibly artful, and it’s worth taking the time to consider the events, figures, and conflicts she describes to find haunting real-world parallels in the Arab Spring.
5. Yasmine el Rashidi
The youngest author on this list, Yasmine el Rashidi’s debut work Chronicle of a Last Summer is perhaps the one in which readers will find the most compelling parallels to the Arab Spring because of its timeliness. Spanning over three summers, we see Cairo through the eyes of a young female protagonist who develops her own opinions of the Mubarak regime and brushes up against authority figures as a result. Much like The Queue, Rashidi’s work uses fiction as a safety net to provoke readers and force them to think critically about how average families suffer under totalitarian, religious governments. From censorship to sexuality, Rashidi is clearly unafraid to tackle weighty issues, and she’ll be a name to watch closely over the next few years.
Oset Babur is a recent graduate of Wellesley College, and her writing has also been featured by World Policy Journal and The Tempest. You can get in touch with her at @baburoset, and see her published work at www.osetbabur.com.