The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist by Emile Habiby (Interlink, $13). Habiby’s dreamy, darkly comic 1974 novel—about a dim-witted Palestinian peasant who works as an informer for the Israeli government and is suddenly abducted by an alien—remains one of the greatest works of satire in Arabic literature. It also offers a new and absolutely hilarious way of looking at the absurd tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat (Grove, $14). Widely recognized as one of the most important literary works of the 20th century in any language, The Blind Owl is a Kafkaesque novel about a lonely (and possibly psychotic) man living in a terrifying nightmare world of his own making, where the only person he can trust with his thoughts is his own shadow.
A Mind at Peace by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar (Archipelago, $20). Written by the man who almost single-handedly defined the modern Turkish novel, A Mind At Peace follows a group of westernized, urban intellectuals in 1930s Istanbul as they drift through the city in a permanent state of ennui, seemingly caught between the past and the present, tradition and modernity, the East and the West.
The Day the Leader Was Killed by Naguib Mahfouz (Anchor, $13). The Nobel Prize–winning novelist has written dozens of internationally renowned books. But this compact novella, which chronicles the lives of a middle-class family in Cairo in the years leading up to the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, remains as timely a story today as it was when Mahfouz wrote it in 1985.
Samarkand by Amin Maalouf (Interlink, $15). Though written in French, this historical novel by the inimitable Lebanese novelist Amin Maalouf is a masterpiece that I try to read at least once a year. The double narrative intercuts the story of the great poet and mystic Omar Khayyam, who composed the Rubaiyat in the 12th century, with the adventures of an American scholar on the hunt for Khayyam’s lost manuscript in the 20th century.
—Writer and religious scholar Reza Aslan is the author of the international best-seller No god but God. He recently served as editor of the anthology Tablet & Pen, a collection of 20th-century literature from the Middle East
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