April is Arab American Heritage Month, and here are six publications from a half dozen Arab American authors whose work is influencing the literary landscape of the USA, and beyond. I’ve chosen one for each of the six Muslim-majority nations whose citizens are currently banned from entering the America. Crack one open and learn some “alternative facts” about the Middle East. A published book will always be mightier than a presidential tweet.
The Book of Khalid by Lebanese-American Ameen Rihani is a reprint of the first Arab-American novel which dealt with religious conflict and the immigrant experience. This is the story of two Lebanese men who set off for adventure in 20th Century New York, only to return to Lebanon, their minds now saturated with Western political ideals. The story later inspired Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, and incudes illustrations by Gibran.
Hiding in Plain Sight by Somali author Nuruddin Farah – called “the most important African novelist to emerge in the past twenty-five years” by The New York Review of Books – is a riveting saga about freedom and family, about liberty and obligation. Follow Bella, a photographer living in Rome, as she returns to Nairobi to care for the children of her murdered brother. Kirkus Reviews called it a “body of work worthy of a Nobel Prize.”
In the Country of Men by Libyan writer Hisham Matar takes us to his homeland circa 1979. Meet nine-year-old Suleiman whose carefree Tripoli childhood is soon uprooted by politics and adult intrigue. It’s a stunning examination of the private fallout of current events told with keen insight and literary grace.
The Tent by Egyptian Miral al-Tahawy is powerful, and disturbing. Female characters fill the novel, linked by their subjegation to an often absent, patriarch and his brutal mother. Get up close and personal with these Bedouin, peasant women, and feel the weight of their tragic existence.
Second Person Singular by Israeli Arab Sayed Kashua is a story of love and betrayal that poses the question: can a tiger ever change its spots? Kashua writes in Hebrew coveying emotional power and a sense of the absurd. Here he tackles people straddling two worlds in a psychological mystery set in a divided society.
The Moor’s Account by Moroccan author Laila Lalami is a fictional account of the first black explorer of America, Moroccan slave Mustafa al-Zamori, who sailed from the Spanish port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda in 1527 with the conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez, 600 men and 100 horses. Their aim was to claim what is now the Gulf Coast of the United States for the Spanish crown. Fate intervened, and the story – told by Mustafa – gives a fascinating narrative for this failed expedition.