Matt Rees’s top 10 novels set in the Arab world

The Jerusalem-based crime writer picks novels that offer ‘a much more profound contact’ with this region than the news

Cairo mosque

A Cairo mosque.

Matt Rees was born in Newport, Wales in 1967, and has lived in Jerusalem since 1996. As a journalist, Rees covered the Middle East for over a decade for the Scotsman, then Newsweek and from 2000 until 2006 as Time magazine’s Jerusalem bureau chief.  His first book was a non-fiction account of Israeli and Palestinian society, Cain’s Field. He published the first novel featuring Palestinian detective Omar Yussef, The Bethlehem Murders, in 2007, which won the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger award. The Saladin Murders and The Samaritan’s Secret followed in 2008 and 2009. The Bethlehem Murders won the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger 2008. The Fourth Assassin, published next month, follows Omar to visit his son in New York’s “Little Palestine” in Brooklyn.

“The Arab literary world and Western publishing don’t cross over much. The literature of the Arab world is largely unknown in the west, and even westerners who write about Arabs are sometimes seen as fringe, cult writers. That comes at a cost to the west, because literature could be such an important bridge between two cultures so much at odds. What we see of the Arab world comes from news reports of war and other madness. Literature would be a much more profound contact.
“I live in Jerusalem and write fiction about the Palestinians because it’s a better way to understand the reality of life in Palestine than journalism and non-fiction. The books in this list, in their different ways, unveil elements of life across the Arab world that you won’t see in the newspaper or on TV.” 

1. Wolf Dreams by Yasmina Khadra

A young Algerian on the make becomes disillusioned with westernised morality and joins a violent Islamist group. In turn he sees through the corruption and bloodthirstiness of the group’s actions. A tormenting portrayal of the suffocating lack of options available to poor Arabs. Khadra (the pen-name of a former Algerian military officer) lives in exile in France. 

2. Let It Come Down by Paul Bowles

Writers look for resonance. You might say Bowles has us with his title alone, which resonates with doom even before he writes his first sentence. It’s drawn from Macbeth. When the murderers come upon Banquo, he says that it looks like there’ll be rain. The murderer lifts his knife and says: “Let it come down.” Then he kills him. Such doom impends throughout this book, yet the main character seems barely to want to avoid it. He’s become fatalistic, as have so many of the Arabs around him in the face of political and social injustice. Bowles wrote as he travelled through North Africa. Each day, he incorporated something into his writing that had actually happened during the previous day’s journey. I often use that technique, adding details from yesterday’s stroll through the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem or a refugee camp in Bethlehem.

3. Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree by Tariq Ali

Spain 1499. A novel set in a disappeared Arab world. In the final days of the Muslim kingdom of Andalus, Ali’s characters feel overwhelmed by encroaching Christian intolerance. He seems to mark it as the moment when the flowering of medieval Islamic culture shifted onto the stultifying road that leads to bin Laden, and when the west began the imperialistic, racist expansion that would converge so devastatingly with that path in the last decade.

4. Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

The first of the Egyptian Nobel laureate’s Cairo Trilogy. Set amid the political unrest against British rule at the end of the first world war, it’s a marvellous evocation of the repressive, patriarchal nature of the traditional Arab family – and the secrets family members keep in order to have their fun or defy their father’s authority.

5. Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif

Saudi Arabia stripped Munif of his citizenship for this critique of the social and psychological devastation wrought on Bedouin villagers by the arrival of the oil fields. With a PhD in oil economics, Munif had deep experience of the injustice that came with the new oil wealth. Anyone who’s travelled a desert road with a poor Arab will love this image: “The new trucks flew down the road like lighting, fast and huge. Akoub strained visibly to keep control of his truck in the windy wake when they passed him.”

6. The Yacoubian Building by Alaa al-Aswany

A scathing portrayal of modern Egyptian history by a dissident journalist. The characters, rich and poor, seem to be competing to see who can be most abusive and harsh to those around them. Aswany hits at everything from the graft at the top of the political and business worlds to the rejection of homosexuals and the sexual oppression of women. The only way to be more shocked about things in Egypt is to actually spend some time in the dilapidated Cairo neighbourhood where the book is set.

7. The Secret Life of Saeed (The Pessoptimist) by Emile Habiby

The only writer to win the highest awards for literature from both the PLO and the Israeli government. A Palestinian citizen of Israel, Habiby sat in the Knesset as a representative of the Israeli Communist Party. His greatest novel tells the story of a simple man who attempts to avoid politics, only to be sucked into terrorism and collaboration with Israel. Shows Palestinians in all their human frailty, rather than as idealised political stereotypes.

8. Mountolive by Lawrence Durrell

The most political of the novels in The Alexandria Quartet. But because it’s Durrell, it also manages to be sexual and seedy. A British diplomat tells his career story, up to the Zionist gun-running going on while he conducts an affair with an Arab woman.

9. Prairies of Fever by Ibrahim Nasrallah

A schoolteacher in a desert town is woken by the police who demand payment for having buried him. They’re unimpressed by his claim to be alive and not in need of a funeral. Nasrallah, a Jordanian Palestinian, makes existentialism deeply political and very disturbing.

10. The Rock: A Seventh Century Tale of Jerusalem by Kanaan Makiya

Former Iraqi exile and architect Makiya writes of Muslim-Jewish relations during the first century of Islamic rule in Jerusalem, culminating with the building of the Dome of the Rock. This was recommended to me by Sari Nusseibeh, head of al-Quds University in Jerusalem, a leader of the first intifada and the man many wish could be the leader of the Palestinians.


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