3 Books Set in the Middle East | Andre Aciman, Elif Shafak and Naguib Mahfouz

The Architect’s Apprentice’ by a Turkish writer, Elif Shafak

The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak

Through a young apprentice, the Indian boy called Jahan, we travel to the 16th century Istanbul during the times of the Ottoman Empire under the reign of three sultans: Suleyman, Salim and Murad. We meet many historical figures including Mimar Sinan, the famed architect of that era responsible for construction of over 300 buildings such as the Suleymaniye Mosque, the Selimiye Mosque, Mehmed Pasha Mosque and the bridge on the River Drina in Bosnia and Herzegovina. With Jahan, we also travel to the 16th century Rome, Agra in India during the time of Taj Mahal building. We learn about the Ottoman Empire and Mughal India.

‘The Architect’s Apprentice’ resembles ‘Thousand and One Nights’ consisting of many vignettes. The language is poetic, elegant, sublime, imaginative and just delightful; and the mixture of historical facts and fiction is remarkable.

This novel is a combination of history, architectural details, mythology, spirituality, magic, adventure. It evolves around meeting between the Western and Eastern culture and philosophical thought. We observe the fascinating world of the Ottoman Istanbul through the eyes of an immigrant, Jahan. The themes of discrimination of minority groups such as Romany is respectfully depicted in the novel. The position of women in the patriarchal society is shown in an interesting and nuanced way.

This book brought so much peace to my soul. Writing is so uniquely beautiful and rich with details that easily allows the reader to travel to the different magical reality of the ancient Istanbul and other corners of the world.

‘The Quarter Stories’ by an Egyptian writer, Naguib Mahfouz with an introduction by Elif Shafak

The Quarter Stories by Naguib Mahfouz

‘The Quarter Stories’ is a collection of short stories about people living in Cairo’s Gamaliya quarter, ‘a neighbourhood of demons, dancing and sweet halva’.

This collection is a bit like ‘sweet halva’. Stories included in this collection take us into the heart of rich, fluid and diverse world of the alleyways of Cairo and allow us to meet the most ordinary of its inhabitants portayed in all its complexity. We meet Cairo’s street vendors, poets, barbers, families and others.

As Elif Shafak writes in her introduction to ‘The Quarter’, Mahfouz shows us ‘the extraordinary within the ordinary, the invisible within the visible’.

Similarly like Istanbul shaped Orhan Pamuk’s writings, Cairo also created Mahfouz – the writer.
Mahfouz is often compared to Tolstoy, Dickens and Balzac with his luminous writing, lyrical and nuanced approach. He was the first writer of Arabic language to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988.

‘Out of Egypt’ by an Egyptian-American Andre Aciman

Out of Egypt by Andre Aciman

Andre Aciman is one of my favourite contemporary writers. Aciman is better known for such books asas ‘Call Me By Your Name’ andFind Me.

‘Out of Egypt’ is Aciman’s memoir of growing up in Egypt as a young Jewish boy among many languages and cultures. He was born in Alexandria in 1951 to the Sephardic Jewish parents, speaking French at home and English in school. Aciman family lived in Egypt until 1965 when due to political situation they had to leave the country moving first to Italy, France and finally settled in the USA.

The world evoked in ‘Out of Egypt’ does not exist anymore. It is a very compelling, rich memoir and great for reading along with another famous memoir ‘Out of Place’ by Dr Edward Said.

If you are interested in multicultural heritage, family tales, Jewish traditions, Egypt of the 1950s and 1960s, I am sure you will love this book.

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