North African Authors

When I unexpectedly moved to Tunisia for work in late 2017, I had no idea what to expect. Packing my suitcase, I half-heartedly tried to look for novelists from the country to read during my move but promptly gave up as I couldn’t find any in translation. Fast-forward to the end of 2020 and I look back on the eight months I lived in Tunis fondly. The beautiful Mediterranean country has such rich heritage and culture, which surprised and delighted me.

So now, I am renewing my quest to discover not only Tunisian literature, but novels from across Northern Africa. Again, I’ve tried to select a range of books from historical fiction to thrillers, canonical classics to contemporary authors from each country in the region. Yet this time, pretty much every book is a work of translated fiction (mostly from Arabic or French). After being involved in the #translatedgems project on Instagram (@aminasbookshelf), I’m much more aware of the need for translated fiction, and I hope this helps fuel the demand to ensure multi-cultural literature is available in English. So, whether you’re reading in the original language or in translation, feel free to tag me and #translatedgems in any of your posts, if you choose to read any of these books!

There’s always a country I struggle to find a book for and this time it’s Western Sahara. After researching the country’s history as a disputed territory, I was saddened to learn more about the ongoing conflict that has made many of the indigenous population (Sahrawi’s) refugees. Although I didn’t discover any novelists, FiSahara International Film Festival is an annual event that takes place in a refugee camp in Algeria where the film industry works with Sahrawi refugees to celebrate art and raise awareness of the humanitarian crises. This is definitely an initiative to support.

Please comment / email / DM me on social media if you have a great book to highlight from a Sahrawi author that’s available in English translation.

Algeria

Women of Algiers in their Apartment by Assia Djebar

This collection of three long stories, three short ones, and a theoretical postface by one of North Africa’s leading writers depicts the plight of urban Algerian women who have thrown off the shackles of colonialism only to face a postcolonial regime that denies and subjugates them even as it celebrates the liberation of men.

Denounced in Algeria for its political criticism, Djebar’s book quickly sold out its first printing of 15,000 copies in France and was hugely popular in Italy.

Genre / Themes: Post colonialism, feminism

Nedjma by Kateb Yacine

Nedjma is the story of a beautiful woman (the titular character), with whom four men are in love. She is the wife of a man she does not care for and the unwilling cause of rivalry among many suitors, an allegory for the country of Algeria.

Genre / Themes: Post colonialism, historical fiction, romance

Egypt

The Granada Trilogy by Radwa Ashour

This historical novel charts the history of Granada and the tensions between Muslims and Christians in medieval Spain. It follows the family of Abu Jaafar, the bookbinder – his wife, widowed daughter-in-law, her two children, and his two apprentices – after Christopher Columbus and his entourage return from the New World with a triumphant parade featuring exotic plants and animals and human captives.

Part I won the Cairo International Book Fair “1994 Book of the Year Award.” The Trilogy won the First Prize of the First Arab Woman Book Fair (Cairo, Nov. 1995)

Genre / Themes: Historical fiction, the crusades, religion, conquest, colonialism

Brooklyn Heights by Miral Al Tahawy

Hend, an Arabic teacher and would-be writer in her late thirties, emigrates to the United States from Cairo with her eight year old son after the painful break-up of her marriage.

Genre / Themes: Contemporary, immigration, multi culturalism, divorce

Libya

Bleeding of the Stone by Ibrahim El Koni

The moufflon, a wild sheep prized for its meat, continues to survive in the remote mountain desert of southern Libya. Only Asouf, a lone bedouin who cherishes the desert and identifies with its creatures, knows exactly where it is to be found.

Genre / Themes: Magical realism, environmentalism, mysticism

Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar

Exiled from Libya, teenage Nuri lives in with his father in Cairo after the sudden death of his mother. But, when his father disappears in mysterious circumstances in Switzerland, he must find his own way in the world.

Genre / Themes: Grief, thriller, whydunit, traumatic childhood

In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar

Set in Libya in 1979, the book follows the plight of Suleiman, a nine-year-old boy living in Tripoli. His father’s clandestine anti-Qaddafi activities bring about searches, stalking and telephone eavesdropping by the state police, and his vulnerable young mother resorts to alcohol to bury her anxiety and anger.

This debut novel was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize.

Genre / Themes: Political instability, family dynamics, revolution, political persecution

Morocco

For Bread Alone by Mohamed Choukri

An autobiography by one of the Arab world’s most important and widely read authors, this book has been described by Tennessee Williams as a true document of human desperation, shattering in its impact. Driven by famine from their home in the Rif, Mohamed’s family walks to Tangiers in search of a better life.

Genre / Themes: Classic, poverty, migration, family relationships

Lullaby by Leïla Slimani

Myriam, a French-Moroccan lawyer, lives with her husband Paul and two young children in Paris. When Myriam decides to return to work, she finds the perfect nanny. But, when the children end up dead, the novel goes backwards in time to understand the nanny’s past and how the relationship between mother and nanny soured.

Genre / Themes: Contemporary, dark, thriller

Rating: Four stars (read the full review here)

Tunisia

Azizi and the Little Bird by Laila Koubaa

My first recommendation for little babbies! This picturebook is perfect for those looking for diverse, multicultural presents for ages four to seven. In this contemporary fairy tale, Azizi lives in a country governed by greedy rulers who capture all blue birds and lock them up in a big cage in the courtyard of their palace. The people suffer and live in fear, until one day a little blue bird escapes from the cage. Together with Azizi it sets out on a long journey to free the people of their cruel and relentless rulers.

Genre / Themes: Children’s book, picture book, fairytale, magic, allegory, quest

The Scents of Marie-Claire by Habib Selmi

Set in Paris, it’s about the extraordinary relationship between the Tunisian-born narrator and the French Marie-Claire.

Genre / Themes: Contemporary, romance, multi-cultural relationships, interracial love