The best books on the people of the Levant region

The Books I Picked & Why

Origins: A Memoir

By Amin Maalouf

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.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Arabian Love Poems

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

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.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The Shell: Memoirs of a Hidden Observer

By Moustafa Khalifa, Paul Starkey

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.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria

By Wendy Pearlman

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.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

A Woman Is No Man

By Etaf Rum

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.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Closely Related Book Lists

Random Book Lists