Friday, April 30, 2010

Islam on the Written Page

It seems to me there has been a huge increase in this country in the number of published books relating to Muslim culture. I have to imagine that 9-11 is the reason for the increase – the same reason it took me so long to pick up any of the Muslim-related books.

I admit that my gut reaction to the murders of September 11, 2001 was one of anger. Then, I developed a rather nasty desire for revenge. I worked in a Muslim country for almost ten years (1992-2002), living in Algeria when it was safe to do so and commuting there from London or Houston when it was not. I worked shoulder-to-shoulder with Muslims from Algeria, Tunisa, France, Pakistan, Morocco, Egypt, and India. I was naïve enough to believe I had a good understanding of Muslim culture as it relates to the ordinary citizens of those countries. I made many Muslim friends and still keep in touch with some of them today despite not having seen them since mid-2002. My anger about the events of 9-11 was/is always just beneath the surface and I had no desire to read about Muslim culture, even in the sense that it is always better to know your enemy than not.

But one day I started to notice a constant stream of new books about Muslims, some written by Muslims, some not. Suddenly it seemed there were interesting new novels and intriguing nonfiction books about Muslims everywhere I looked. The book that finally broke the ice for me was Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, a book I still think about sometimes. I didn’t read that one until May 2007 when it appeared in trade paperback, but I followed it up quickly with a hardcover version of Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns. From there, I was off to the races and, during the last two years or so, I have read another 23 titles relating to Muslim culture: 15 novels and 8 nonfiction books.

Looking back, I see that the titles are all over the map. Many of them are serious looks at the culture and many of them are thrillers and detective fiction set in Muslim countries. Strange as it might sound, I think I learn every bit as much about the culture from fiction as I do from the nonfiction titles I have been reading.

In addition to the two Hosseini titles, I've read these:

Prisoner of Tehran: A Memoir by Marina Nemat (Nonfiction - Iran)

Now They Call Me Infidel - Nonie Darwish (Nonfiction - Egypt)

Infidel - Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Nonfiction - Somalia)

The Prisoner of Guantanamo - Dan Fesperman (Novel about Gitmo)

The Amateur Spy - Dan Fesperman (Novel set in Jordan and Jerusalem)

Live from Jordan - Benjamin Orbach (Nonfiction set in Jordan)

The Sirens of Baghdad - Yasmina Khadra (novel set in Iraq)

Finding Nouf - Zoe Ferraris - (novel set in Saudi Arabia)

In the Land of Invisible Women - Qanta A. Ahmed (Nonfiction - Saudi Arabia)

Land of Marvels - Barry Unsworth (Novel set in Egypt)

Harbor - Lorraine Adams (Novel set in Algeria and U.S.)

The Weight of a Mustard Seed - Wendell Steavenson (Nonfiction - Iraq)

Fidali's Way - George Mastras (Novel set in Pakistan and Kashmir)

The Writing on My Forehead - Nafisa Haji - (Novel about immigrants to U.S. from Pakistan)

Rooftops of Tehran - Mahbod Seraji - (Novel set in Iran)

Saffron Dreams - Shaila Abdullah (Novel about Pakistani immigrants in New York)

Pursuit of Honor - Vince Flynn (Thriller about Muslim terrorists in U.S.)

Protect and Defend - Vince Flynn (Thriller about Muslim terrorists in U.S.)

My Prison, My Home - Haleh Esfandiari (Nonfiction set in Iran)

The Samaritan's Secret - Matt Beynon Rees (Novel set in Palestine)

A Grave in Gaza - Matt Beynon Rees (Novel set in Gaza Strip)

A Time to Betray - Reza Kahlilli (Nonfiction set in Iran)

The Jewell of Medina - Sherry Jones (Novel about life of Mohamed)

Admittedly, these books are very different from each other. I don't regret reading any of them - all added to my understanding of Muslim culture - and that was the point.


  1. I have only read one of those titles. It looks like a great list. I agree, sometimes I learn just as much about a different culture from the fiction as the non- (although occasionally it's hard to tell which details are fabricated).

  2. Wow, this is an impressive list. I take my hat off to you.

  3. Have you read The Looming Tower? It's non-fiction about the events leading up to the 9-11 attacks. I found it hard to put down. It certainly added to my understanding though it also fueled quite a bit of anger, as well.

  4. Jeane, many of the books on the list were fascinating...only a couple of slow reads in the whole bunch but I learned from even those.

  5. Thanks, for the tip of the hat, Brian...much appreciated.

  6. I haven't read "Looming" yet, C.B. I've been planning to read it but can never seem to get to it for some reason...probably because I know what I will learn from it will anger me and I don't need that right now. Later, hopefully, I'll find the stomach for it.