What to Read When You Need to Know SWANA

By

We are just over two weeks into the year but it seems like it’s been months. As an Iranian American, these two weeks have felt like the most difficult weeks of my life. My eyes have been glued to my Twitter feed, my nights have been sleepless, and my days have been filled with the unspeakable terror of not knowing what is coming next. As a person who finds solace in the written word, it’s scary to have moments where I could find none. But it is difficult to do nothing, even when we feel powerless.

It’s become more apparent in these last two weeks how dangerous misunderstandings about race, heritage and nationalism are. We wanted to gain perspective by asking SWANA diaspora writers to recommend books that illuminate the stories, perspectives and histories too often lost in the reductive pace of the news cycle. The hope is that we might find comfort in words, and expand empathy and knowledge in a way that speaks to us, as readers.

Often, Americans use the term “Middle East.” Another name for this region is Southwest Asia, or sometimes West Asia. The acronym SWANA is often used, and stands for Southwest Asian and North Africa. This acronym is preferable because it does not have the same colonial connotations as “Middle East.”

– Michelle Zamanian, assistant features editor

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The Limits of Whiteness: Iranian Americans and the Everyday Politics of Race by Neda Maghbouleh
– Recommended by Michelle Zamanian, assistant features editors at The Rumpus

The Limits of Whiteness is a groundbreaking sociological study of Iranian Americans. Maghbouleh pulls every thread to uncover how this group is increasingly racialized but is still in the “white” racial category on the census. The sociological and historical perspective couldn’t be more timely, yet has also been relevant since the foundation of our country. I read this book in two days. It changed my life. I grew up completely outside of the Iranian diaspora community and reading this book was both an education and an affirmation of everything I had experienced growing up. While the book centers on Iranian Americans, it also addresses that people of the MENA/SWANA communities face similar stakes of being hyper-racialized while simultaneously being erased.

 

Iran Reframed: Anxieties of Power in the Islamic Republic by Narges Bajoghli
– Recommended by Neda Maghbouleh, author of The Limits of Whiteness: Iranian Americans and the Everyday Politics of Race

There are a lot of phony Iran experts on cable news and social media. In a time of scammers, Narges Bajoghli is the antidote and her new book, Iran Reframed, is the remedy. She offers a meticulously researched deep-dive into how today’s Islamic Republic uses media—to greater and lesser success—to sustain its legitimacy and relevancy. A trained documentary filmmaker, anthropologist, and professor of Middle East Studies, Bajoghli maintains full control of the story, from sweeping historical context presented in clear, compelling prose to skillfully rendered individual portraiture of her key interlocutors and their families. It is unprecedented work, and what we need right now.

 

Out of Place by Edward Said
– Recommended by Suleika Jaouad, author of Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted

Edward Said, one of the most important contemporary intellectuals of his time, published this coming-of-age memoir in 2000 and it still tops my list of best writing about the Middle East. Written with unsparing honesty, subtle humor, and rare insight, Said chronicles the story of his Palestinian upbringing and exile in the West, while also offering a unique perspective on the intricacies of Middle Eastern history and the region’s current political predicament.

 

My Shadow Is My Skin: Voices from the Iranian Diaspora edited by Katherine Whitney and Leila Emery
– Recommended by Persis Karim, contributing author and editor of Tremors: New Fiction by Iranian American Writers

As a time when the news headlines catapult us backwards forty years, it is important to read the stories and experiences of those who have already lived through several decades of the bad news about Iran and Iranian culture. What we need are the stories of Iranian Americans, not the same recycled headlines that continuously feature images of bombs falling in the darkness of some faraway Middle Eastern city—Baghdad, Aleppo, Tehran—not the angry flag-burning protests, but the quiet and determined resilience of those who left Iran and still feel tethered to that country and its people. This new collection of Iranian American creative nonfiction will be published by the University of Texas Press in March 2020 and features the work of emerging and established writers. In the Shadow of My Skin: Voices from the Iranian Diaspora offers a powerful antidote to the reductive images by giving voice to a chorus of experiences by Iranian American writers. These are vivid and powerful human stories told by a diverse collection of writers who span a range of immigration experiences. Some of these authors are born in the US, some are married into large Iranian extended families, some are born and raised in Iran and have come to America more recently. At a time when we need to see Iranian Americans are indeed here, and that their stories matter, we now have a wonderful new collection that offers more nuanced and powerful images than those being continuously recycled in the headlines.

 

Hurma by Ali al-Muqri
– Recommended by Zain Aslam, poetry editor at The Rumpus
Ali al-Muqri’s novel Hurma brilliantly presents the complex contradictions that frame contemporary Arab and Muslim society. The main character, nameless throughout the novel, is a young woman coming of age in Sanaa, Yemen. Through a fast-paced, angst-ridden, first-person narrative, we follow this woman as she studies Modern Arab Literature in university, explores her sexuality, gets married (twice), and eventually joins guerilla forces as a mujahideen. From her perspective, we are enraptured in a cast of somewhat baffling characters. Her father is a hypocritical but religious traditionalist. Her brother is a Marxist turned Islamic extremist. Her sister is something of a sexual deviant, though she’s admired by her father and her community—mainly thanks to her wealth. Her neighbors are all perverts and voyeurs who share smutty videos with each other on their rooftops. Her first husband is an incredibly devout Muslim who is impotent. Her second husband is a well-regarded Islamic scholar who is, at the same time, a heinous sexual predator. The reader becomes absorbed in these enigmatic players and the various conflicts that unravel our heroine’s world. Ali al-Muqri paints his characters with such an honest hand that we get to explore these polar contradictions with sympathetic eyes. We’re placed within a society that’s both modern and idyllic, both incredibly violent and restrictive but also fragile. Hurma provides a glimpse into a world that’s been torn apart by so many foreign powers, where the only path to true contentment is on the other side of madness.

 

The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali
– Recommended by Naz Deravian, author of Bottom of the Pot: Persian Recipes and Stories

With the escalating tensions between the US and Iran, and the tragic downing of Ukraine Airlines Flight 752 which took the lives of one hundred and seventy five innocent people, it’s easy to feel hopeless and despondent—to feel sorrow, anger and immeasurable grief. As an Iranian Canadian, at times like this I’m often turned to by friends for answers, political opinions, and history lessons. I’m happy to share what I know but I don’t always have the answers, and I’m continually working on educating myself. If there’s one thing that I’m certain of it’s that the way forward is to arm ourselves with knowledge, understanding, and empathy. This is why Marjan Kamali’s The Stationery Shop is such a timely novel. Kamali tenderly and adeptly weaves history, Iranian politics, and America’s role in it with a heartbreaking love story that speaks to our collective human condition. This is the book I have been recommending to everyone who is interested in learning more about Iran and its culture, while also losing themselves in a time-honored story of love found and lost.

 

Song of a Captive Bird by Jasmin Darznik
– Recommended by Dunya Mikhail, author of In Her Feminine Sign and The Beekeeper

This novel, about the life of Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad, reminds us of the power of art, and in particular a female’s art, in a patriarchal society. This brave poet continues to inspire generations of women around the world.

 

Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram
– Recommended by Olivia Abtahi, author of two forthcoming novels, Perfectly Parvin and Twin Flames

Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram is a great introduction to Iran and Iranian culture. The majority of the book is set in the Iranian city of Yazd and does an excellent job of explaining the many different religions, languages, food, and current events of Iran. As the protagonist, Darius, struggles with the clashing of his American and Iranian identities, readers will learn more about the tensions and trials of being both SWANA and American from a deeply personal perspective.

 

If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan
– Recommended by Adib Khorram, author of Darius the Great Is Not Okay

Sara Farizan’s If You Could Be Mine was the first book I ever read that took place in Iran. Not only that, it was the first book I ever read about Iranians that wasn’t about them being terrorists, or taxi drivers, or quirky bodega owners. It was about Iranians—queer Iranians!—living their lives, falling in love, getting their hearts broken… I didn’t know how much I needed to see Iranians being centered in a story about Iran until I read this book. I still pick it up whenever I need to remember what it feels like to inhabit our heritage.

 

Brownbook
– Recommended by Malaka Gharib, author of I Was Their American Dream: A Graphic Memoir

I choose not a book but a magazine called Brownbook. It’s a magazine produced in the Middle East and North Africa of culture, music, art and design in the region. Outsiders often approach the Arab world with preconceived notions—and reading Brownbook, for me, is probably one of the quickest ways that people can change their perceptions of the region. In the issues I’ve read, there are pieces including an interview with an eccentric cactus collector, a mini-zine on how to speak Nubian, and a photo series with taxi drivers in different cities in Egypt. These offbeat stories paint a picture of young people’s pride in the beauty of the region—and their desire to celebrate their roots.

 

Hard Damage by Aria Aber
– Recommended by Bobuq Sayed, writer, multidisciplinary artist, and editor of un Magazine

Reading Hard Damage felt like a spiritual reckoning, a punch to the gut, a sharp dose of an abandoned home. I held the book close to my chest and inhaled the pages urgently. I translated passages in haphazard Farsi to my parents. I felt the ache of the exile in diaspora as if for the first time. Incorporating lyric prose and documentary elements, Aber articulates the longing of displacement with devastating force, striking her pen against a tradition of Afghans, and Afghan women in particular, being spoken for and over by Western medias and governments. This is defiant work, gorgeous and sculpted, diligent and tender, from a poet to watch out for.

 

Iran, Empire of the Mind by Michael Axworthy
– Recommended by Dina Nayeri, author of The Ungrateful Refugee

To fight against the terrifying characterization of Iranians that’s forming in America’s collective imagination today I recommend, Iran, Empire of the Mind by Michael Axworthy. It’s an easy read, but also a comprehensive and well-researched introduction to Iranian history and culture that will give readers a fair bit of respect for all that Iranians have accomplished and all the ways that the Western world has exploited and sewn discord in the country.

 

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak
– Recommended by Sahar Mustafah, author of Code of the West and the forthcoming The Beauty of Your Face

A transgender woman. An overweight singer. A dwarf. These are just a few minor characters in 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World surviving on the fringes of Istanbul society. They are bound to Tequila Leila, a sex worker on “Hairy Kafka Street” with an enormous heart. I was instantly attracted to Leila’s fighting spirit—from her eccentric birth to her bold reclamation of her identity as a woman and a human being. Through Leila’s episodic memories of abuse and small triumphs, Shafak demonstrates our failed humanity as well as our boundless capacity for hope. Her portrayals of bigotry and violence are unflinching; her displays of sheer compassion and joy helped me recover. Shafak offers views of Turkey and its complex political and religious history, reminding us that a single place holds multiple narratives from the most unlikely and often unheard voices. At moments I was fighting back tears; at moments, Shafak had me laughing through this stunning journey of one woman’s life and death. This is a novel of transcendent optimism—as people of the Middle East infinitely possess.

 

Knife Sharpener by Sargon Boulus
– Recommended by Christina Yoseph, writer and illustrator

Sargon Boulus was my paternal grandmother’s younger brother, and this collection, which he began putting together before his death in 2007, was published posthumously. Though my family was close with him, I didn’t know him well myself, so I really appreciate hearing their stories about what a great person he was. That Sargon is still considered such an important poet in the Arab world is humbling to me. My paternal family is Assyrian, and from the Ottoman- and Kurdish-led genocide during WWI to the rise of ISIS in the early 2010s, Assyrians are a continually persecuted ethnoreligious minority in their homeland (Iran, Iraq, where my family is from, Syria, and Turkey). In poems like “The Siege” and “Incident in a Mountain Village,” Sargon communicates the feelings of fear and tension that are unique to being an Assyrian person in Iraq while also illustrating the resilience of his countrypeople in the face of death. I appreciate that his poems are specific to the experience of having lived in Iraq. They don’t obfuscate the pain and death the Iraqi people experience; they don’t make it accessible to audiences who seek to romanticize the ongoing suffering of the Assyrians in Iraq, or of people in the Middle East in general.

 

The Conference of the Birds by Attar
– Recommended by Sholeh Wolpé, translator of The Conference of the Birds by Attar

This masterpiece offers us a roadmap towards “unity in diversity.” This is a modern and accessible translation. Translating it changed my soul. Reading it will transform yours.

Release the fantasy of existence,
and true existence will wrap around you.
But if you stick to the illusions of this life,
from that nothing, your share will be nothing too.