Welcome to a special edition of Cultural Tidbits Monday! Today we have the guest post “Have Books, Will Travel” — giving you a synopsis of 5 Middle Eastern books that will surely inspire you to travel to this fascinating region of the world. As you know, I fell in love with it and went on to study, live, and travel extensively throughout Egypt, Morocco, Israel, Palestine/West Bank, and Jordan for over 16 months. I hope we pique your interest as well!
Have Books, Will Travel: Picks To Inspire You to Travel the Middle East
Middle Eastern nations such as Iraq, Turkey and Jordan have long inspired historic tales and prize-winning authors, as well as producing insightful non-fiction on subjects from art to exploration and cuisine. In its fine body of literature (both home-grown books and those written by others), the Middle East presents an enthralling image for any traveler wishing to explore for themselves – whether that’s with an off-road camel trek to discover the local cultures of Morocco, or a beach break in Sharm el Sheikh.
In little over a month’s time, the largest and most prestigious literary festival in the Middle East gets under way in Dubai, celebrating another year of the best in reading and writing in the region. In a city-state usually lauded for its superlative extravagance, this is the perfect opportunity for visitors to get to the heart of these culture-rich countries and dig deeper while on their holidays to Dubai.
The Sultan’s Seal: A Novel by Jenny White
Anyone interested in the Ottoman Empire and its last days should pick up this acclaimed mystery from Jenny White, a professor of Anthropology who uses her detailed knowledge of the era to weave a richly descriptive tale that whisks the reader from the banks of the Bosphorus to the dangerous and fragrant gardens of the Sultan’s palace. When a mysterious young Englishwoman is murdered in Istanbul, a local magistrate steps in to investigate and gets caught up in a gripping tale of political intrigue, love and murder that will leave you itching to visit the city for yourself.
Married to a Bedouin by Marguerite van Geldermalsen
This incredible true story of love and adventure follows New Zealand-born nurse Marguerite van Geldermalsen, who met a local souvenir-seller in Jordan in the 1970s and fell in love. The subsequent story is a fascinating one – of how she married Mohammed Abdallah Othman, raised their children in an ancient cave in the famous sandstone cliffs of Petra, and integrated with his Manajah tribe and learned the Bedouin way of life. Her wry observations chronicle how she became grateful for the simpler, slower way of life even as she became a source of fascination for tribe members and outsiders alike. This wonderful tale of personal challenge and the triumph of love is a must for anybody interested in Petra, Bedouin traditions or the Middle East.
The Map of Love: A Novel by Ahdaf Soueif
An epic romance to rival The English Patient, Ahdaf Soueif’s novel is set in the UK and Egypt as two stories of love unravel, 100 years apart. A young American woman enlists the help of an Egyptian translator to research her great-grandmother’s diaries, and starts to fall in love with the translator’s brother as she discovers her great-grandmother’s own parallel love story. Egypt is the thread that ties the book together, and the Booker Prize-shortlisted novel presents an unparalleled vision of politics, colonial and modern life in Egypt.
New Persian Cooking by Jila Dana-Haeri
Persian cooking is relatively under the radar in the UK and North America, but this excellent cookbook attempts to change that. Dr. Jila Dana-Haeri’s recipes showcase sumptuous spices and fresh ingredients in recipes that are healthy and easy to make. She focuses on ingredients that readers will be able to find in the West, so they too can benefit from Persian cuisine’s health benefits and ancient flavors From fish to pomegranates, and saffron to khoresht-e fesenjan, this book offers a different perspective on Iran, and the crisp photographs accompanying each recipe are enough to make anyone plan a culinary expedition.
The Arabian Nights: Tales from a Thousand and One Nights by Various Authors
No literary homage to the Middle East could leave out this riotous and dazzling compendium of folk tales. From the famous stories of Aladdin, Sinbad and Ali Baba to lesser-known (but no less enthralling) tales, The Arabian Nights still holds up after hundreds of years. Legend says that the king’s wife Shahrazad told a story to her husband every night, never revealing the ending, to keep him intrigued and prevent his unseemly tradition of killing his wives after the first night.
Having traveled in both the Middle East and Turkey, have you noticed a significant difference in cultural history between the two regions?
The reason I ask is that from living in Turkey, I’ve got the sense that most Turks do NOT like being associated with the Middle East in any way, shape or form.
Yet, they share such a strong history/have many cultural similarities!
Thanks for the suggestions by the way. I look forward to checking “The Arabian Nights” out!
Very interesting points you raise, Paul. Like you said, the Turks don’t like to be called Arabs or vice versa. However, they do share very similar backgrounds — but mostly due to their religion, Islam. Other than that, Turkey has always been more “westernized” — or at least have tolerated modernization and westernization much better than the rest of the Middle East.
Speaking of which, I recommend another fantastic book that I’m currently reading: “What went wrong? The clash between Islam and modernity in the Middle East” by Bernard Lewis. Talks in-depth about the Ottoman Empire and how Turkey (in particular) differentiated from the rest of the Middle East when it came to modernization and westernization.
Great books on the Middle East, they will come handy to those wishing to learn and visit the place. I like the book on Egypt, one of the most fascinating places to in the Middle East.
LOVELY ideas but that area is so unstable and dangerous
I’m sure if you only watched the evening news of Miami, you would think that it is even more dangerous than the Middle East 😉
The media always distorts reality. Many places in the Middle East are even calmer than most cities in England and the United States. Never judge a book by its cover!
I read The Arabian Nights and I would love to check some of your suggestions. One book that is still haunting me is The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (the action is set in Afghanistan). In present I read another great book (about the impact of the highly improbable), The Black Swan, by Nassim Taleb, where the writer talks a lot about his home country, Lebanon.
It might be a strange recommendation since I haven’t actually read it, BUT David Lamb’s The Arabs might be worth a read. I did read his book The Africans, which was fantastic, so I presume a similar treatment on the Middle East by him will be worthwhile.
I would also recommend the books of Naguib Mahfouz (e.g., Children of the Alley, The Cairo Trilogy).
Thanks for the recommendations, Jeff!
thanks for the suggestions!
you’re welcome Hogga! Which was your favorite?