The Markaz Review Book Club, moderated by Jordanian bookworm (and editor/translator) Rana Asfour,
meets online every month to discuss the latest title.
The Oct ’23 selection is the novel No One Prayed Over Their Graves by Khaled Khalifa
LONGLISTED FOR THE 2023 NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FOR TRANSLATED FICTION
“Gorgeous . . . Lush, elegiac [and] Márquezian . . . A novel of abundance and generosity.” —Sarah Cypher, The Washington Post
“Richly embroidered . . . [Khalifa’s] galloping narration restores life and soul to a city that has become a byword for devastation.” —The Economist
From the National Book Award finalist Khaled Khalifa, the story of two friends whose lives are altered by a flood that devastates their Syrian village.
On a December morning in 1907, two close friends, Hanna and Zakariya, return to their village near Aleppo after a night of drunken carousing in the city, only to discover that there has been a massive flood. Their neighbors, families, children—nearly all of them are dead. Their homes, shops, and places of worship are leveled. Their lives will never be the same.
Hanna was once a wealthy libertine, a landowner who built a famed citadel devoted to the pursuit of pleasure and excess. But with the loss of his home, wife, and community, he transforms, becoming an ascetic mystic obsessed with death and the meaning of life. In No One Prayed Over Their Graves, we follow Hanna’s life before and after the flood, tracing friendships, loves and lusts, family and business, until he is just one thread in the rich tapestry of Aleppo.
Khaled Khalifa weaves a sweeping tale of life and death in the hubbub of Aleppine society at the turn of the twentieth century. No One Prayed Over Their Graves is a portrait of a people on the verge of great change—from provincial villages to the burgeoning modernity of the city, where Christians, Muslims, and Jews live and work together, united in their love for Aleppo and their dreams for the future.
The November ’23 book is Traces of Enayat, by Iman Mersal
Traces of Enayat is an extraordinary, beautiful book…
Selma Dabbagh, The Markaz Review
Cairo, 1963: Enayat al-Zayyat’s suicide becomes a byword for talent tragically cut down, even as Love and Silence, her only novel, languishes unpublished. Four years after al-Zayyat’s death, the novel will be brought out, adapted for film and radio, praised, and then, cursorily, forgotten. For the next three decades it’s as if al-Zayyat never existed.
Yet when poet Iman Mersal stumbles across Love and Silence in the nineties, she is immediately hooked. Who was Enayat? Did the thought of her novel’s rejection really lead to her suicide? Where did this startling voice come from? And why did Love and Silence disappear from literary history? To answer these questions, Mersal traces Enayat’s life, interviews family members and friends, reconstructs the afterlife of Enayat in the media, and tracks down the flats, schools, archaeological institutes, and sanatoriums among which Enayat divided her days. Touching on everything from dubious antidepressants to domestic abuse and divorce law, from rubbish-strewn squats in the City of the Dead to the glamour of golden-age Egyptian cinema, this wide-ranging, unclassifiable masterpiece gives us a remarkable portrait of a woman artist striving to live on her own terms.
Published by And Other Stories in the UK. We will meet to discuss the book on Sunday, Nov. 26 at 1 pm Eastern/19:00 CET.
The January ’24 book is Woman Life Freedom: Voices and Art from the Women’s Protest in Iran, edited by Malu Halasa
Jina Mahsa Amini’s death at the hands of Iran’s Morality Police on 16th of September, 2022 sparked widespread protests across the country. Women took to the streets, uncovering their hair, burning headscarves and chanting “Woman Life Freedom’ – ‘Zan Zendegi Azadi” in Persian and “Jin Jîyan Azadî” in Kurdish – in mass demonstrations. An explosion of creative resistance followed as art and photography shared online went viral and people around the world saw what was really going on in Iran.
Woman Life Freedom captures this historic moment in artwork and first-person accounts. This striking collection goes behind the scenes at forbidden fashion shows; records the sound of dissent in Iran where it is illegal for women to sing unaccompanied in public; and walks the streets of Tehran with ‘The Smarties’ – Gen Z women who colour and show their hair in defiance of the authorities, despite the potentially devastating consequences. Extolling the power of art, writing and body politics – both female and queer – this collection is a universal rallying call and a celebration of the women the regime has tried and failed to silence.
Published by Saqi Books, London. We meet the editor, Malu Halasa, to talk about the book online, on Sunday, Jan. 28 at 1 pm Eastern/19:00 CET.
The March 2024 novel is Nothing Good Happens in Wazirabad on Wednesday
It is the early 1990s, in Kabul, Afghanistan. The Russian occupation has ended, and civil war has broken out, but life roars on in full force in the working-class town of Wazirabad.
In this brilliantly kaleidoscopic, darkly funny, and wholly captivating novel about peace in a time of war, Jamaluddin Aram breathes life into the families and friends, lovers and loners, neighbours and sworn enemies who wander the winding alleys of Wazirabad.
We’ll meet to talk about the book on the last Sunday in March ’24.
- To join The Markaz Review Book Club (free, all welcome), send your name to firstname.lastname@example.org today. The group is captained by Rana Asfour, TMR’s Managing Editor.
Past Events :
The September 2023 novel was River Spirit by Leila Aboulela
(from a rave review in the New York Times) “In 19th-century Sudan, with the Ottoman Empire fading and Britain gaining influence in the region, a religious leader proclaims himself the Mahdi, or the redeemer. He aims to correct the wrongs — excessive taxation, for one — of the foreign rulers. But as the revolution gains strength, and the Mahdi collects followers, his greed for power tarnishes the movement’s ideological purity. Leila Aboulela’s dazzling new novel, River Spirit, follows the course of that revolution as it turns into a new instrument of oppression.”
River Spirit is the unforgettable story of a people who, against the odds and for a brief time, gained independence from foreign rule. This is a powerful tale of corruption and unshakeable devotion – to a cause, to one’s faith and to the people who become family.
We met to talk about the book on the last Sunday in Sept., the 24th, at 1 pm Eastern/19:00 CET.
The August 2023 novel was A Stranger in Baghdad by Elizabeth Loudon
“Who would be charmed by tales of life in the beautiful old house on the banks of the Tigris—looted now no doubt, its shutters torn and the courtyard strewn with mattresses?”
One night in 2003, Anglo-Iraqi psychiatrist Mona Haddad has a surprise visitor to her London office, an old acquaintance Duncan Claybourne. But why has he come? Will his confession finally lay bare what happened to her family before they escaped Iraq?
Their stories begin in 1937, when Mona’s mother Diane, a lively Englishwoman newly married to Ibrahim, an ambitious Iraqi doctor, meets Duncan by chance. Diane is working as a nanny for the Iraqi royal family. Duncan is a young British Embassy officer in Baghdad. When the king dies in a mysterious accident, Ibrahim and his family suspect Diane of colluding with Duncan and the British.
Summoning up the vanished world of mid-twentieth-century Baghdad, Elizabeth Loudon’s richly evocative story of one family calls into question British attitudes and policies in Iraq and offers up a penetrating reflection on cross-cultural marriage and the lives of women caught between different worlds.
To read an excerpt, click here.
We met to talk about the book and discuss it with Elizabeth Louden on Sunday August 27th, 2023.
The July 2023 reading selection was Emissaries, short stories by Youssef Rakha
Emissaries is the new collection of short stories by renowned Egyptian author Youssef Rakha. Many of the stories have appeared previously in journals from the UK, US and the Middle East region. In these Cairo-focused stories written at the height of the Arab Spring, in its wake and its ruins, the reader is led by a colorful cast of characters through a hypnagogic urbanscape pulsating with the specters of post-political Islam and failed revolution.
Writes TMR reviewer Zein El-Amine, “I have not read many works by Arab American writers writing in English, but Rakha’s collection is original, irreverent, and provocative. What engages one most in reading his stories is the language he employs. Even though he is referencing Western pop culture and writers throughout the book, his voice is original. In wielding such prose, Rakha is a pied piper leading the reader into his rabbit holes. The consistency in that voice and the recurring motifs in the book make for a solid read.” Read the review. Get the audio book. Print.
We met to discuss these stories with Youssef Rakha on Sunday, July 2nd, 2023.
The June 2023 BookGroup Selection was Enter Ghost, a novel by Isabella Hammad
Enter Ghost follows actress Sonia as she returns to Palestine and takes a role in a West Bank production of Hamlet. After years away from her family’s homeland, and reeling from a disastrous love affair, Sonia Nasir returns to Haifa to visit her older sister Haneen. This is her first trip back since the second intifada and the deaths of their grandparents: while Haneen made a life here commuting to Tel Aviv to teach at the university, Sonia remained in London to focus on her acting career and now dissolute marriage. On her return, she finds her relationship to Palestine is fragile, both bone-deep and new.
At Haneen’s, Sonia meets the charismatic and candid Mariam, a local director, and finds herself roped into a production of Hamlet in the West Bank. Sonia is soon rehearsing Gertude’s lines in Classical Arabic and spending more time in Ramallah than Haifa, along with a dedicated group of men from all over historic Palestine who, in spite of competing egos and priorities, each want to bring Shakespeare to that side of the wall. As opening night draws closer it becomes clear just how many violent obstacles stand before a troupe of Palestinian actors. Amidst it all, the life Sonia once knew starts to give way to the daunting, exhilarating possibility of finding a new self in her ancestral home.
A stunning rendering of present-day Palestine, Enter Ghost is a story of diaspora, displacement, and the connection to be found in family and shared resistance. Timely, thoughtful, and passionate, Isabella Hammad’s highly anticipated second novel is an exquisite feat, an unforgettable story of artistry under occupation.
April 2023 Book Club Selection was Waiting for the Past, a novel by Hadiya Hussein, translated from the Arabic by Barbara Romaine
Hadiya Hussein’s poignant novel plunges readers into a haunting and powerful story of resilience. Set at the end of Saddam Hussein’s brutal reign, the novel follows Narjis, a young Iraqi woman, on her quest to discover what has become of the man she loves. Yusef, suspected by the regime of being a dissident, has disappeared–presumably either imprisoned or executed. On her journey, Narjis receives shelter from a Kurdish family who welcome her into their home where she meets Umm Hani, an older woman who is searching for her long-lost son. Together they form a bond, and Narjis comes to understand the depth of loss and grief of those around her. At the same time, she is introduced to the warm hospitality of the Kurdish community, settling into their everyday lives, and embracing their customs. Barbara Romaine’s translation skillfully renders this complex, layered story, giving readers a stark yet beautiful portrait of contemporary Iraq.
March 2023 Selection was The Girl Who Fell to Earth, a memoir by Sophia Al-Maria (discussing the book on Sunday, March 26, 12 ET/18:00 CET).
Award-winning filmmaker and writer Sophia Al-Maria’s The Girl Who Fell to Earth is a funny and wry coming-of-age memoir about growing up in between American and Gulf Arab cultures. Part family saga and part personal quest, The Girl Who Fell to Earth traces Al-Maria’s journey to make a place for herself in two different worlds.
When Sophia Al-Maria’s mother sends her away from rainy Washington State to stay with her husband’s desert-dwelling Bedouin family in Qatar, she intends it to be a sort of teenage cultural boot camp. What her mother doesn’t know is that there are some things about growing up that are universal. In Qatar, Sophia is faced with a new world she’d only imagined as a child. She sets out to find her freedom, even in the most unlikely of places.
The Girl Who Fell to Earth takes readers from the green valleys of the Pacific Northwest to the dunes of the Arabian Gulf and on to the sprawling chaos of Cairo. Struggling to adapt to her nomadic lifestyle, Sophia is haunted by the feeling that she is perpetually in exile: hovering somewhere between two families, two cultures, and two worlds. She must make a place for herself—a complex journey that includes finding young love in the Arabian Gulf, rebellion in Cairo, and, finally, self-discovery in the mountains of Sinai.
The Girl Who Fell to Earth heralds the arrival of an electric new talent and takes us on the most personal of quests: the voyage home.
February 2023 Selection was Disoriental, the novel by Négar Djavadi.
The story of a young girl and her family, at the core of an exploration of Iranian history.
Kimiâ Sadr fled Iran at the age of ten in the company of her mother and sisters to join her father in France. Now twenty-five, with a new life and the prospect of a child, Kimiâ is inundated by her own memories and the stories of her ancestors, which reach her in unstoppable, uncontainable waves. In the waiting room of a Parisian fertility clinic, generations of flamboyant Sadrs return to her, including her formidable great-grandfather Montazemolmolk, with his harem of fifty-two wives, and her parents, Darius and Sara, stalwart opponents of each regime that befalls them.
In this high-spirited, kaleidoscopic story, key moments of Iranian history, politics, and culture punctuate stories of family drama and triumph. Yet it is Kimiâ herself—punk-rock aficionado, storyteller extraordinaire, a Scheherazade of our time, and above all a modern woman divided between family traditions and her own “disorientalization”—who forms the heart of this bestselling and beloved novel.
January 2023 Book Club Selection was the novel Out of Mesopotamia, by Salar Abdoh
“Imagine getting into Iraq and Syria as an observer of the war on ISIS, and yet very soon after you’ve been close enough to RPGs to smell the explosion and feel the ground shake, you find yourself back in your old life, giving literary readings at swank bookstores in cities at peace, or attending highbrow academic conferences where nobody’s dying, except perhaps bored audience members. Juxtaposing the two realities — one savage and ridiculous, the other sane and predictable — is what the author is after in Out of Mesopotamia.” —Jessica Proett, The Markaz Review
Nov 2022 Book Club Selection was I Will Never See the World Again, by Ahmet Altan
The destiny I put down in my novel has become mine. I am now under arrest like the hero I created years ago. I await the decision that will determine my future, just as he awaited his. I am unaware of my destiny, which has perhaps already been decided, just as he was unaware of his. I suffer the pathetic torment of profound helplessness, just as he did.
Confined in a cell four meters long, imprisoned on absurd, Kafkaesque charges, novelist Ahmet Altan is one of many writers persecuted by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s oppressive regime. In this extraordinary memoir, written from his prison cell, Altan reflects upon his sentence, on a life whittled down to a courtyard covered by bars, and on the hope and solace a writer’s mind can provide, even in the darkest places. Turkey in the last several years has become one of the greatest oppressors of writers, academics and intellectuals, with the largest prison population of political detainees in continental Europe. Erdoğan, consolidating his power, has fired over 5,000 academics and 50,000 schoolteachers, whose progressive politics or Kurdish heritage he disliked, or who as journalists/editors/publishers have been too outspoken, such as widely translated novelist and newspaper editor Ahmet Altan, 72. The author of such internationally admired works as the novels in his Ottoman Quartet, Altan was sentenced to life in prison in 2016. He spent four years behind bars but was unexpectedly released last year. He said recently, “Prison didn’t extinguish my desire to write.”
Find it on Goodreads.
Sunday, Nov. 27th.
Oct 2022 Selection was The Last White Man, by Mohsin Hamid
The Guardian calls Mohsin Hamid’s new novel “a hypnotic race fable,” in which “as white people suddenly awake in brown skin, they are forced to confront uncomfortable truths about power and identity.”
“One morning Anders, a white man, woke up to find he had turned a deep and undeniable brown.” So begins Mohsin Hamid’s inventive new novel, The Last White Man. Anders, as it turns out, is not an isolated case. More people in an unnamed town begin to change, including Oona, a yoga instructor and a friend of Anders. Violence inevitably erupts around them. White vigilante gangs terrorize the transformed, while some doggedly refuse to accept an end to whiteness.
At its heart, this is a novel about seeing, being seen, loss and letting go. The loss of privilege that comes from being perceived as white, and no longer being able to view the world from within whiteness, are some of the anxieties examined here.
(From The Guardian review by Guy Gunaratne.)
Sunday, Oct. 30th.
When you live in a conservative society, you run the risk of censure. How far should a philosophy professor stick her neck out to make a point? Would you put it all on the line in the pursuit of truth or justice, or whatever informs your intent?
An Unlasting Home, by award-winning short story writer Mai Al-Nakib, opens in the summer of 2013. Sara Tarek Al-Ameed, a professor of philosophy at the Kuwait University for eleven years, is in the midst of preparing a paper arguing the importance of supplementing the religious curriculum with an early introduction to philosophy at the level of primary public school education in Kuwait. However, a phone recording by one of the munaqaba girls in her intro to philosophy class (in which she is heard arguing that “God is dead”) has been passed on to the most conservative member of the Kuwaiti Parliament — a Salafi, who has filed a complaint. Sara is arrested at her home and charged with blasphemy, a capital crime that comes with the threat of execution, under the newly amended Kuwaiti penal code. In the author’s note, Al-Nakib explains that although such an amendment did in fact come to pass by a wide majority of the elected parliament in 2013, the Emir of Kuwait, who holds authority over all amendments of laws, rejected it. This work of fiction, explains the author, imagines otherwise. (From the review by Rana Asfour.)
Sunday, Sept. 25, with novelist Mai Al-Nakib.
August 2022 Selection was The Handsome Jew, by Ali Al-Muqri, translated by Mbarek Sryfi
The Handsome Jew is a challenging and provocative novel that urges/ invites Muslims and Jews to contemplate themselves and the way they see the other through a doomed love story. This powerful novel tells the tragic saga of two lovers, Salem, a Jew, and Fatima, a Muslim, who fall in a forbidden, intense, and passionate love against all circumstances designed to divide them in a society bound by religion. This boundary-crossing love story epitomises the doomed relationship between Jews and Muslims in Yemen, sheds light on how each community sees the other, interrogates religious and social barriers, and proves that, against all odds, love can conquer all – OR till death do the fated couple part. (Goodreads).
July 2022 Book Club selection was The Best Place on Earth, by Ayelet Tsabari
On Sunday, July 31st, we talked about the short stories of Ayelet Tsabari in The Best Place on Earth.
June 2022 Selection were the short stories in TMR 22
The Markaz Review runs an international book club that meets on Zoom every last Sunday of the month. Readers from Los Angeles to Abu Dhabi share thoughts and insights on the month’s selection. Frequently, the author (and sometimes their translator) joins the group during the second half of the hour. Our bookgroup always meets the last Sunday at 1 pm Eastern.
On Sunday, June 26th, we talked about the short stories included in TMR 22 • STORIES, by such writers as Hanif Kureishi, Joumana Haddad, Karim Kattan, Ahmed Naji, Mai Al-Nakib, Nektaria Anastasiadou, Sarah Kahly-Mills and others.
The May 2022 Book Club selection was The Go-Between, a memoir by Osman Yousefzada
“A beautifully observed and funny book” Guardian “Compelling and humane” Sathnam Sanghera
A coming-of-age story set in Birmingham in the 1980s and 1990s, The Go-Between opens a window into a closed migrant community living in a red-light district on the wrong side of the tracks.
The adult world is seen through Osman’s eyes as a child: his own devout Pashtun patriarchal community, with its divide between the world of men and women, living cheek-by-jowl with parallel migrant communities. The orthodox attend a mosque down the road from the prostitutes and pimps. Children balance Western school teachings with cultural traditions.
The April 2022 selection was The Monotonous Chaos of Existence, stories by Hisham Bustani
The stories within Hisham Bustani’s The Monotonous Chaos of Existence explore the turbulent transformation in contemporary Arab societies. With a deft and poetic touch, Bustani examines the interpersonal with a global lens, connects the seemingly contradictory, and delves into the ways that international conflict can tear open the individuals that populate his world—all while pushing the narrative form into new and unexpected terrain.
“These stories recall the rhythms of poetry, offer up the intimacy of memoir, and often feel more like films than fiction. The Monotonous Chaos of Existence got me thinking about similarly semi-surreal and ecstatic truth tellers Denis Johnson and Chester Himes, a comparison that will have to do for now because I’m still dizzy and not exactly thinking straight after reading these interrogations of the cruelty and absurdity of occupation and so-called post-colonialism. Clear-eyed personal/political storytelling that is exciting, askew, and challenging.”
—Brandon Soderberg, coauthor, I Got a Monster: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Corrupt Police Squad
March 2022 Book Club selection was Something Strange, Like Hunger, Short Stories by Malika Moustadraf
Malika Moustadraf (1969–2006) is a feminist icon in contemporary Moroccan literature, celebrated for her stark interrogation of gender and sexuality in North Africa. Something Strange, Like Hunger* is the complete collection of Moustadraf’s published short fiction: haunting, visceral stories by a master of the genre. A teenage girl suffers through a dystopian rite of passage, a man with kidney disease makes desperate attempts to secure treatment, and a mother schemes to ensure her daughter passes a virginity test. Delighting in vibrant sensory detail and rich slang, Moustadraf takes an unflinching look at the gendered body, social class, illness, double standards, and desire, as lived by a diverse cast of characters. Blood Feast is a sharp provocation to patriarchal power and a celebration of the life and genius of one of Morocco’s preeminent writers.
* The U.S. title is Blood Feast.
February 2022 selection was The Fortune Men, by Nadifa Mohamed
A Booker Prize finalist, Nadifa Mohamed’s novel The Fortune Men is based on a true event, the story of a murder, a miscarriage of justice, and a man too innocent for his times — “a blues song cut straight from the heart … brought alive with subtle artistry and heartbreaking humanity” (Walter Mosley, best-selling author of Devil in a Blue Dress). In Cardiff, Wales in 1952, Mahmood Mattan, a young Somali sailor, is accused of a crime he did not commit: the brutal killing of Violet Volacki, a shopkeeper from Tiger Bay. At first, Mahmood believes he can ignore the fingers pointing his way; he may be a gambler and a petty thief, but he is no murderer. He is a father of three, secure in his innocence and his belief in British justice. But as the trial draws closer, his prospect for freedom dwindles. Now, Mahmood must stage a terrifying fight for his life, with all the chips stacked against him: a shoddy investigation, an inhumane legal system, and, most evidently, pervasive and deep-rooted racism at every step. Under the shadow of the hangman’s noose, Mahmood begins to realize that even the truth may not be enough to save him. A haunting tale of miscarried justice, this book offers a chilling look at the dark corners of our humanity.
Past Titles Read by TMR’s Bookgroup Include:
- Ayad Akhtar’s novel Homeland Elegies
- Malu Halasa’s novel Mother of All Pigs
- Laila Lalami’s Conditional Citizens
- Hassan Blasim’s short novel God 99
- Dima Alzayat’s Alligator and Other Stories
- Sahar Mustafah’s novel The Beauty in Your Face
- Tobie Nathan’s A Land Like You (reviewed in TMR here)
- Susan Abulhawa’s Against the Loveless World (reviewed in TMRhere)
- Hoda Barakat’s Voices of the Lost (reviewed in TMR here)
- Sinan Antoon’s I’jaam
- Omar El Akkad’s What Strange Paradise
- Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Paradise
To join The Markaz Review Book Club (free, all welcome), send your name to email@example.com today. The group is captained by Rana Asfour, TMR’s Managing Editor.