Middle East bookshelf: fiction

Continuing our search for 10 books that provide a well-rounded introduction to the Middle East, let's turn to fiction. The choice here is partly determined by what's available in translation, and the British Council helpfully provides a list of current titles (including a small amount of poetry).

I ought to start by mentioning the late Naguib Mahfouz, the only Arab winner of a Nobel prize for literature. There are plenty of his books to choose from, but new readers might start with the Cairo Trilogy (1956-57) or Children of the Alley (also known as Children of Gebelawi) which continues to annoy Islamists on the grounds of its alleged blasphemy.

Another contender in the World Literature class is Abdelrahman Munif whose Cities of Salt trilogy (1984) was described by Edward Said as "The only serious work of fiction that tries to show the effect of oil, Americans and the local oligarchy on a Gulf country."

Readers who want a taste of classical Arabic literature could start with Robert Irwin's collection, Night & Horses & the Desert; for examples of modern writing, there's Denys Johnson-Davies's collection of short stories, Under the Naked Sky (2004).

What I am looking for here, though, is not necessarily great literature but fiction that gives a flavour of the Middle East today. One obvious choice is The Yacoubian Building by Alaa al Aswany. Originally published in 2002, it's hugely popular in the region and also the top-selling Arabic novel on Amazon. It's very accessible – a kind of literary soap opera set in Cairo – and it tackles a lot of contemporary issues that are relevant to other Arab countries besides Egypt.

I'm also tempted by Sonallah Ibrahim's 1992 novel, Zaat (reviewed here and here).

I'd also like to suggest a couple of novels originally written in English. One is Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits (2005) by Moroccan-born Laila Lalami, on the topical theme of migration. The other is The Consequences of Love (2008) – a first novel by Eritrean-born Sulaiman Addonia (reviewed here and here). Ostensibly it's a love story but that is just the framework for a searing indictment of the Saudi system, as viewed from the male underclass of expatriate workers. Addonia shows the realities of everyday life in the kingdom in shocking detail. Although there are plenty of books written by women that criticise the gender segregation, this is the only one I'm aware of that does it through a man's eyes.

I'm not going to make a final choice of fiction today. I'd like to include at least two examples among the list of 10 but I'm not sure how much room there will be after making selections in the other categories. In the meantime, readers are welcome to email me with any further recommendations.