7 Books About Identity and Belonging by Arab Women Writers

Malaka Gharib, author of "It Won’t Always Be Like This," recommends stories that illustrate the diversity of the MENA region and diaspora

Photo by Mohammed Hassan on Unsplash

As an Arab American woman, I can tell you that most Western portrayals of the Middle East in pop culture aren’t great. There’s a lot of war and terrorism. In movies, cities like Cairo and Beirut have that weird orange filter that makes everything look hot and polluted. And don’t get me started on the women. Why are we either a belly dancer or Princess Jasmine?

What about a story about a punk-loving Egyptian Filipino American kid from Los Angeles, who spends her summers with her dad and stepmom in the Middle East? That’s the thrust of my new graphic memoir, It Won’t Always Be Like This.  

In the book, you’ll find no dusty palette—the sky in Egypt is blue, the ocean is bluer and the desert in Qatar is a vibrant gold. I tried to portray my dad and stepmom as accurately as I could remember (in fact, they helped work on the book too). And with an open heart, I challenge my own misguided American assumptions about the region, while wrestling with my identity as a not-quite Egyptian. 

Here are 7 great graphic novels, picture books, and poetry collections by Arab women writers that provide unexpected views and visuals of the Arab world. In one story, a little girl is on the hunt for beauty and inspiration in Yemen. In another, a cartoonist tenderly recounts her father’s upbringing in a Palestinian refugee camp. Each gorgeous book illustrates the profound diversity of storytelling across the region and diaspora. 

Shubeik Lubeik by Deena Mohammed 

Meaning “your wish is my command” in Arabic, cartoonist Deena Mohammed’s Shubeik Lubeik draws up a modern-day Egypt in which wishes are for sale. The richest people get the most quality wishes (meaning, if they wish for a BMW, they get a BMW) while the poorest get third-class wishes (if they tried wishing for a BMW, they might get a toy car instead). With illustrations of bustling cityscapes and stories of Egyptians from all walks of life, the book is a thinly veiled nod to the country’s growing inequality and class division. 

Under the Sana’a Skyline by Salwa Mawari, illustrated by Mary Charara

In Salwa Mawari’s children’s picture book Under the Sana’a Skyline, a young girl named Belquis has a daunting school assignment: write an inspirational story about Yemen. But when your country is in the middle of a civil war—what good is there to say? Belquis travels through the capital asking other Yemenis for help with the assignment, and each person reveals a beautiful facet of the country that she never knew before. This tale of resiliency will leave your heart swelling with pride and solidarity for the Yemeni people.

Baddawi by Leila Abdelrazaq

In this graphic novel about refugee life, boyhood and war, cartoonist and zinester Leila Abdelrazaq tells the story of her father Ahmad as he grows up in the Palestinian refugee camp Baddawi in northern Lebanon in the 1960s. Despite the obstacles of war, poverty and statelessness, Ahmad forges ahead, finding a path to get his education and create a life for himself. Woven into the striking black and white drawings are intricate patterns from traditional Palestinian embroidery—a fitting emblem of Ahmad’s indelible identity. Although Baddawi is just 128 pages, the book offers a rich, emotional overview of the struggles faced by the Palestinian diaspora. 

Invasive Species by Marwa Helal 

“I have been missing home my entire life,” writes Egypt-born author Marwa Helal in her dazzling collection of poetry, Invasive Species. Helal recounts her quest to find home as she shuttles back and forth between Egypt and the U.S. to gain her American citizenship. Along the way, she questions how she is able to hold both her identities as an Egyptian and American, while at the same time, not being recognized as such in those countries. With themes of dislocation and displacement, Invasive Species contains so much power you can’t help but to read the poems to yourself aloud. 

The Arabic Quilt by Aya Khalil, illustrated by Anait Semirdzhyan

The Arabic Quilt, a children’s book written by Aya Khalil, follows the story of Kanzi, a little girl whose family has just moved from Egypt to the States. Feeling out of place in her new school, Kanzi comforts herself with a beautiful quilt that her teita (grandmother in Arabic) gave to her. The quilt ends up being the key to helping her feel accepted by her peers in the classroom. Packed with Arabic words and Egyptian cultural touchstones (like eating a kofta sandwich for lunch), the book is a welcoming and loving picture of Egyptian diasporic life. 

Huda F Are You? by Huda Fahmy

What happens when you’re not the only hijabi at school anymore? Egyptian American cartoonist Huda Fahmy tackles this question in her graphic memoir. After her family moves to Dearborn, a town in Michigan with a huge Arab population, Fahmy discovers that there are other girls in her class who wear the hijab, forcing her to explore her identity outside of wearing a veil. With honesty, humor and charming drawings, Fahmy’s teenage self wrestles with crushes, bad grades and sibling rivalry. It’s a refreshing take on the triumphs and tribulations of Arab immigrants and their families in the United States.

Home Is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo

Home Is Not a Country, a stunning book of poems by Sudanese American author Safia Elhillo, follows Nima, a Muslim girl who has fled her homeland with her mother in search of the American dream. She befriends a boy named Haitham who understands her frustrations of feeling like an outsider, her desire to reconnect with her country, and her longing to adopt the alter-ego of Yasmeen, a girl she thinks she should have been. Elhillo’s gorgeous prose paints a picture of a young Muslim woman slowly gaining confidence in herself. 

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