Intriguing Middle Eastern Fiction

In a return to our intermittent series on interesting international fiction, enjoy this snapshot of titles by Middle Eastern novelists published in the US in the last year.

Beginning in Turkey, check out Elif Shafak’s latest novel The Three Daughters of Eve, a story set over a single evening in contemporary Istanbul, as Peri attends a dinner party at a seaside mansion while terrorist attacks occur across the city. Surrounded by well-healed guests, Peri reflects on the two friends she made as a student at Oxford, and the betrayal that ripped them apart but which she still might be able to fix.

Shifting gears, check out the culinary historical fiction novel The Pasha of Cuisine by Saygin Ersin. The nameless chef, orphaned during a palace coup at the age of five, possess a perfect palette and such skill with flavors that his dishes can transform those who eat them. Pursuing various types of training, he travels around the Ottoman Empire, ultimately returning home to try and win in marriage the hand of a dancer he has long loved.

In the comedy of errors Printed in Beirut by Lebanese novelist Jabbur Duwayhi, Farid is an aspiring writer whose manuscript suffers rejection after rejection, but is ultimately offered a job as a copy editor. At his new work, he discovers a counterfeiting operation and becomes embroiled in an international crime ring embedded in Beirut’s publishing industry.

Iranian author Shahriar Mandanipour’s novel Moon Brow focuses on Amir Yamini, a man whose body and mind have been fragmented by the Iran-Iraq War. Confined to his childhood home, cared for by his mother and sister, Amir struggles to remember the man he was before being struck by shrapnel, and to identify the woman he loved but remembers only by the nickname Moon Brow. The narrative is told by two “scribes” sitting on his shoulders, like good and bad angels, interrupted by Amir’s hallucinatory dreams.

 Moving to the surreal account of a different war – the Iraq War – check out Frankenstein in Baghdad by Iraqi author Ahmed Saadawi. Scavanger Hadi, frustrated at the frequent bombings in Baghdad and the cavalier way the corpses are handled, collects human body parts from the most recent bombing and stitches them together to create a corpse that represents the corpses of all those killed. Unexpectedly, it gains sentience and moves out into the streets of the city. Told from the point of view of the Hadi, the creature, and several residents of Baghdad, this provides a surprisingly well-rounded view of the onset of the Iraq War from the perspective of Baghdad residents. Winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

 Israeli Moshik Sakal’s novel The Diamond Setter tells the overlapping stories of characters who have all come into contact with a rare and storied diamond. From Tom, who works as an apprentice in his Uncle Menashe’s Tel Aviv jewelry shop, and Tom’s boyfriend Honi, to Fareed, who travels to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem seeking to return a diamond fragment to its rightful owner; and back in time through their family trees.

Rounding out our list are two works by Syrian writers, a novel and a graphic novel. Sophia: Or the Beginning of All Tales by Rafik Schami weaves together two stories: that of an aging couple, one Christian and one Muslim, whose love is scandalous because of their differing religions; and Salman, who fled to Italy after the 1963 Syrian political coup and only dares to return home 40 years later. Schami, a Syrian writer who lives in Germany, writes of the Syria he knew from his childhood and still loves, but also of the current landscape and the difficulty of watching the conflict in his home country. Freedom Hospital, the graphic novel by Hamid Sulaiman, is based on true events from the ongoing Syrian Civil War. It opens in 2012, as pharmacist Yasmin runs a covert hospital near the border with Turkey, treating any wounded regardless of the side they’re on. We meet the clinicians, patients, and local citizens and catch glimpses of the desperate circumstances that brought them there. A stark black-and-white style vividly evokes a bleak tone. In their review, Kirkus called it “A heartbreaking and eye-opening primer to the quagmire of a generation.”

~ posted by Andrea G.

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