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Ten great books set in the MIDDLE EAST
9th October 2019
The Middle East is the latest place for us to visit in our ‘Great books set in…’ series. Ten great books set in the Middle East.
The Middle East is a region overflowing with history, beauty and culture, but it remains mired in sectarian conflict and war. Here are 10 books set in the Middle East, that inevitably reflect the region’s simultaneous beauty and horror.
The Land Beyond by Leon McCarron – a travelogue set in Israel, Palestine, Jordan & Sinai
There are many reasons why it might seem unwise to walk, mostly alone, through the Middle East. That, in part, is exactly why Leon McCarron did it.
From Jerusalem, McCarron followed a series of wild hiking trails that trace ancient trading and pilgrimage routes and traverse some of the most contested landscapes in the world.
In the West Bank, he met families struggling to lead normal lives amidst political turmoil and had a surreal encounter with the world’s oldest and smallest religious sect.
In Jordan, he visited the ruins of Hellenic citadels and trekked through the legendary Wadi Rum.
His journey culminated in the vast deserts of the Sinai, home to Bedouin tribes and haunted by the ghosts of Biblical history.
The Land Beyond is a journey through time, from the quagmire of current geopolitics to the original ideals of the faithful, through the layers of history, culture and religion that have shaped the Holy Land. But at its heart, it is the story of people, not politics and of the connections that can bridge seemingly insurmountable barriers.
8.55 to Baghdad by Andrew Eames – a travelogue set in Europe, Iraq and the Middle East
Travel journalist Andrew Eames was in the ancient Syrian city of Aleppo when he met an elderly lady who had known Agatha Christie. Fascinated by the exotic history of this quintessentially English crime writer, he decided to retrace the trip from London to Baghdad which she made in 1928 – a journey which was to change Agatha Christie completely and led to her other life as the wife of an archaeologist in the deserts of Syria and Iraq.
Travelling from London to Baghdad by train on the eve of the Iraq war, through the troubled areas of the Balkans and the Middle East, Eames found stark contrasts to the old Orient Express route as well as some unexpected connections with the past.
B as in Beirut by Iman Humaydan Younes – a novel set in Lebanon
The four interlocking narratives that make up this extraordinary novel belong to four women who live in the same apartment building in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war.
There is Lilian with her two children, desperate to emigrate, with or without her husband. Warda cannot recover from the loss of her daughter, and finds that no matter how many times she goes over it, the story of her life no longer makes sense. Camilia has returned to Beirut to make a film about her former homeland, but becomes irrevocably caught up in its violence. Maha remains in the building even as her family, her neighbours, her city, and her country fracture around her.
As the war continues each day, unending, divisions between past and present begin to break down. Younes’ intimate, haunting attention to these women’s lives creates an unforgettable portrait not only of her characters but of the nature of war. Here, loss is the city’s most constant resident, and its story will inevitably overcome all the rest.
Of Sea and Sand by Denyse Woods – a novel set in Iraq, Oman and The Empty Quarter
Gabriel Sherlock arrives in Oman in 1982, fleeing shame and disaster back home in Ireland, and begins an intense affair with a woman whom no one else has seen. Locals insist she must be one of the jinn – a supernatural being – but Gabriel refuses to buy into the folklore, despite her sudden, unexplained disappearance.
Twenty-six years later, Irishwoman Thea Kerrigan lands in Muscat, chasing her own ghosts from the past, and is approached by Gabriel, who believes she is his lost lover. Certain that they have never met before, Thea is nonetheless drawn to this deluded, and perhaps dangerous, stranger and the rumours that surround him.
“Sometimes, the sunniest settings have the darkest shadows. Of Sea and Sand takes you to such a place, plays tricks with light and time – and leaves you not knowing who is real: Us, or Them? Fictional angels and vampires have had their time. Now it’s the turn of the jinn.” – Tim Mackintosh-Smith
Somewhere, Home by Nada Awar Jarrar – a novel set in Palestine
This remarkable novel, winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, tells the story of three women, each of them far from where they came, all of whom are still searching for somewhere that can be called home.
Maysa returns to the house that was her grandparents’ when she was a child, in a village high on the slopes of Mount Lebanon. Aida, who has long since left the country of her birth, returns in search of the Palestinian refugee who was a second father to her when she was a child. And Salwa, now an old woman, recalls her life from her hospital bed, surrounded by her family but still, in some sense, far from home.
Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore – a historical memoir of Jerusalem
“The History of Jerusalem is the History of the World”, states the author. A tremendous history of this unique city, from conquering forces of the Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians, through to the Romans, and subsequently the arrival of Christianity and Islam.
This is a vast undertaking, instructive and compelling.
Shatila Stories from Peirene Press – short stories set in Beirut
Adam and his family flee Syria and arrive at the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut. Conditions in this overcrowded Palestinian camp are tough, and violence defines many of the relationships: a father fights to save his daughter, a gang leader plots to expand his influence, and drugs break up a family.
Adam struggles to make sense of his refugee experience, but then he meets Shatha and starts to view the camp through her eyes. Most novels are written by professionals using second hand material. Not this one. The editors have taken nine refugees, taught them the basics of creative writing, and asked them to tell their “Shatila Stories”. The result is a miracle – a piece of collaborative fiction unlike any other.
If you want to understand the chaos of the Middle East – or you just want to follow the course of a beautiful love story – start here. ‘I want to hear their stories and see if their imaginations can open up a new path of understanding between us. Collaborative works of literature can achieve what no other literature can do. By pooling our imaginations we are able to access something totally different and new that goes beyond boundaries – that of the individual, of nations, of cultures. It connects us to our common human essence: our creativity. Let’s make stories, not more war.’
Meike Ziervogel, Peirene Press Authors: Omar Khaled Ahmad, Nibal Alalo, Safa Khaled Algharbawi, Omar Abdellatif Alndaf, Rayan Mohamad Sukkar, Safiya Badran, Fatima Omar Ghazawi, Samih Mahmoud, Hiba Mareb.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri – a novel set in England, Greece, Syria & Turkey
Nuri is a beekeeper; his wife, Afra, an artist. They live a simple life, rich in family and friends, in the beautiful Syrian city of Aleppo – until the unthinkable happens. When all they care for is destroyed by war, they are forced to escape. But what Afra has seen is so terrible she has gone blind, and so they must embark on a perilous journey through Turkey and Greece towards an uncertain future in Britain. On the way, Nuri is sustained by the knowledge that waiting for them is Mustafa, his cousin and business partner, who has started an apiary and is teaching fellow refugees in Yorkshire to keep bees.
As Nuri and Afra travel through a broken world, they must confront not only the pain of their own unspeakable loss, but dangers that would overwhelm the bravest of souls. Above all – and perhaps this is the hardest thing they face – they must journey to find each other again.
Moving, powerful, compassionate and beautifully written, The Beekeeper of Aleppo is a testament to the triumph of the human spirit. Told with deceptive simplicity, it is the kind of book that reminds us of the power of storytelling.
The Damascus Cover by Howard Kaplin – a novel set in Cyprus, Damascus & Jerusalem
In a last ditch effort to revive his career, washed out agent Ari Ben-Sion accepts a mission he never would have 30 years ago, to smuggle a group of Jewish children out of the Damascus ghetto. Or so he thinks.
In Damascus, a beautiful American photographer, Kim, seems to be falling in love with Ari, but she is asking too many questions. His
communication equipment disappears. His contact never shows up. The operation is only hours away and everything seems awry.
Desperate to succeed, Ari might risk everything. Even his life.
Drinking the Sea at Gaza by Amira Hass – a memoir set in Gaza
The first Israeli journalist to voluntarily live in Gaza, the much-maligned Palestinian enclave, offers her insights and reflections on what she saw and learned, the joys, and the sudden fears, and gives a moving portrait of the resilient Palestinian people.
Which titles would you add to the list? Remember to check out the TripFiction listings for more books set in the Middle East and around the world. Each will transport you to some excellent fiction, travelogues or memoirs. Or you may have your own favourites you would like to add. Please leave your thoughts in the Comments box below.
And search for books by location on our new ‘Great Books Set In’ page.
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