The best books on Middle Eastern culture written by outsiders

Andrea Rugh Author Of Simple Gestures: A Cultural Journey into the Middle East
By Andrea Rugh

Who am I?

My quest after culture began as a child reading National Geographic and wondering about exotic peoples. Later with a PhD in anthropology and living decades in the Middle East, I had a chance to immerse myself in the lives of people going about their normal activities. Eventually their thinking became almost as familiar as my own. The anthropologist Edward Hall says culture is elusive, “and what it hides it hides most effectively from its own practitioners.” He suggests that detached outsiders sometimes see cultures more clearly than local observers who have difficulty viewing themselves dispassionately. As outsider-writers, they validate insights much like anthropologists do, through comparisons of cultural values across time and space. 


I wrote...

Simple Gestures: A Cultural Journey into the Middle East

By Andrea Rugh,

Book cover of Simple Gestures: A Cultural Journey into the Middle East

What is my book about?

Simple Gestures describes my efforts over four decades living and working in the Middle East to understand local culture. Culture as I see it is a shared worldview that helps people make sense of the world. It’s revealed in the ways they interact with one another, how they treat the poor, the elderly, and children, the way they organize their lives, and even the way they react to outsiders like me. Taking my model from the early anthropologist Margaret Mead who wrote for general audiences, I’ve written about the cultural insights I gathered accompanying an Egyptian social worker for five years in a poor quarter of Cairo, wintering over with a family in a Syrian village, and getting to know royal women in the Gulf among other experiences.

The books I picked & why

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At the Drop of a Veil

By Marianne Alireza,

Book cover of At the Drop of a Veil

Why this book?

In 1945 Alireza married a member of a prominent Saudi family and went to live with him in his extended family. She recounts her experience living mainly in the company of the women of the family. Over 12 years and the birth of four children, she grows close to her Arabian family and learns to live according to their customs. The reader becomes immersed in Saudi culture in a way not easily available to an outsider and feels the same sadness as Marianne when ultimately her husband divorces her and she has to leave the family she has grown to love. 

At the Drop of a Veil

By Marianne Alireza,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked At the Drop of a Veil as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Autobiography: A harem is a female group composed of a married woman's mother-in-law, sisters-in-law, children, and servants. Californian Alireza arrived in Arabia in 1945 with her husband Ali. Shew grew to lover her expanded family and the harem. After 8 years, she was summarily divorced by Ali and escaped with the children to Switzerland, then home to America.


Guests of the Sheik: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village

By Elizabeth Warnock Fernea,

Book cover of Guests of the Sheik: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village

Why this book?

In the late 1950s, Fernea accompanied her anthropologist husband to a small village in Iraq. While he spent his days on his research, she was left with the local women, living like them and learning their language. While welcoming this outsider into their midst, the Iraqi women find her ways strange and perplexing. Knowing almost nothing of the local culture when she arrives, Fernea writes movingly about their reactions and her own comparisons with American culture. She describes the evolution in her thinking as she learns more about the values and beliefs that motivate them. This book offers a chance for readers to immerse themselves in a particular Middle Eastern culture, and as often happens, makes them more aware of the peculiarities of their own. 

Guests of the Sheik: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village

By Elizabeth Warnock Fernea,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Guests of the Sheik as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A delightful account of one woman's two-year stay in a tiny rural village in Iraq, where she assumed the dress and sheltered life of a harem woman. 

"A most enjoyable book abouut [Muslim women]—simple, dignified, human, colorful, sad and humble as the life they lead." —Muhsin Mahdi, Jewett Professor of Arabic Literature, Harvard Unversity.

A wonderful, well-written, and vastly informative ethnographic study that offers a unique insight into a part of the Midddle Eastern life seldom seen by the West.


Letters from Egypt

By Lucie Duff Gordon,

Book cover of Letters from Egypt

Why this book?

In the 1860s, the ailing Lady Duff Gordon is advised by doctors to seek warmer climes if she is to recover from an advanced case of tuberculous. She travels to Egypt and embarks from Cairo by sailing a boat up the Nile and deep into Nubia. Along the way she comments on encounters with people of all classes and occupations that she meets. The book stands in stark contrast to the largely unsympathetic picture of the Egyptian peasantry by other British writers of the time. Her sympathetic portrayal includes seeing the importance of Islam and deploring foreign efforts to convert the population to Christianity. Her depictions show that even during this early period certain basic values existed that in a general way still guide behavior today in Egypt.   

Letters from Egypt

By Lucie Duff Gordon,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Letters from Egypt as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1862, Lucie Duff Gordon left her husband and three children in England and settled in Egypt, where she remained for the rest of her short life. Seeking respite from her tuberculosis in the dry air, she moved into a ramshackle house above a temple in Luxor, and soon became an indispensable member of the community. Setting up a hospital in her home, she welcomed all - from slaves to local leaders. Her humane, open-minded voice shines across the centuries through these letters - witty, life-affirming, joyous, self-deprecating and utterly enchanted by her Arab neighbours.


The Woman Who Fell from the Sky: An American Woman's Adventures in the Oldest City on Earth

By Jennifer Steil,

Book cover of The Woman Who Fell from the Sky: An American Woman's Adventures in the Oldest City on Earth

Why this book?

Steil accepts a short-term assignment in 2006 to teach a journalism class to the local staff of a Yemeni newspaper in the capital, Sanaa. Intrigued by the experience of teaching and befriending men and women of totally different values and beliefs, she extends her stay for a year. She recounts the difficulties of teaching journalism and living in a country where the values she once saw as normal, are constantly being challenged. As often happens with sensitive outsiders, she also sees some advantages of Yemen’s conservative culture that make her question aspects of her own thinking. 

The Woman Who Fell from the Sky: An American Woman's Adventures in the Oldest City on Earth

By Jennifer Steil,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Woman Who Fell from the Sky as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"I had no idea how to find my way around this medieval city. It was getting dark. I was tired. I didn’t speak Arabic. I was a little frightened. But hadn’t I battled scorpions in the wilds of Costa Rica and prevailed? Hadn’t I survived fainting in a San José brothel?  Hadn’t I once arrived in Ireland with only $10 in my pocket and made it last two weeks? Surely I could handle a walk through an unfamiliar town. So I took a breath, tightened the black scarf around my hair, and headed out to take my first solitary steps…


In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams

By Tahir Shah,

Book cover of In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams

Why this book?

In the 2000s, Tahir Shah travels around Morocco collecting traditional wisdom stories and relying on the hospitality of local people for shelter and food. Shah is an outsider in a different way from the rest of the outsider authors here. Although growing up in the West, he nonetheless absorbs the Afghan culture of his family. From his Afghan father especially he learns the importance of storytelling as a way of passing on cultural values. The Moroccans know he is a foreigner but see him as an Anglo-Afghan more sympathetic than the normal Westerner. As a result, they reveal facets of their lives not normally shared with outsiders. The book shows how those seeking to understand culture must be open to finding it in all sorts of places.

In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams

By Tahir Shah,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked In Arabian Nights as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Shortly after the 2005 London bombings, Tahir Shah was thrown into a Pakistani prison on suspicion of spying for Al-Qaeda. What sustained him during his terrifying, weeks-long ordeal were the stories his father told him as a child in Morocco.
Inspired by this, on his return to his adopted homeland he embarked on an adventure worthy of the mythical Arabian Nights, going in search of the stories and storytellers that have nourished this most alluring of countries for centuries. Wandering through the medinas of Fez and Marrakech, criss-crossing the Saharan sands and tasting the hospitality of ordinary Moroccans, he collected…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Middle East, women, and Egypt?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Middle East, women, and Egypt.

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