Winner of the Man Booker International Prize, Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi chronicles the changes in Oman during the past century. The waning of slavery and the loosening of traditional strictures are major themes of this novel, taking the form of a family saga. Love doesn't always come from where it's supposed to, and the new ways do not always bring happiness in this lyrical tale of village life. Like this book? Quite a few of you do. I have others that you may like as well, all set in a changing Middle East.
Things I've Been Silent About by Azar Nafisi, the highly-praised author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, is a memoir of finding herself. Nafisi struggles: under oppressive governments, for connection, to be anyone other than her mother. The author is scrupulously honest, avoiding any hyperbole while documenting revolutions large and small.
Ilyas Khuri writes with compassion for both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gate of the Sun. Like Scheherazade, a doctor tells stories built on each other, these to a gravely ill patient in a refugee camp. Like Alharthi's book, these are stories of little people, caught up in events much larger than themselves. The women in particular are well-drawn and there is a certain poetic tone to this heart-rending tale.
Shagara is a low-level manager at a shipyard in Alexandria in Ibrahim Abd al-Majid's The House of Jasmine. He participates in a minor way in the corruption of 1970's Egypt, cheating workers rounded up to cheer at political events. He's also on the hunt for women, until he attends a friend's wedding to a striking woman. Shagara realizes it's time to get married in this highly atmospheric novel that deftly illustrates ordinary life of the time.
Neil McFarquhar also writes of ordinary people in his memoir, The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You A Happy Birthday. McFarquhar, a correspondent for the New York Times, is a westerner who reports on the way Middle Easterners view themselves. He recalls the perspectives of a variety of people on various points of the social, political and religious spectrum, all affected by policies set in Washington. Sometimes silly, sometimes spine-tingling, sometimes both at once, this is a good record of plebian opinion in the Middle East.
Have more books about commoners in the Middle East? Tell us in the comments.