I tried to avoid starting with this usual story, but it has to be said: I grew up in Saudi Arabia, and it is where I became a reader, yet the ocean of literature that I dipped into for most of my life was very Euro-centric and western. My life in Saudi did little to help me discover and explore more relatable fiction, so I’m assuming it’s perhaps more difficult for western readers to find good books that give them insight into the Arab or Muslim communities. Reading more books by Arab and Muslim authors is an important step all of us need to take; the current socio-political environment demands that readers indulge in Muslim fiction. It’s time that we allow stories to help normalize Muslims who are constantly being subjected to brute stereotypes, labeling and demonization. Normalizing means to realize that we’re not much different, want the same kind of things in life, feel the same emotions as everyone else and just want to practice our faith in peace.
So, here are books that helped me feel included and understood as a Muslim.
Note: All of these books are not strictly representations of Muslim characters, some are stories that fit the cultural aspect and struggles. So, while most have Muslim leads, a couple do not. The title refers to “Middle Eastern and Muslim” women’s fiction because the two can be mutually exclusive.
The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf by Mohja Kahf
A novel with a diverse cast of Muslim characters; one great takeaway is how different people within the Muslim community can be. It’s intelligent, beautifully written and relatable on many counts. It’s an immigrant narrative, a Muslim story and a coming of age tale told through the experience of Khadra, a young woman who is trying to find a balance between her personal identity, her cultural identity and parents’ heritage. Kahf offers great insight into the struggle with faith and culture that many Muslim young adults growing up in non-Muslim countries go through. When I read this I felt like it was an education - literary and religious. This book helped me realize that it’s impossible to maintain a constant when it comes to faith; there will always be ups and downs, moments of doubts and endless questions.
Mohja Kahf is an Arab-American writer of Syrian heritage.
Coloured Lights by Leila Aboulela
A collection of eleven short stories that gives a poignant insight into the Muslim immigrant experience in Britain. Aboulela’s writing is atmospheric and easy to get lost in, and it’s saturated with details of culture and the Islamic faith. Her stories highlight relationships, feelings of homesickness and displacement, and this is especially true in the titular story which is one of my favorites. It’s an emotional read as the narrator recalls the circumstances surrounding her brother’s death by colored lights on his wedding day. I loved this book especially for unique immigrant narratives, and the details of the Muslim life. The short story “The Museum” won the Caine Prize for African Writing.
Leila Aboulela is a Sudainese writer.
The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami
This excellent novel is the imagined narrative of Mustafa Al Zamori, slave to Dorantes who named him Estebanico. The novel is based on factual research on 16th century expeditions, including the one Mustafa was a part of. Lalami felt compelled to write his story because, despite being one of the four survivors, his voice was silenced (possibly because of his ethnicity). It’s Lalami’s masterful attempt to fill that silence, and the silence of the women who were on the expedition and the Native Americans, that makes this a must-read. The Moor’s Account, finalist of the Pulitzer Prize in 2015, beautifully portrays the power of storytelling and lays bare the imperialistic intentions of the expeditions. A much needed novel.
Laila Lalami is a Moroccan-American writer.
Sofia Khan is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik
I can’t properly express how much I love this book. It’s hilarious (it had me laughing out loud right from the start), very difficult to put down and filled with endless anecdotes and witty remarks on being a young Muslim woman in this day and age. The drama of Sofia’s Pakistani-British family is so accurate that it instantly made the characters endearing. Written in epistolary style, Sofia’s diary entries discuss the happenings of her days as she tries to make progress on her book about Muslim dating, and of course, her younger sister is getting married so there’s all that pressure. Although this book is seemingly lighthearted, the issues that it deals with are very real and relevant to young women, Muslim or not. I’m trying not to hype this for anyone, but it’s a must-read. Did I mention I adore the female solidarity in Sofia’s life? The sequel is The Other Half of Happiness, and it’s just as good but more intense in comparison to the first novel. I need a third book!
Ayisha Malik is a Pakistani-British writer.
Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa
An emotional read that dives deep into the history of the Abulhejas family, starting in 1948 when the Israelis force them out of their own homes. During this intense time, a toddler is lost. This novel explores four generations of the family and the impact of that fateful day on the rest of their lives. Abulhawa’s poetic prose and insightful storytelling makes the characters realistic and easy to root for. Although this is an overwhelming read on the brutality of war and oppression and its lingering effects, it offers a glimmer of hope that our times desperately need.
Susan Abulhawa is a Palestinian-American writer.
Haifa Fragments by Khulud Khamis
This novel is told from the perspective of Maisoon, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who is in a relationship with a Muslim man. Khamis writes a prose that’s both personal and objective, but what I loved about it is the rare glimpse that Maisoon’s perspective offered. The novel portrays the frustrations and troubles of life in the occupied territories, and how it compares to the other side where life is much worse. It’s also a sensitive look into Maisoon’s struggle with her identity, heritage and the emotional journey in her discovery of her father’s past. A multilayered story that shows how oppression influences lives, identities and how it manipulates history. This is also a very quick read!
Khulud Khamis is a Palestinian-Slovak writer.
An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine
Okay, I cheated a little. The author is a man, but the sensitivity with which he writes Aaliya’s story deserves a mention and applaud. In fact, his writing of a female character is so balanced and honest that it led many western readers to assume the author is female. In the novel, Aaliya is the “unnecessary appendage” of her family; she’s “godless, fatherless, divorced and childless”. She lives like a recluse, but in her solitude she has translated 37 books that no one has read. I fell in love so deeply with this story because it speaks for women who are shunned by their families and societies and forced to submit to a meagre existence. This novel, which is a bit depressing and very poignant, is often hailed as a “love letter to literature”. Alameddine’s vast knowledge seeps into this book and is a little intimidating for me personally, because it reminds me of how much I have yet to read. I absolutely recommend this for the character the author has created and what she represents.
Here are some highly anticipated books from my TBR that fit the category:
- The Dove’s Necklace by Raja Alem (She’s an award-winning writer from Saudi Arabia.)
- Salt Houses by Hala Alyan (So hyped about this! It’s a Palestinian family saga that reminds me a little of Mornings in Jenin.)
- The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif (Soueif is an Egyptian writer.)
- A Map of Home and Him, Me, Muhammad Ali by Randa Jarrar (Jarrar is a Palestinian-American writer.)
- The Lines We Cross by Randa Abdel-Fattah
Sumaiyya Naseem is a Bookstagrammer, mom to Gatsby the cat, and aspiring novelist. She's an editor and writer at a Saudi lifestyle magazine. Her dream job is to become a book consultant so she can help people make better reading choices. Sumaiyya lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where she's training Gatsby to become a professional book guard.