What does it mean to be Arab American? Artists who are a part of the Arab diaspora are an integral part of the American literary landscape, and their works help us gain a fuller picture of their wide-ranging lived experiences. Arab American Heritage Month is the perfect time to celebrate some of the must-read books that celebrate the diversity, beauty, and complexity of the Arab American community — as well as the authors who so masterfully share these stories.
From best-selling fiction to children’s books, these six selections will not only help readers who are looking to connect with (or learn more about) the Arab diaspora, but they all highlight the indelible, and essential, marks Arab American authors are leaving on the whole of American literature.
A Country Called Amreeka: U.S. History Retold Through Arab-American Lives by Alia Malek
Journalist and lawyer Alia Malek expands the conversation around U.S. history in A Country Called Amreeka: U.S. History Retold Through Arab-American Lives. Her unique perspective as a child of immigrants and her journalistic expertise come together in this 2009 release to present a vulnerable portrait of how specific events over the past 40-plus years have impacted Arab American families.
Malek is deeply invested in civil rights work, which is abundantly clear in this captivating book — and in her writing at large. Here, she uses each chapter to discuss a different moment in American history — beginning in 1963 — and illustrates how the stories of the Arab diaspora are not only part of the story of America, but a vital part of understanding U.S. history in its entirety.
How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America by Moustafa Bayoumi
What is it like to navigate multiple realities? What happens when prejudice and public perception threaten your life and livelihood? How do you navigate the everyday violence of microaggressions and the very real threat of being betrayed and berated by neighbors and so-called friends in what is supposed to be “the land of the free”? Egyptian American author Moustafa Bayoumi tackles all those questions and more in How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America.
After 9/11, while many Americans called for unity and emphasized community, Arab Americans were subjected to life-altering discrimination. Bayoumi shares the stories of folks like Sami, a young marine, and Rasha, an FBI detainee, among others as they navigate the world. Devastatingly honest, How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? grapples with how to survive — and wonders about the possibility of thriving in a society that both desires your contributions and simultaneously denies your humanity.
Beyond Memory: An Anthology of Contemporary Arab American Creative Nonfiction by Pauline Kaldas & Khaled Mattawa
There are a wealth of cultures and life experiences among Arab Americans; Beyond Memory: An Anthology of Contemporary Arab American Creative Nonfiction is a wonderful representation of just some of those stories. This non-fiction offering from award-winning authors Pauline Kaldas and Khaled Mattawa celebrates the diversity of the Arab American experience by highlighting voices from Egypt, Palestine, Libya, Syria and Lebanon.
As editors of this volume, Kaldas and Mattawa have skillfully curated the narratives presented in this book in order to present a dynamic vision of the Arab diaspora, and the writers they’ve selected share their experiences in styles as varied as their stories. This anthology is a must-read work for anyone who loves experimental writing or creative nonfiction.
The Thirty Names of Night by Zeyn Joukhadar
A story about heritage, community, and transformation is at the heart of Zeyn Joukhadar’s 2020 novel. In an interview with NPR, Joukhadar shared that this novel is an attempt “to get at that sort of wordless complexity that lies in a space beyond language” — and it absolutely succeeds.
The Thirty Names of Night explores the power of both family history and queer community as the reader follows a Syrian American trans boy who feels most himself when he’s painting murals on the abandoned buildings of Manhattan’s Little Syria.
One night, a chance encounter with an artist’s diary leads our protagonist on a journey of self-discovery — one that touches upon all who came before him; his ever-shifting identity in the present; and all of the possibilities that may await in the future. Lyrical and richly imagined, Joukhadar’s page-turner won both a Lambda Literary Award and a Stonewall Book Award.
The Arabic Quilt: An Immigrant Story by Aya Khalil
Sure to be a hit during story time, this next book is the perfect addition to any classroom. Educator and award-winning author Aya Khalil crafted an exceptional story for young readers in The Arabic Quilt: An Immigrant Story — a book that’s made even better thanks to fantastic illustrations by Anait Semirdzyhan.
When young Kanzi writes a poem about a gift from her grandmother, she sets in motion a series of events that leads to cultural exchange and brand-new connections. Throughout the story, Khalil emphasizes the beauty of diversity and the wonderful discoveries that await curious and welcoming young minds.
This book can also introduce audiences who may be unfamiliar with Arab American experiences to new cultural norms, thus affirming children who are all too often underrepresented. Full of moments of cultural appreciation and the knowledge that embracing differences is essential, The Arabic Quilt is a story readers of all ages can connect with.
You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat
Imagine hearing “you exist too much” after sharing a vulnerable truth. In Zaina Arafat’s 2020 release, a Palestinian American young woman is met with this response after disclosing that she’s queer. To make matters more impressive, You Exist Too Much is Arafat’s Lambda Literary Award-winning debut novel.
As NPR puts it, the book is “a narrative about borders, both physical and mental” — our protagonist confronts these borders as well as the depths of her own desires and struggles. In doing so, she begins the process of understanding herself, all while navigating life’s many other challenges. This honest and beautiful offering from Arafat is simply impossible to put down.