The best books on Middle Eastern culture written by insiders

Why am I passionate about this?

My work as an anthropologist has focused on understanding the worldviews of people of different backgrounds and nationalities in the Middle East. This is despite the tendency now for anthropologists to pursue more theoretical and academic research. Although there are many ways to acquire an understanding of culture, the best is of course to live and work with local people. The next best way is to listen to them explaining themselves. These books by cultural insiders do just that. The authors come from several sub-cultures of the Arab world and religions. They all describe their own versions of culture, that although overlapping in many ways, also show the distinctiveness of each group.


I wrote...

Within the Circle: Parents and Children in an Arab Village

By Andrea Rugh,

Book cover of Within the Circle: Parents and Children in an Arab Village

What is my book about?

Within the Circle chronicles my experiences as an anthropologist living with a family in a small Syrian village. Most days I spent with two sisters married to two brothers and their ten children ranging in age from toddlers to a fifteen-year-old. Our days were consumed with cooking and cleaning and supervising the chores and homework activities of the children. The book describes the life of these families, with a focus on their parenting practices. As a mother of three grown sons reared according to the American Dr. Spock model, I could see in our divergent styles, clues to differences in cultural outlook. The book is an effort to understand the thinking of these Syrian families about childrearing and the life’s challenges for which these parents prepare their children.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Dreams Of Trespass: Tales Of A Harem Girlhood

Andrea Rugh Why did I love this book?

This is the fictive account of a girl growing up in the women’s quarters of a conservative family in Fez Morocco in the 1940s and 50s. The narrator tells about how she is not allowed to go out and dreams of what life outside must be like. Throughout, her mother advocates for her daughters’ education and eventual ability to earn a living, but comes in conflict with her traditionally-minded mother-in-law who sees women’s roles tied to household tasks and child-rearing. Based loosely on the experiences of the author, the account provides a more nuanced depiction of the harem than the usual Western one. The author was a prominent Moroccan sociologist and outspoken feminist, and the book is particularly interesting for the sympathetic way she presents these women’s lives.

By Fatima Mernissi, Ruth V. Ward (photographer),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Dreams Of Trespass as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"I was born in a harem in 1940 in Fez, Morocco..." So begins Fatima Mernissi in this exotic and rich narrative of a childhood behind the iron gates of a domestic harem. In Dreams of Trespass , Mernissi weaves her own memories with the dreams and memories of the women who surrounded her in the courtyard of her youth,women who, deprived of access to the world outside, recreated it from sheer imagination. Dreams of Trespass is the provocative story of a girl confronting the mysteries of time and place, gender and sex in the recent Muslim world.


Book cover of A Border Passage: From Cairo to America--A Woman's Journey

Andrea Rugh Why did I love this book?

In this autobiography, Ahmed describes her childhood growing up in a Muslim family in the 40s and 50s in Cairo where she witnessed many of the formative events that transformed Egypt—the end of British occupation, the changes wrought by Nassar’s reforms, and the break-down of the largely peaceful coexistence of multi-ethnic and multi-religious groups after the establishment of Israel. Ahmed goes on to school in England and then later to a life in the U.S. where she has difficulty resolving the contradictions of her comfortable Islamic upbringing with a growing sense of feminist identity. Ahmed is professor of women’s studies at Harvard Divinity School. Although not veiling herself, she supports Muslim women who wear the veil as a symbol of their own version of feminism.

By Leila Ahmed,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Border Passage as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An Egyptian woman's reflections on her changing homeland-updated with an afterword on the Arab Spring

In language that vividly evokes the lush summers of Cairo and the stark beauty of the Arabian desert, Leila Ahmed movingly recounts her Egyptian childhood growing up in a rich tradition of Islamic women and describes how she eventually came to terms with her identity as a feminist living in America. As a young woman in Cairo in the forties and fifties, Ahmed witnessed some of the major transformations of this century-the end of British colonialism, the rise of Arab nationalism, and the breakdown of…


Book cover of Khul-Khaal: Five Egyptian Women Tell Their Stories

Andrea Rugh Why did I love this book?

During the sixties, Atiya collected life stories of five Egyptian women from the lower and middle classes, ranging in age from twenty to mid-sixty. The stories show how to them, life starts with marriage. If they mention their childhoods, it is as preparation for marriage. Parents invariably arranged the women’s marriages or gave permission to potential husbands attracted to their daughters from a distance. Once the excitement of their weddings is over, however, most face an endless stream of difficulties. They recount experiences as co-wives, being forced into acrimonious divorces, family conflicts, and problems with children. They discuss witchcraft, female circumcision, poverty, and health issues. The book is unusual in that it conveys in their own words, the thinking of people not usually heard from in Middle Eastern writing.

By Nayra Atiya,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Khul-Khaal as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Soft cover book titled KHUL-KHAAL, Five Egyptian Women Tell Their Stories. (LL-Base2-BS-1) rareviewbooks


Book cover of Daughter of Damascus: A Memoir

Andrea Rugh Why did I love this book?

Offended by the government’s destruction of ancient parts of the Damascus bazaar, Tergeman decides to record the Syrian traditions she experienced growing up in the city before they are lost. In somewhat idyllic form, she describes the celebrations and feast days, traditional foods, colorful characters announcing Ramadan hours, café storytellers, and the proverbs and sayings that were part of everyday life. Best of all, she conveys the warmth of family and community life. With a wealth of detail that only a Syrian can describe, the book gives us a glimpse into the values and beliefs that until recently were an integral part of the culture. Although many traditions are lost now, they still serve as a model for the way life should be in normal times. 

By Siham Tergeman, Andrea Rugh (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Daughter of Damascus as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Daughter of Damascus presents a personal account of a Syrian woman's youth in the Suq Saruja ("old city") quarter of Damascus in the 1940s. Siham Tergeman wrote this book to preserve the details of a "genuine Arab past" for Syrian young people. In it, she relates the customs pertaining to marriage, birth, circumcision, and death. She writes of Ramadan festivities, family picnics to the orchards of the Ghuta, weekly trips to the public bath, her school experiences, Damascene cooking, peddlers' calls, and proverbs. She includes the well-known dramatic skits, songs, and tales of the Syrian Hakawati storytellers. And, through the…


Book cover of A Book of Middle Eastern Food

Andrea Rugh Why did I love this book?

It’s important in a book list of Middle Eastern culture to include a cookbook, especially one annotated by the author’s memories of people and places where food was served. Food is too central to ignore. It brings family members together and serves as the basis for celebrating all life’s events. I have seen women argue heatedly over which spices to use and when to add them. Such differences define whole sub-cultures, as well as families. Rodin’s book is a classic and a must-read book. As a woman the easiest way for me to immerse myself in local culture was to spend long hours cooking with women. There I learned what concerned them, how they handled their households, and how much the qualitative aspects of family life revolved around food.

By Claudia Roden, Alta Ann Parkins (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked A Book of Middle Eastern Food as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

More than 500 recipes from the subtle, spicy, varied cuisines of the Middle East, ranging from inexpensive but tasty peasant fare to elaborate banquet dishes.


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A Diary in the Age of Water

By Nina Munteanu,

Book cover of A Diary in the Age of Water

Nina Munteanu Author Of Darwin's Paradox

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Why am I passionate about this?

Author Writer Ecologist Mother Teacher Explorer

Nina's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

This climate fiction novel follows four generations of women and their battles against a global giant that controls and manipulates Earth’s water. Told mostly through a diary and drawing on scientific observation and personal reflection, Lynna’s story unfolds incrementally, like climate change itself. Her gritty memoir describes a near-future Toronto in the grips of severe water scarcity.

Single mother and limnologist Lynna witnesses disturbing events as she works for the powerful international utility CanadaCorp. Fearing for the welfare of her rebellious teenage daughter, Lynna sets in motion a series of events that tumble out of her control with calamitous consequence. The novel explores identity, relationship, and our concept of what is “normal”—as a nation and an individual—in a world that is rapidly and incomprehensibly changing.

A Diary in the Age of Water

By Nina Munteanu,

What is this book about?

Centuries from now, in a post-climate change dying boreal forest of what used to be northern Canada, Kyo, a young acolyte called to service in the Exodus, discovers a diary that may provide her with the answers to her yearning for Earth’s past—to the Age of Water, when the “Water Twins” destroyed humanity in hatred—events that have plagued her nightly in dreams. Looking for answers to this holocaust—and disturbed by her macabre longing for connection to the Water Twins—Kyo is led to the diary of a limnologist from the time just prior to the destruction. This gritty memoir describes a…


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