Spring Break Reading Guide

by The Editors | published March 14, 2014 - 2:56pm

For those fortunate enough to find a bit of time to read books not directly related to work over spring break or the summer, MERIP solicited recommendations from editors and contributors. Reading is often part of daily professional work, even a form of drudgery. Instead, we asked for titles that would be enjoyable as well as edifying, so the responses tend toward fiction or works with strong narrative voices.

Darryl Li: Two novels of contemporary labor migration to the Gulf have been on my mind recently. The first is Bamboo Stalk (Saq al-Bambu), by a young Kuwaiti novelist, Sa‘ud al-San‘usi. Bamboo Stalk’s narrator calls himself José or ‘Isa, depending on who he’s talking to: The son of a Kuwaiti and a Filipina migrant worker, his story crosses the Indian Ocean multiple times. The book won the 2013 International Arabic Fiction Prize (known as the “Arabic Booker”). It hasn’t been translated yet but you can read more on M. Lynx Qualey’s indispensable Arab Literature (in English) blog.

The second novel is Goat Days (excerpt), a Malayalam bestseller by Benyamin, an Indian writer living in Bahrain. It was translated into English in 2012 and tells the story of Najeeb, a Muslim from the southern Indian state of Kerala who finds himself tending goats on a remote farm in Saudi Arabia. Sarah Waheed’s description of Goat Days as a “contemporary slave narrative” is more than apt: Najeeb is not only confined, beaten and starved by his employer, he is deprived of almost all human contact, leaving the goats as his only companions and source of solace.

For a comparative take on indenture and labor migration, MERIP editor Anjali Kamat recommends Gaiutra Bahadur’s Coolie Woman, in which the author attempts to reconstruct her great-grandmother’s peregrinations to shed light on Indian indentured migration to Guiana in the early twentieth century.

David McMurray: The disappeared Malaysian flight making the news had on board an Iranian kid who was traveling on a stolen passport from Malaysia to Holland to Germany to meet his mother and claim asylum. That reminded me of an interesting little book I read recently by another Iranian asylum seeker, Shahram Khosravi’s “Illegal” Traveler: An Auto-Ethnography of Borders. Khosravi flees during the 1980s to avoid military service during the Iran-Iraq war. The book recounts his adventures crossing Afghanistan and Pakistan to India where he eventually finds a competent smuggler who arranges for his flight to Sweden. Once let out of the refugee camp in Sweden he is shot by a right-wing sniper on a university campus. He survives that ordeal to become a professor of anthropology who specializes in the study of Iranian youth as well as asylum seekers and undocumented border crossers. His story is incredibly dramatic and full of interesting anecdotes about the business of human smuggling. I recommend it with one caveat: The author chooses to weigh down the narrative with too many citations of relevant scholarly literature. This tic gives the book a social scientistic feel that can be distracting. But if you can overlook that, it’s a fascinating tale.

Karen Pfeifer recommends four books: Louis de Bernière’s Birds Without Wings, a novel chronicling a love story during the final years of the Ottoman Empire; Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book, a novel about a rare book expert called upon to restore the famous Sarajevo Haggadah (one of the oldest extant Sephardic manuscripts in the world), with chapters interspersed about the book’s long history and relations among “peoples of the book” from the fourteenth century to the present; Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love, a novel that shifts between early twentieth-century Egypt and the tumultuous 1990s; and Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East.

Shira Robinson enjoyed Elliott Colla’s translation of Raba‘i al-Madhun’s The Lady from Tel Aviv, winner of the English PEN Award and shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2010, which examines Gaza’s past and present through the lens of a student who found himself in Cairo in 1967 and was never allowed to return. The protagonist eventually moves to London and becomes a journalist, and the story begins after he manages to get a visa to visit his mother 40 years later.

Speaking of Colla, his first novel Baghdad Central, a mystery set in US-occupied Iraq, has been getting solid reviews. The novel also has an interesting (and disturbing) backstory.

Also Children of the Jacaranda Tree, the stunning debut novel by Sahar Delijani, which follows a group of children whose lives were irreparably shaped by the imprisonment, and in some cases, execution of their activist parents in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian revolution. The novel, which spans the period between 1983 and the 2011 protests, offers an intimate and nuanced perspective on post-revolutionary life in Iran; it’s a page-turner if ever there was one. Readers interested in the untold story of Iran’s post-1979 detainees should also pick up Shahla Talebi’s personal memoir and analytic meditation, Ghosts of Revolution: Rekindled Memories of Imprisonment in Iran, a much heavier but equally unforgettable account.

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