Author Saleem Haddad Recommends Five Favorite Books
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Saleem Haddad is a writer and aid worker. Born in Kuwait City to an Iraqi-German mother and a Palestinian-Lebanese father, he currently divides his time between London and the Middle East. His debut novel Guapa, set over the course of 24 hours in the life of a young gay Arab man, is out now from Other Press and was published in Italian by edizioni e/o.
Waguih Ghali: Beer in the Snooker Club
I read this little-known cult classic, published in 1964, in just 24 hours while in lockdown in Sana’a, Yemen in 2012, and it was ‘Beer in the Snooker Club’ that—more than any other novel before and since—helped me find my voice as a writer. Ram, the novel’s protagonist, is a British-educated Egyptian who is trying to find his way in the heaving political climate of 1950s Egypt. The contradictions in the political identities and values of Ram and his group of friends are sensitively evoked through humor, sincerity, and copious amounts of alcohol, drugs and sex. Ghali tragically committed suicide soon after the novel was published, yet among lovers of Arab literature this remains a hidden gem in the canon of twentieth-century Egyptian fiction, and a rallying cry for a cosmopolitanism that—in our current global political climate—remains as important as ever.
Sadegh Hedayat: The Blind Owl
Published in 1941, this dark, twisted novel was swiftly banned in Iran, with rumors that its readers were driven to suicide. Now considered a masterpiece of Iranian literature, the story of a decorator of Persian pen cases who experiences strange visions is rife with surrealism and layered dream sequences. A beautiful meditation on death, despair and desire; fans of Edgar Allen Poe will particularly like this one.
Ghassan Kanafani: Men in the Sun
In this short but powerful novella, Ghassan Kanafani, one of Palestine’s leading writers and thinkers who was assassinated by the Israelis in 1972, manages to capture the anxiety and quagmire facing Palestinians. Beautifully written, it tells the story of three Palestinian refugees in Iraq who, desperate to find work in Kuwait, attempt to smuggle themselves across the border in a large, empty, water tank. The weather is stifling, and the results are heart breaking. In the wake of the global refugee crisis, the tragic fate of the three men remains relevant for our times.
Colm Toibin: Story of the Night
Set (mainly) in Argentina in the 1980s, Toibin skilfully weaves together the major political and social issues of that period: from the meddling of the US government in Latin American politics to the rise of neoliberal ideology and the AIDS crisis. Above all, however, Story of the Night is also a tragic love story: between a gay son and his domineering mother, and that same man and his closeted lover. This is one of Colm Toibin’s lesser-known novels but it is by far my favorite, and was a huge inspiration for my own novel.
Han Kang: The Vegetarian
Han Kang deservedly won the Man Booker International Prize this year for The Vegetarian, a story of a woman who decides to stop eating meat to ward off violent dreams. And yet the story is never told from her perspective; instead, we are left to watch the horrifying action unfold through the eyes of those around her: her husband, her sister, and her sister’s husband. The premise of this story seems simple enough, but it is what Kang does with it that is truly remarkable, making this novel a much broader meditation on human violence and the limits of empathy.