The best books on the people of the Levant region

Who am I?

Sam Dagher is a Lebanese-American journalist and author with more than 15 years of experience reporting on the Middle East and its people. He has lived in Baghdad, Beirut, and Damascus and worked throughout the region. Sam has been committed to telling the region’s stories from the ground up and in the process shedding new light on the root causes of war, extremism, and migration.

I wrote...

Assad or We Burn the Country: How One Family's Lust for Power Destroyed Syria

By Sam Dagher,

Book cover of Assad or We Burn the Country: How One Family's Lust for Power Destroyed Syria

What is my book about?

From an award winning journalist specializing in the Middle East, this groundbreaking account of the Syrian Civil War reveals the never-before-published true story of a 21st-century humanitarian disaster. Assad or We Burn the Country examines Syria's tragedy through the generational saga of the Assad and Tlass families, once deeply intertwined and now estranged in Bashar's bloody quest to preserve his father's inheritance. By drawing on his own reporting experience in Damascus and exclusive interviews with Tlass, Dagher takes readers within palace walls to reveal the family behind the destruction of a country and the chaos of an entire region.

The books I picked & why

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Origins: A Memoir

By Amin Maalouf,

Book cover of Origins: A Memoir

Why this book?

The story of Maalouf’s paternal grandfather Boutrous exists in almost every family in the Levant. The book tackles themes of identity, belonging and displacement that resonate across generations and up to the present day. The beautiful narrative and intergenerational saga illuminate the experiences that have shaped the Middle East and its people during the waning years of the Ottoman Empire, the onset of Western colonialism and creation of new nation states.

Arabian Love Poems

By Nizar Qabbani, Bassam K. Frangieh, Clementina R. Brown

Book cover of Arabian Love Poems

Why this book?

Damascus-born Nizar Qabbani, a lawyer by training, abandoned a career in diplomacy in the late 1960s to become one of the Arab world’s most beloved poets. Both his sensual and political poems carry seeds of defiance, rebellion and a quest for liberation from autocratic institutions and rigid social norms. This edition reproduces Qabbani’s own handwritten text of the selected poems.

The Shell: Memoirs of a Hidden Observer

By Moustafa Khalifa, Paul Starkey,

Book cover of The Shell: Memoirs of a Hidden Observer

Why this book?

The Shell is a peek into both the horrors and absurdities of totalitarian regimes told in the form of a prison diary kept by the author. Khalifa, a Christian by birth and an atheist, was mistaken (or perhaps not, given what I learned about the Assad regime in the course of my work) for a radical Islamist, arrested and locked up in the notorious Tadmor desert prison, more accurately a death camp. The book reveals the horrific consequences of the logic and methods of the Assad family and other dictators in the Middle East and beyond: Anyone suspected of harboring a hint of opposition to the ruler will be labeled a terrorist and traitor, crushed and turned into an example to instill fear in the wider population.

We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria

By Wendy Pearlman,

Book cover of We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria

Why this book?

Pearlman expertly, delicately and lovingly assembles elements from the stories and journeys of close to 90 Syrians into a mosaic “mapped onto Syria’s historical trajectory from authoritarianism to revolution, war, and exile” as she explains in the introduction. For me there are echoes of Maalouf’s Origins in this book: More than a hundred years later and Syrians and Levantines are still having to flee their homelands because of tyranny, conflict and political and social upheaval. Pearlman is an accomplished professor at Northwestern University who speaks Arabic and has spent more than 20 years studying and living in the Middle East. Her expertise and empathy shine through in a book that gives us a chance “to listen to actual Syrians, as human beings,” as she says.

A Woman Is No Man

By Etaf Rum,

Book cover of A Woman Is No Man

Why this book?

In a 2019 interview with NPR, Etaf Rum—the daughter of Palestinian immigrants who was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York—said one of her struggles in writing the book was the fear that she was in a way confirming stereotypes about Arabs and Middle Easterners, including “oppression, domestic abuse, and terrorism.” Thankfully Rum overcame these struggles to deliver a courageous, beautiful, and incredibly authentic debut novel that follows the lives of three generations of Palestinian-American women trying to find their voices and identities within the confines of patriarchal and conservative milieus. In a way, the struggles of Rum and her characters mirror the battles that young people throughout the Middle East have been waging against tyranny and oppression since the start of the Arab Spring in 2010.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Levant, family secrets, and refugees?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Levant, family secrets, and refugees.

The Levant Explore 4 books about the Levant
Family Secrets Explore 83 books about family secrets
Refugees Explore 90 books about refugees

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like America's Kingdom, The Siege of Mecca, and The Last Shah if you like this list.