Destination Fiction: The Middle East

Hello Patrons! We are now well into summer and our adult summer reading program The Great Jackson County Read: Armchair Traveler is going strong; plus, there is still time to rack up some raffle tickets and win cool local prizes! Last month, we visited Asia through a selection of fiction. Now it’s time to get out your passport again, because we are heading over to the Middle East, a land of ancient history and religious significance. Much of our perspective on Middle Eastern culture is viewed through a political lens, but local literature and other creative works can lend complexity and understanding to our opinions on foreign cultures. While we will continue to focus on fictional works, I encourage you to also explore some Middle Eastern poetry, as Persian phrases often translate beautifully into the English language. And we’re off!

Iran

Jasmin Darznik’s Song of a Captive Bird is fictionalized biography of the late Iranian poetess Forugh Farrokhzhad. Farrokhzhad was a trailblazing literary living in Iran in the early to mid 20th century, whose writings inspired passion and protest alike. Pursued and celebrated for creating romantic poems from a distinctly female perspective, Farrokhzhad generated a lasting impact on Iranian literature during her short life, which Darznik has captured beautifully in her book Song of a Captive Bird. If you chose only one book here today, I strongly suggest this one.

Iran’s history provides rich settings for historical fiction. Set in the 17th century Iran, then known as Persia, Anita Amirrezvani’s The Blood of Flowers follows a young woman’s misfortune as she is subdued by her limited marital options, followed with her redemption as she develops her craft as a Persian rug weaver. Rich with visual detail and thorough historical research, The Blood of Flowers delivers a sensual story that also delves deeply into the history and craft of Persian rug weaving. 

Saudi Arabia

Rajaa Al-Sanea did not anticipate the international acclaim her book Girls of Riyadh would receive. Told through a series of emails exchanged between four young Saudi Arabian friends, Girls of Riyadh offers a glimpse into the social lives of young Saudi Arabian women that extends beyond common notions of life for women in the Middle East. With familiar tales of love, friendship, and envy set against the backdrop of Saudi Arabia’s strict rules of conduct, Al-Sanea has created a surprisingly relatable and fun story in Girls of Riyadh.

Palestine

Susan Abulhawa is a Palestinian author whose family fled as refugees during the area’s occupation by Isreal in the 1960’s. In Mornings in Jenin, Abulhawa creates a generational saga which reflects the experiences of her family as they resided in Palestine during its conflict with Israel in the last 75 years. Admittedly heartbreaking and at times brutal to read, Mornings in Jenin explores the often neglected narrative of the Palastinian experience taking place during of the creation of the state of Israel. Abulhawa’s followup novel The Blue Between Sky and Water further explores the Palestinian experience. 

Turkey

Elif Shafak’s novel The Architect’s Apprentice is the first of her works to be written originally in English and is widely available at many libraries. This historical fiction novel takes place during the height of the Ottoman Empire in the 1500’s, and thus provides this story a fascinating setting, rich with historical and artistic context. Architect’s Apprentice follows the coming-of-age of a young boy who becomes the apprentice to Mimar Sinan, a celebrated, real life architect who created two of Istanbul’s most prized mosques. Elif Shafak is a beloved Turkish author who has produced several successful novels, many of which can be found in our catalog, but if you have a preference for historical fiction, I highly recommend The Architect’s Apprentice

Orhan Pamuk is a another prolific Turkish author whose works have merited her a Nobel Prize. She has produced several novels with historical context, including My Name is Red and Museum of Innocence, both of which are highly rated by reviewers. However, if you are seeking a modern story, Snow offers excellent perspective on life in Turkey today. Snow is a demonstration of how Turkey grapples with a history of dominance by several foreign influences, as well as how its culture seeks to address the multi-religious identities of its people today. Such diversity has always been present in Turkey and lends a cultural complexity that Americans may also find relatable. Snow is a politically driven story that requires some effort, but is well worth the read.

Afghanistan

Afghanistan is the native country to one of the most widely known Middle Eastern authors, Khaled Hosseini, whose best sellers include Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. Hosseini’s most recent book And the Mountains Echoed does not disappoint, as it tells a sprawling story which demonstrates how one person’s choices can create a butterfly effect that can extend through generations. Set not only in Afghanistan, but also Greece and Paris, reading And the Mountains Echoed will allow you to visit several locations at once.

Lebanon 

Rabih Alameddine is a Lebanese author who has managed to balance heavier elements of a destructive war with humor and lightness in his book The Hakawati. Hakawati means “storyteller”, and appropriately, you will find numerous mini-stories within this book. Traveling between Egypt’s past and modern day, war-torn Lebanon, Alameddine utilizes masterful comedic relief and a little whimsy to keep your spirits up. Seriously, this book is full of surprises – just when you think something terrible may happen, the author turns the story on its head. Alameddine’s The Hakawati is a more light-hearted avenue to learning about Lebanon’s recent history, and I simply cannot recommend this book enough.

Summer is not quite over yet, so there is still time to log your books at the Jackson County Public Library. I hope you have found a title that sparks your interest, and have fun traveling!

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