Memories of a GLLI Intern: Must-Read Adult Literature from the Middle East and North Africa (Part 2) – by Nneka Mogbo

The works I chose for my adult and college-aged list tell stories of conflicts (both good, bad and internal or external) that stem from interacting with different cultures. An interaction may be caused by one’s exile from a home country, moving to a new country for better opportunities, changes in generational beliefs or living in a household that does not mirror the world outside one’s front door.

My list is comprised of texts written by authors from Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya and Mauritania. To begin my list, I listed the first Mauritanian novel ever to be translated to English. Listed on the PEN Translates Awards List in 2017, the novel will be available for purchase in September 2018. Each of these novels is laced with larger conflicts of self-identity in the face of shifting religious views, cultural norms and gender biases.


  • Desert and the Drum by Mbarek Ould Beyrouk (translated from French by Rachel McGill)


Everything changes for Rayhana when foreigners with strange machines arrive to mine for metal near her Bedouin camp. One of them is the enigmatic Yahya. Her association with him leads to Rayhana abandoning all that she knows and fleeing alone to the city. As soon as her tribe discover she’s stolen their sacred drum they will pursue her to exact their revenge. But she has her own missing person to seek. The Desert and the Drum tells of Rayhana’s rift with her family, the disturbing characters she encounters in the metropolis, her attempts to separate friend from foe and to find a place for herself amidst the contradictions of contemporary Mauritania.


  • The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris by Leïla Marouane (translated from French by Alison Anderson)


This novel was written by a Tunisia born French Algerian journalist under the pseudonym Leïla Marouane. Her real name is Leyla Zineb Mechentel and her family was living in Tunisia under exile from Algeria before she was born. Her family later moved to Algeria until her exile from Algeria to Paris in 1991. The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris is a witty story about Mohamed, a highly successful banker who attempts to disguise his Algerian heritage by whitening his skin and changing his name to Basile Tocquard. Mohamed/Basile faces identity problems as he abandons the home he shares with his pious mother in the fringes of Paris and moves into a bachelor pad in the Left Bank where he finds himself in awkward sexual encounters.

  • The Happy Marriage by Tahar Ben Jelloun (translated from French by Andre Naffis-Sahely)

The Happy Marriage is a novel of class and gender politics from the perspective of a husband and wife in a failing marriage. It reveals the dark side of marriage with feelings of loneliness, strain and judgement. The husband, a painter in Casablanca, was paralyzed by a stroke at the height of his career and becomes convinced that his marriage is the sole reason for his decline.

Restricted by his illness and desperate to break free of a deeply destructive relationship, he finds escape in writing a secret book about his hellish marriage. When his wife finds it, she responds her own version of the facts, offering her own striking and incisive reinterpretation of their story. Who is right and who is wrong? A thorny issue in a society where marriage remains a sacrosanct institution, but where there’s also a growing awareness of women’s rights.


  • The Scents of Marie-Claire by Habib Selmi (translated from Arabic by Fadwa Al Qaesm)


This novel was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, the 2009 Arab “Booker Prize.” Selmi is one of Tunisia’s leading writers and The Scents of Marie-Claire is the first of his works to be translated into English. The Scents of Marie-Claire is a journey filled with all the hallmarks of the complex relationship between one man and one woman – the mystery and the ambiguity, the intricacy and the confusion which, in the end, serve to expose its fragility. This is an intimate tale that manages to tell not only the story of two individuals, but also that of the collision of two cultures.


  • A Tunisian Tale by Hassauna Moshabi (translated from Arabic by Max Weiss)


A Tunisian Tale is set in a somber area of Tunis.  The tale is spun by alternating first-person monologues by a dead mother (Najma) and a son (Alaa al-Din). Najma’s narrative captures the dark reality of a woman trapped by the perverse taboos of Tunis and moral codes of a community.  She hopes to escape her suffocating life in the village by accepting a loveless marriage, but only finds herself inside another prison: her new home in M Slum – a dark and wretched slum situated on the outskirts of the modern capital of Tunis.  Despite her husband’s disapproval and resentment, she finds freedom in working as a belly dance and rebelling against cultural taboos. Alaa al-Din recount the resentment he faced from his mother as he awaits the execution for the murder of Najma.


  • The Puppet by Ibrahim Al-Koni (translated from Arabic by William M. Hutchins)


The Puppet portrays a good man who has been asked to lead a corrupt society. The subplot about star-crossed young lovers introduces a Sufi theme of the possibility of transforming carnal into mystical love. It is a crafted tale of bloody betrayal and revenge inspired by gold lust and an ancient love affair. The Puppet traces the rise, flourishing, and demise of a Saharan oasis community.

  • The African Equation by Yasmina Khadra (translated from French by Howard Curtis)

The name Yasmina Khadra is a pseudonym for the Algerian writer, Mohammed Moulessehoul, who used the pseudonym to deflect attention away from censors, as he was an officer in the Algerian army at the beginning of his writing career. His real identity was only revealed after he left the army and came to France to live in 2001. This work, The African Equation is about a German doctor named Kurt Krausmann. Krausmann accepts an invitation to sail to Comoros on his rich friend’s yacht in the hope of getting over his wife’s suicide. Calamity strikes when pirates board the craft and take the two men hostage.


  • An Arab Melancholia by Abdellah Taïa (translated from French by Frank Stock)


Abdellah Taïa is Morocco’s highest profile gay writer. An Arab Melancholia is an autobiographical portrait of a gay Arab teenager living seeking an identity through love and writing as an act of discovery. Taïa’s follows his search for identity as an openly gay Arab man living between two cultures for over twenty years while moving from Salé, to Paris, to Cairo.

  • Divorce Islamic Style by Amara Lakhous (translated from French by Ann Goldstein)

Divorce Islamic Style a satire set in Rome exploring cultural clashes between Italian life, immigration, Muslim life and women. Christian, a fluent Arabic speaker and child of Tunisian immigrants, uses the name Issa after joining the Italian military intelligence services and being sent to spy on a Muslim community. Christian meets Sofia, a young Egyptian immigrant who is on the verge of being divorced by her husband and becoming an outcast of Muslim society.


  • Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio by Amara Lakhous (translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein)


Amara Lakhous offers a comical tale of a small culturally mixed community living in an apartment building in the center of Rome. The community is thrown into disarray when one of the neighbors is murdered. The victim is Lorenzo Manfredini, also known as the Gladiator, drew nasty pictures, wrote obscenities, and urinated in the building’s elevator, earning the enmity of every resident. When the police investigate, each of the residents and merchants in the immediate vicinity tells his story, revealing hidden agendas and casual resentments against immigrants. Amedeo, a respected resident thought to be an Italian volunteer helping immigrants deal with Roman bureaucracy, is sought for the crime. No one has seen him since the murder.

Next, we will explore a children’s literature list…

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