Recommended reading

Arabic literature is not well-known in the west. To help redress the balance, here are some works by contemporary Arab writers that have been translated into English (or, in a few cases, were originally written in English). The list is based on recommendations from the British Council's website, with somefurther additions:

Anthologies – prose

Individual writers – prose

Anthologies – poetry

Individual writers – poetry

Anthologies - prose

Arabic Short Stories
Translator: Denys Johnson-Davies

Twenty-four short stories which include authors such as Edward El-Kharrat, Bahaa Taher, Alifa Rifaat and Ghassan Kanafani. Through the eyes of insiders, they show us the intimate texture of life in the diverse countries and cultures of the Arab world.

University of California Press 1994 pbk. ISBN 0-520-08944-8;

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Beyond the Dunes: An Anthology of Modern Saudi Literature
Jayyusi Salma

A varied selection of poetry, short stories, novel extracts, personal accounts, drama and essays which provide a fascinating insight into the challenges and tensions of Saudi Arabia.

I B Tauris & Co Ltd 2006 pbk. ISBN 1850439729;

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Modern Syrian Short Stories
Translated: Michael Azrak

A unique collection of 18 short stories that demonstrates the freshness and range of contemporary writing from Syria. Weaving together stories of romance, horror, mystery, honour and tradition the writing is vigorous and immediate.

Lynne Reinner Publishers 1998 pbk. ISBN 0-89410-441-1;

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The Modern Arabic Short Story: Shahrazad Returns
Mohammad Shaheen

English translations of previously unavailable Arabic texts. A valuable introduction and overview of this classical form of storytelling.

Palgrave Macmillan 2002 pbk. ISBN 0-333-64137-X;

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Transit Beirut: New Writing and Images
Edited by Malu Halasa & Roseann Khalaf

Beirut: where plastic surgery meets the emotional intensity of Umm Kalsoum, Lebanese foodies go on the rampage and a melee of pop cultures chafes at Middle Eastern traditions. In words and pictures, this is an anthology of complex urban experience with the emphasis on quick, reported, observed personal writing and photographs. The view is wide: from fiction to non-fiction and everything in between. In the mix, Zeina B Ghandour ponders the intersecting lines of T. E. Lawrence, Orientalism and a PLO grandmother's revolutionary milk; novelist Hassan Daoud unpeels Beiruti humour and lifestyles; and journalist Fadi Tufayli reveals a makeshift graveyard at the heart of the city's psyche.

Saqi Books 2004 pbk. ISBN 0-86356-568-9;

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Under the Naked Sky: Short Stories from the Arab World
Edited and translated by Denys Johnson-Davies

Drawing on an intimate knowledge of modern Arabic writing, Denys Johnson-Davies brings together a colourful mosaic of life as lived and portrayed by Arabs from Morocco to Iraq. Review: al-Ahram Weekly

Saqi Books 2001 pbk. ISBN 0-86356-387-2;

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Voices of Change: Short Stories by Saudi Arabian Women Writers
Translators: Abubaker Bagader, Ava M. Heinrichsdorff, D.S. Akers

A selection of works from the last three decades of women's writing in Saudi Arabia offering a rare insight into the traditional and changing roles, relationships and expectations of women in a patriarchal society.

Lynne Rienner Books 1997 pbk. ISBN 1-55587-775-3;

Individual writers - prose


They Die Strangers

Translators: Abubaker Bagader, Deborah Akers

First full-length work of the distinguished Yemeni writer Mohammad Abdul-Wali to appear in English. Explores the human condition through the eyes of the oppressed and disfranchised and is particularly sympathetic to the plight of women. They Die Strangers, a novella and thirteen short stories, is the first full-length work of the distinguished Yemeni writer Mohammad Abdul-Wali to appear in English. Abdul-Wali died tragically in an aviation accident, and his stories were collected after his death by the translators Abubaker Bagader and Deborah Akers. Abdul-Wali was born in Ethiopia of Arab Yemeni parents. His stories, filled with nostalgia and the bitterness of exile, deal with the common experiences of Yemenis like himself who are caught between cultures by the displacements of civil war or labour migration. His characters include women left behind, children raised without fathers, and men returning home after years of absence. He explores the human condition through the eyes of the oppressed and disenfranchised and is particularly sympathetic to the plight of women. Review: Aljadid.

University of Texas Press 2002 pbk. ISBN 0-2927-0508-5;

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The Belt

Translator: Nadia Benabid

The first Saudi to write a novel in French, Abodehman recounts his childhood in a magical village steeped in poetry and traditional tribal values in Saudi Arabia .

Saqi Books 2003 pbk. ISBN 0-8635-6307-4;

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This is a tale of food, love and geography which wittily recounts life for Arabs living in the US . Sirine is 39, half-Iraqi and half-American and working as a cook in a Middle Eastern restaurant in Los Angeles . She falls for Hanif, a dashing professor at the local university, but she feels that she is too American for him.

Picador 2004 pbk. ISBN 0-330-41327-9;

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Koolaids: The Art of War

Detailing the impact of the AIDS epidemic and the Lebanese civil war in Beirut on a circle of friends and family, "Koolaids" tells the stories of characters who can no longer love or think except in fragments of time, each of which goes off along its own trajectory and immediately disappears. Clips, quips, vignettes and hallucinations, tragic news reports and hilarious short plays, conversations with both the quick and the dead, all shine their combined lights to reveal the way we experience life today in this ambitious novel.

Picador 1998 pbk. ISBN: 0312206585;

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I, the Divine: A Novel in First Chapters

The worst case of writer's block in history. An innovative novel in which the heroine, Sarah Nour El-Din (named after "the divine" actress Sarah Bernhardt), attempts to write a memoir but never gets beyond the first chapter. In fact, each chapter of the book represents a fresh attempt to tell her story.

W W Norton 2001 pbk. ISBN: 0393323560;

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A Love Story

Translator: Robin Bray

Through a sequence of dreams, flashbacks and conversations, Yacoub Iryan, a dying novelist, reflects upon his life, his achievements and his passionate, yet fleeting love affair with a married woman. Lying in his hospital bed, Iryan's conversations with his humourous nurse, Helen, his doctors and his fellow patients paint the picture of an intelligent and enlightened man obsessed with a memory that is fading as his body grows weaker. A Love Story is a poignant reflection on passionate, enduring love and the joys and tragedies of life.

Saqi Books 2002 pbk. ISBN 0-86356-320-1;

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Alaa el ASWANI

The Yacoubian Building

Translator: Humphrey Davies

The Yacoubian Building holds all that Egypt was and has become over the 75 years since its namesake was built on one of downtown Cairo's main boulevards. From the pious son of the building's doorkeeper and the raucous, impoverished squatters on its roof, via the tattered aristocrat and the gay intellectual in its apartments, to the ruthless businessman whose stores occupy its ground floor, each sharply etched character embodies a facet of modern Egypt - where political corruption, ill-gotten wealth, and religious hypocrisy are natural allies, where the arrogance and defensiveness of the powerful find expression in the exploitation of the weak, where youthful idealism can turn quickly to extremism, and where an older, less violent vision of society may yet prevail. Alaa Al Aswany's novel caused an unprecedented stir when it was first published in 2002 and has remained the world's best selling novel in the Arabic language since. More about Alaa el Aswani.

American University in Cairo Press 2004 hbk. ISBN 9-77424-862-7;

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Liana BADR

The Eye Of The Mirror

Translator: Samira Kawar

Set in Palestinian refugee camp Tal el-Zaatar, where the Lebanese civil war first started, this tells of Aisha and her upbringing during the massacre which forced Palestinians to leave the camp. Using a mosaic of eye-witness accounts, Liana Badr presents a rewriting of Palestinian history.

Garnet Publishing 1995 pbk. ISBN 1-85964-020-6;

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Salwa BAKR

The Golden Chariot

Edited by Fadia Faqir

Translator: Dinah Manisty

From her prison cell in Cairo, Aziza decides to create a golden chariot to take her and fellow prisoners to heaven, where their dreams can be fulfilled. Aziza's narrative holds together the stories of the other women and their crimes as they yearn for a better life, but cannot realise these dreams.

Garnet Publishing 1995 pbk. ISBN 1-85964-022-2;

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The Stone of Laughter

Edited by Fadia Faqir

Translator: Sophie Bennett

This novel is full of cynical observations about life in war-torn Beirut. It tells the story of Khalil, a gay man who avoids ideological or military affiliations. It shook Arab readers' preconceptions about women's writing, questioning the need for political affiliation for Arab authors. More about Hoda Barakat.

Garnet Publishing 1995 pbk. ISBN 1-85964-018-4;

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Welcome To Paradise

Translator: Lulu Norman

Welcome to Paradise tells the fictional stories of a group of individuals forming part of the traffic in illegal immigrants across the Straits of Gibraltar, and of those involved in this shadowy trade. Shortlisted for the Independent's Foreign Fiction Prize 2004. Review: The Guardian

Granta Books 2004 pbk. ISBN 1-86207-647-2;

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Gamal al-GHITANI

Zayni Barakat

Translator: Farouk Abdel Wahab

A political and historical fable set in early 17th century Cairo . Based around the figure of Zayni Barakat ibn Mousa, a governor who uses numerous spies and informers to dominate the city, the novel uses a number of narrative styles including diary extracts, police reports and legal decrees to tell its tale.

Penguin Books 1990 pbk. ISBN 0140-093-46X;

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The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist

Translator: Salma Khadra Jayyusi

The story of a Palestinian who becomes a citizen of Israel is a dark comedy which combines reality and fantasy to a powerful effect. The authors sorrow regarding the tragedy of Palestine are turned into a biting satire on Israeli politics.

Arris Books 2003 pbk. ISBN 1-84437-020-8;

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Jad el HAGE

The Last Migration

Ashraf Saad, the narrator of The Last Migration is originally from Lebanon , migrating with his family to Australia during the Lebanese civil war. Following the breakdown of his marriage he travels to London , and settles in Shepherd Bush. Moving between Australia , London and the Lebanon the novel is a moving account of the interactions between East and West and is also a gentle and tender love story.

Panache Publications 2002 pbk. ISBN 0-9581-1570-2;

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Turki al-HAMAD


Translator: Robin Bray

As he comes of age in the late 1960s, in a Saudi Arabia wildly conflicted between newfound prosperity and ancient tradition, a young boy is swept up by the call to revolution and tormented by the incompatible demands of personal loyalties. The deceptive tranquillity of his middle-class neighbourhood is the setting for an intense showdown between the boy's love for his family and yearning for social justice. He struggles to make sense of all this turbulence, as he himself awakens to passions both private and political. Adama explores the poles of idealism and disillusionment, amidst the paradoxes of a conservative land where every illicit pleasure is available and ancient traditions co-exist with the apparatus of a powerful and merciless state. Review: Desijournal

Saqi Books 2003 pbk. ISBN 0-86356-311-2;

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This Other Salt

Betrayal, bereavement, exile, belonging - these are the themes that resonate throughout This Other Salt. A writer torn between two loves looks for his lost words in the gap between memory, mourning and desire; a poet revenges herself on her faithless lover by turning their romance into a legend of biblical proportions; and a teenage boy's life uncannily begins to resemble the role he plays in a school operetta ...Combining satire, legend, poetry, history and memoir, the linked stories of This Other Salt reveal an author of uncommon talent at the height of his craft. Review: The Guardian.

Saqi Books 2005 pbk. ISBN 0-86356-532-8;

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Sonallah IBRAHIM

The Committee

Translator: Charlene Constable, Mary St.Germain

Writing in a symbolic and minimalist style, author Sonallah Ibrahim has been called the Egyptian Kafka. This wry take on Kafka's The Trial revolves around its narrator's attempts to petition successfully the elusive ruling body of his country, known simply as 'the committee'.

Syracuse University Press 2001 hbk. ISBN 0-8156-0726-1;

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Rings of Burnished Brass and Other Stories

Translator: Catherine Cobham

A collection of four short stories from one of the leading figures of 20th-century Arabic literature. Each tale brings together characters of conflicting classes and interests, from an impoverished youth and a wealthy woman to a torturer and his victim.

American University in Cairo Press 1992 pbk. ISBN 977-424-248-3;

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Wild Thorns

Translator: Trevor LeGassick, Elizabeth Fernea

An uncompromising account of life in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, based around the story of a young Palestinian who is returning from the Gulf, where he has been working as a translator. The complicated reality of life in the West Bank is sensitively approached and the unsentimental portrayal of everyday life is honest and moving.

Saqi Books 1986 pbk. ISBN 0-8635-6003-2;

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Edwar al-KHARRAT

Girls of Alexandria

Translator: Frances Liardet

Edwar Al-Kharrat is one of Egypt 's leading writers and highly regarded as both a novelist and a short story writer. This is a collection of some of his finest poems beautifully translated by Frances Liardet.

Quartet Books 1993 pbk. ISBN 0-7043-7006-9;

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Gate of the Sun

In a makeshift hospital in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Beirut, Yunis, an aging Palestinian freedom fighter, lies in a coma. His spiritual son, Dr. Khaleel - who has no real medical qualifications - nurses the older man, refusing to admit that his hero may never regain consciousness. In an attempt to revive his patient, Khaleel, like a modern-day Sheherazade, begins telling Yunis the stories of their people's exile in Lebanon: their flight from Galilee in 1948; the violence of the 1950s; the massacre at the Shatila camp in 1982. He evokes deserted peasant villages, the suffering caused by the Lebanese civil war and the refugees' hopes to return home with a subtle mixture of anger and compassion. Review (New York Times).

Vintage 2005 pbk . ISBN: 0099461595;

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Tales From Old Baghdad

A vivid and irreverent collection of short stories set in 1930s and 1940s Baghdad , loosely based on the authors childhood. Heartfelt and moving, the stories focus around the central figure of grandma, the head of the household and the key decision maker.

Paul Keegan International 1997 pbk. ISBN 0-7103-0573-7;

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Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits

The story of two men and two women who are brought together and separated under extraordinary circumstances. As the book opens, they are on the sea in a flimsy inflatable boat which they hope will carry them across the Strait of Gibraltar from Morocco to Spain. What has driven them to leave their country and risk their lives? And will the rewards prove to be worth the danger? The answers unfold as we bear witness to the turning points in their lives, when they make the decisions that will forever seal their fates.

Algonquin Books 2005 hbk. ISBN: 1565124936;

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The Cairo Trilogy

Translator: William M. Hutchins

The three acclaimed novels in the Nobel Prize-winning author's epic trilogy - Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street - chronicle the lives of three generations in the family of Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, his sons and daughters, and five grandchildren, in Cairo during the Egyptian colonial period.

Everyman's Library 2001 hbk. ISBN 1-85715-248-4;

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Zodiac Of Echoes

An evocative and moving account of the poets life, divided between North Africa and the American South. Both intensely personal and astutely political, the collection offers an insight into the cross-cultural experience.

Small Press Distribution 2003 hbk. ISBN 1-9313-3716-0;

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Abdelrahman MUNIF

Cities of Salt

Translator: Peter Theroux

Set in an unnamed Gulf kingdom in the 1930s, where oil has recently been discovered, the story tells of the disruption of a poor oasis community. As the Americans move into this remote region, Munif portrays their cultural confrontation with the Arabs, in which religion, history, superstition and mutual incomprehension all play a part. More about Abdelrahman Munif.

Vintage 1989 pbk. ISBN: 039475526X;

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Abdelrahman MUNIF

The Trench

Translator: Peter Theroux

The second volume in Munif's trilogy. Set in the 1950s, it evokes the royal court of a fictional (but not unrecognisable) monarchy, in all its fatuousness, turpitude and savagery - an obscenely rich monarchy that presides over artificial boundaries defined by imperialists, that depends on foreign intriguers and masses of migrant workers for its luxury, and that practises severely undemocratic and repressive policies. More about Abdelrahman Munif.

Vintage 1993 pbk. ISBN: 0679745335;

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Leaves of Narcissus

Translator: Marylin Booth

This novel of home and homelessness, of exile both physical and psychological, centers on Kimi, a fragile heroine suffering from a rift in her persona, unable to distinguish between her own pain and the pain of others. For Kimi it is not a simple case of to be or not to be, but rather of how to be in disjointed and contrary times. Leaves of Narcissus, like earlier Arabic novels about East-West encounters by male writers such as Tawfiq al-Hakim, Taha Hussein, and Tayeb Saleh, is about a young Arab student going West in search of education. Here, though, the protagonist is a young woman and her destination is Ireland, a part of the West and at the same time a victim of the ravages of colonialism - adding ambiguity to the customary representations of the East/West dichotomy. In this captivating novel, Somaya Ramadan displays a rare virtuosity in evoking and interlacing literary motifs - from the popular to the learned, from the folk to the mythic, from the Egyptian to the Irish - and poses questions rather than answers, questions that hold a mirror to our selves.

The American University in Cairo Press 2003 hbk. ISBN 977-424-727-2;

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Nawal el-SAADAWI

The Fall of the Imam

Translator: S. Hetata

Who will overthrow the Imam? Who will defeat the oppression, the tyranny, the injustice and the killings? In this novel, Bint Allah, a beautiful illegitimate girl, a child of sin, is accused by the Imam of adulterous relationships and sentenced to death by stoning.

Saqi Books 2002 pbk. ISBN 0-86356-396-1;

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Mahmoud SAEED & Sabri Ahmad

Saddam City

A devastating autobiographical novel based on the treatment of the Iraqi people by Saddam Hussein. A man is incarcerated in a number of different prisons throughout Iraq where he is witness to illness, alienation and torture. A profound and moving record of a dark period in the history of the Middle East.

Saqi Books 2004 pbk. ISBN 0-86356-350-3;

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Ibtihal SALEM

Children of the Waters

Translator: Marilyn Booth

Ibtihal Salem's writing provides an excellent forum for studying both everyday life in Egypt and current literary experimentation in the Middle East. Her poignant pieces hover between the structure of story-telling, the visuality of vignettes, and the compression of poetry. They both record and evoke a literary ferment going on in Egypt today. Salem's writing of the last thirty years is lauded for its social messages also. Finding the expression of sexuality necessary to explicate problems of Egyptian identity, Salem often links poverty to gender marginality. Her heroines, however, celebrate the heritages that have shaped them, even as they resist certain aspects of them. Like many writers in Egypt, Salem honors traditional folktales, even as she deals with contemporary problems from class and economic perspectives. Review: H-net.

University of Texas Press 2003 pbk. ISBN 0-292-77773-6;

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The Square Moon: Supernatural Tales

Translator: Issa J. Boullata

A collection of stories follows the experiences of Lebanese war refugees in Paris as they adjust to Western culture - especially the liberal relations between men and women.

University of Arkansas Press 1998 pbk. ISBN 1-55728-535-7;

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Hanan al-SHAYKH

I Sweep Sun Off Rooftops

Translated by Catherine Cobham

Hanan Al-Shaykh's collection of short stories is a powerful exploration of the links between tradition and modernity, East and West, childhood and adulthood. Writing with poignancy, wit and verve, Al-Shaykh touches upon tender and moving moments: a woman fakes madness in order to escape her marriage; a Danish woman is absorbed in the culture and tradition of the Yemeni village where she is living; a woman's attempt to contact the dead brings some shocking results. 'Al-Shaykh is a gifted and courageous writer.' Middle Eastern International

Bloomsbury 2002 pbk. ISBN 0-7475-6131-1;

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Hanan al-SHAYKH

Only in London

Translated from Arabic by Catherine Cobham

London-based Lebanese author Hanan Al-Shaykh offers a refreshing window into the hidden Arab culture thriving in the heart of the capital. The novel concentrates on four characters over one hot summer as they weave in and out of each other's lives.

Bloomsbury 2002 pbk. ISBN 0-7475-5792-6;

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In the Eye of the Sun

This is a love story, a story about growing up, a story about what its like to be a women (East and West), a story about the history of the post-imperial Middle East during the last 30 years or so, perplexed and bloody years, and a story about home.

Bloomsbury 1999 pbk. ISBN 0-7475-4589-8;

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The Map of Love

In Egypt Lady Anna Winterbourne meets Sharif, an Egyptian Nationalist committed to his country's cause. They fall in love and marry, but can Anna turn herself into an Oriental wife? A century later, Isabel Parkman - descendent of the marriage - is in love with Omar-al-Ghamrawi - another descendent.

Bloomsbury 1999 hbk. ISBN 0-7475-4367-4;

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This is a collection of stories from the author of In the Eye of the Sun. A multi-national cast including an American, a Greek, an Arab and an Englishwoman are caught in situations which though culturally foreign, allow them to alter their ways of looking at the world.

Bloomsbury 1997 pbk. ISBN 0-7475-3081-5;

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Ibrahim YARED

From Here I Can See the End

The sun shines on the hill sloping down to the shore. The autumn day is pleasant and the soft breeze makes him feel satisfied although he can see the end. The bells of old age ring with a beautiful sound. It seems strange to be able to enjoy what cannot be defined, knowing there is very little to look forward to ...The end glitters with something that is less than hope and more than resignation! All the same, it is there at the bottom of the hill, and the coming days will complete the picture. There is no hurry ...

Saqi Books 2004 pbk. ISBN 0-86356-535-2;

Anthologies - poetry

A Crack in the Wall: New Arab Poetry

Edited by Margaret Obank & Samuel Shimon

A dazzling collection of poetry highlighting the work of a new generation of Arab poets from as far as Morocco to the West and Iraq to the East. Originally written in Arabic, French and English the poems show the changing cultures of the Arab world.

Saqi books 2001 pbk. ISBN 0-86356-329-5;

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Bedouin Poetry: From Sinai and the Negev

Clinton Bailey

Collected over twenty years, 113 poems reflect Bedouin attitudes to personal, social and political experiences. Each poem is presented in Arabic script, translated to English, with an introduction describing its setting and context.

Saqi Books 2002 pbk. ISBN 0-8635-6047-4;

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Classical Poems by Arab Women: A Bilingual Anthology

Abdullah al-Udhari

A collection of poetry by Arab women from the Jahiliyya (pre-Islamic era) to the Andalusian period. The poems celebrate the triumph of feminine wit over the arrogance of muscle power, in a period when women were suppressed by religious and political bigotry. Review:al-Ahram Weekly.

Saqi Books 1999 pbk. ISBN 0-86356-022-9;

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Victims of a Map: A Bilingual Anthology of Arabic Poetry

Mahmud Darwish, Adonis, Samih al-Qasim

Translator: Abdullah al-Udhari

Mahmud Darwish, Samih al-Qasim, and Adonis are among the leading poets of the contemporary Arab world. This collection presents 15 translated poems by each poet, with the text of each poem printed on the pages facing the translation.

Saqi Books 1985 pbk. ISBN 0-86356-022-9;

Individual writers - poetry


Collections of his poetry in translation:

If Only the Sea Could Sleep;

The Pages of Day and Night;

A Time Between Ashes And Roses;

More about Adonis.

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Dusting The Color From Roses

Translator: A.A.Ruffai

A bilingual (Arabic and English, printed on facing pages) collection of poems on the themes of love, death, the passage of time and the passing of the seasons. The voice in the poems draws on a wealth of traditions, including the classical, the chivalric, the neo-classical and the modernist.

Saqi Books 1995 pbk. ISBN 1-8733-9501-9;

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Selected Poems;

Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone?;

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Al-Qurashi HASAN

Spectres of Exile and Other Poems

John Heath-Stubbs and Catherine Cobham

A bilingual book of poems written by Hasan Abdallah al-Qurashi. He aims to evoke the beauty of the country to whose past and future he feels bound, condemning the perversion of its values and aspirations.

Echoes 1991 pbk. ISBN 1-8733-9505-1;

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The Unattainable Lotus: A Bilingual Anthology of Poetry

A bilingual anthology of poetry, orbiting around eternal candles of human experience. Bypassing confusion and despair, Badia Kashgari's poetry displays a confidence to accept life on its own terms, and also reflects an Arabic sensibility in English dress.

Saqi Books 2001 pbk. ISBN 0-86356-362-7;

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On Entering the Sea: The Erotic and Other Poetry of Nizar Qabbani

Translator: Lena Jayyusi, Sharif Elmusa

In this collection of poems by one of the Arab world''s greatest love poets, the author pays homage to the grace and beauty of women and takes on those who dare to impose taboos on women and love.

Roundhouse Publishing 1998 pbk. ISBN 0-2927-0508-5;