“It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive or who had ever been alive.” – James Baldwin
It was with horror and disgust that I read about Trump’s ban on immigration. There are so many reasons this executive order is problematic and inhumane- reasons that are at the heart of passionate and necessary conversations taking place across the country. Soon after the ban’s announcement, stories began flooding in of the people whose lives have been thrown into turmoil: Refugee families with small children who were already approved to enter the country and whose futures are now uncertain; people who are now separated from their loved ones for an undetermined amount of time; Iraqi and Afghan interpreters who put their lives on the line for U.S. soldiers and are now blocked from entering this country.
It is particularly callous and shameful that Trump signed this executive order on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Much has been written about the similarities between European Jews trying to flee the Nazis and current Syrian refugees. Notably, Anne Frank’s family was also denied entry as refugees into the U.S. In eighth grade, we had a year-long Holocaust unit. We read Number the Stars and Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. We watched Schindler’s List. We said “never forget” and “never again”. We were all certain that, if we’d been in Germany in the thirties and forties,we wouldn’t have been silent.
We stand at the edge of one of the most important periods of our lives. We cannot become immune to the suffering of others simply because they are not in front of us. One of literature’s greatest powers is the ability to illustrate our shared humanity and evoke empathy within the reader. To that end, here are some recommended books from the countries on Trump’s list:
From the Iran–Iraq War through the Occupation, this collection of fictional short stories presents an uncompromising view of the relationship between the West and Iraq, as well as a haunting critique of the postwar refugee experience. Blending allegory with historical realism and subverting expectations in an unflinching comedy of the macabre, these tales manage to be both phantasmagoric and shockingly real. For all the despair and darkness portrayed in these gripping stories—from spotlighting hostage-video makers in Baghdad to following human trafficking in Serbia’s forests—what lingers more than the haunting images of war is the spirit of defiance and of indefatigable courage.
Shahriar Mandanipour evokes a pair of young lovers who find each other—despite surreal persecution and repressive parents—through coded messages and internet chat rooms; and triumphantly their story entwines with an account of their creator’s struggle. Inventive, darkly comic and profoundly touching, Censoring an Iranian Love Story celebrates both the unquenchable power of the written word and a love that is doomed, glorious, and utterly real.
This modern literary masterpiece follows the interwoven destinies of five women—including a wealthy middle-aged housewife, a prostitute, and a schoolteacher—as they arrive by different paths to live together in an abundant garden on the outskirts of Tehran. Drawing on elements of Islamic mysticism and recent Iranian history, this unforgettable novel depicts women escaping the narrow confines of family and society, and imagines their future living in a world without men.
Things I’ve Been Silent About: Memories of a Prodigal Daughter by Azar Nafisi (Iran)
In this stunning personal story of growing up in Iran, Azar Nafisi shares her memories of living in thrall to a powerful and complex mother against the backdrop of a country’s political revolution. A girl’s pain over family secrets, a young woman’s discovery of the power of sensuality in literature, the price a family pays for freedom in a country beset by upheaval—these and other threads are woven together in this beautiful memoir as a gifted storyteller once again transforms the way we see the world.
In the Country of Men: A Novel by Hisham Matar (Libya)
Nine-year-old Suleiman’s days are circumscribed by the narrow rituals of childhood: outings to the ruins surrounding Tripoli, games with friends played under the burning sun, exotic gifts from his father’s constant business trips abroad. But his nights have come to revolve around his mother’s increasingly disturbing bedside stories full of old family bitterness. And then one day Suleiman sees his father across the square of a busy marketplace, his face wrapped in a pair of dark sunglasses. Wasn’t he supposed to be away on business yet again? Why is he going into that strange building with the green shutters? Why did he lie?
Suleiman is soon caught up in a world he cannot hope to understand—where the sound of the telephone ringing becomes a portent of grave danger; where his mother frantically burns his father’s cherished books; where a stranger full of sinister questions sits outside in a parked car all day; where his best friend’s father can disappear overnight, next to be seen publicly interrogated on state television. This novel was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize.
When Hisham Matar was a nineteen-year-old university student in England, his father was kidnapped. One of the Qaddafi regime’s most prominent opponents in exile, he was held in a secret prison in Libya. Hisham would never see him again. But he never gave up hope that his father might still be alive. “Hope,” as he writes, “is cunning and persistent.”
Twenty-two years later, after the fall of Qaddafi, the prison cells are empty and there is no sign of Jaballa Matar. Hisham returns with his mother and wife to the homeland he never thought he’d go back to again. The Return is the story of what he found there. It is at once an exquisite meditation on history, politics, and art, a brilliant portrait of a nation and a people on the cusp of change, and a disquieting depiction of the brutal legacy of absolute power. Above all, it is a universal tale of loss and love and of one family’s life.
The Orchard of Lost Souls: A Novel by Nadifa Mohamed (Somalia)
Nine-year-old Deqo has left the vast refugee camp where she was born, lured to the city by the promise of her first pair of shoes. Kawsar, a solitary widow, is trapped in her little house with its garden clawed from the desert, confined to her bed after a savage beating in the local police station. Filsan, a young female soldier, has moved from Mogadishu to suppress the rebellion growing in the north. As the country is unraveled by a civil war that will shock the world, the fates of these three women are twisted irrevocably together.
Nadifa Mohamed was born in Hargeisa and was exiled before the outbreak of war. In The Orchard of Lost Souls, she returns to Hargeisa in her imagination. Intimate, frank, brimming with beauty and fierce love, this novel is an unforgettable account of ordinary lives lived in extraordinary times.
A dozen years after his last visit, Jeebleh returns to his beloved Mogadiscio to see old friends. He is accompanied by his son-in-law, Malik, a journalist intent on covering the region’s ongoing turmoil. What greets them at first is not the chaos Jeebleh remembers, however, but an eerie calm enforced by ubiquitous white-robed figures bearing whips.
Meanwhile, Malik’s brother, Ahl, has arrived in Puntland, the region notorious as a pirates’ base. Ahl is searching for his stepson, Taxliil, who has vanished from Minneapolis, apparently recruited by an imam allied to Somalia’s rising religious insurgency. The brothers’ efforts draw them closer to Taxliil and deeper into the fabric of the country, even as Somalis brace themselves for an Ethiopian invasion. Jeebleh leaves Mogadiscio only a few hours before the borders are breached and raids descend from land and sea. As the uneasy quiet shatters and the city turns into a battle zone, the brothers experience firsthand the derailments of war.
Crossbones is a fascinating look at individuals caught in the maw of zealotry, profiteering, and political conflict, by one of our most highly acclaimed international writers.
In a desperate attempt to save his mother and two sisters from famine and disease, a young man leaves his native village in Sudan and sets out alone to seek work in the city. This is the beginning of Hamza’s long journey. Hunger and destitution lead him ever farther from his home: first from Sudan to Egypt, where the lack of work forces him to join a band of smugglers, and finally from Egypt to Europe-Italy, France, Holland-where he experiences first-hand the harsh world of migrant laborers and the bitter realities of life as an illegal immigrant. Tarek Eltayeb’s first novel offers an uncompromising depiction of poverty in both the developed and the developing world. With its simple yet elegant style, Cities without Palms tells of a tragic human life punctuated by moments of true joy.
They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan by
Between 1987 and 1989, Alepho, Benjamin, and Benson, like tens of thousands of young boys, took flight from the massacres of Sudan’s civil war. They became known as the Lost Boys. With little more than the clothes on their backs, sometimes not even that, they streamed out over Sudan in search of refuge. Their journey led them first to Ethiopia and then, driven back into Sudan, toward Kenya. They walked nearly one thousand miles, sustained only by the sheer will to live.
They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky is the three boys’ account of that unimaginable journey. With the candor and the purity of their child’s-eye-vision, Alephonsian, Benjamin, and Benson recall by turns: how they endured the hunger and strength-sapping illnesses—dysentery, malaria, and yellow fever; how they dodged the life-threatening predators—lions, snakes, crocodiles and soldiers alike—that dogged their footsteps; and how they grappled with a war that threatened continually to overwhelm them. Their story is a lyrical, captivating, timeless portrait of a childhood hurled into wartime and how they had the good fortune and belief in themselves to survive.
Sabriya portrays life in Damascus in the 1920s. Central to the story is Sabriya’s journey to self-knowledge, intertwined with the rise and eclipse of national and feminist awareness during her painful life. The national revolt is crushed by superior foreign power and Sabriya’s personal emancipation is stifled by the traditional values of a patriarchal society.
Written from the point of view of a young girl passionately committed to the nationalist cause but unable, because of her sex, to take an active part, it seethes with the frustrated energy of the reluctant bystander and vividly expresses the terror of civilians living in a city rocked nightly by explosions.
A well-known novelist and journalist from the coastal city of Jableh, Samar Yazbek witnessed the beginning four months of the uprising first-hand and actively participated in a variety of public actions and budding social movements. Throughout this period she kept a diary of personal reflections on, and observations of, this historic time. Because of the outspoken views she published in print and online, Yazbek quickly attracted the attention and fury of the regime, vicious rumours started to spread about her disloyalty to the homeland and the Alawite community to which she belongs.
The lyrical narrative describes her struggle to protect herself and her young daughter, even as her activism propels her into a horrifying labyrinth of insecurity after she is forced into living on the run, detained multiple times, excluded from the Alawite community, and renounced by her family, her hometown and even her childhood friends. With rare empathy and journalistic prowess Samar Yazbek compiled oral testimonies from ordinary Syrians all over the country. Filled with snapshots of exhilarating hope and horrifying atrocities, she offers us a wholly unique perspective on the Syrian uprising.
Laura Kasinof studied Arabic in college and moved to Yemen a few years later—after a friend at a late-night party in Washington, DC, recommended the country as a good place to work as a freelance journalist. When she first moved to the capital city of Sanaa in 2009, she was the only American reporter based in the country. She quickly fell in love with Yemen’s people and culture, and even found herself the star of a local TV soap opera.
When antigovernment protests broke out in Yemen in 2011, part of the revolts sweeping the Arab world at the time, she contacted the New York Times to see if she could cover the rapidly unfolding events for the newspaper. Laura never planned to be a war correspondent, but found herself in the middle of brutal government attacks on peaceful protesters. As foreign reporters were rounded up and shipped out of the country, Laura managed to elude the authorities but found herself increasingly isolated—and even more determined to report on what she saw.
“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” – Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird