8 Novels Spotlighting Middle Eastern American Women
From Palestine to Turkey, these young women chase love, belonging, and the freedom to believe in their own desires
My mother was born and raised in Istanbul, then moved to the U.S. alone when she was twenty-four years old. Turkish, like many Middle Eastern ethnicities, is not white, nor is it part of a large minority group in the United States. It is a hazy, ambiguous ethnicity that feels stuck between two continents and two eras, mostly because it is. It is a country that on one side borders Syria, Iraq, and Iran; and on the other, Greece and Bulgaria. As a second-generation Turkish American, I’ve witnessed and felt the fear, confusion, and discrimination that my mother experienced throughout her half-life in the United States, especially post 9/11. I’ve watched, countless times, the way people’s faces change in line at the supermarket or the shopping mall when they hear her accent—one often immediately profiled as “Muslim” or the vague, fictitious term “Middle Eastern.” I later learned that “the Middle East” was a distinction coined in 1901 by a US Naval Officer and popularized by more white men during the First World War. In reality, the label is an amorphous, imaginary line simply drawn around a war-torn region with precious oil reserves. Giving it a name gave English-speaking men control over yet another thing and place they couldn’t understand.
Today, calling someone “Middle Eastern” instantly lumps them into a group of religions and nationalities which are worlds apart, yet the people that come from a certain set of countries in Eastern Europe, Western Asia, and North Africa do seem to share something: their arduous experiences of immigration and their children’s feeling of displacement, alienation, and loneliness while growing up in America.
In a small attempt to reclaim that fictitious border as something more than the stereotype of pita bread, hijabs, hummus, and Friday prayers, this is a list of eight novels that accurately and beautifully portray the complicated perspectives of American-identifying children of “Middle Eastern” immigrants. (They also, serendipitously, all happen to be written by women.)
The Four Humors by Mina Seçkin
During the summer of 2017, 20-year-old Sibel temporarily moves to Turkey to take care of her grandmother (who has recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s) and to spend three undisturbed months studying for the MCAT. Her American boyfriend, Cooper, accompanies her, but soon their relationship is tested by Sibel’s family secrets, her mind-numbing headaches, the country’s political trauma, and her obsession with the ancient medical practice known as humorism. Halfway through the summer, Sibel finds herself the one needing to be taken care of by her family rather than the one taking care of them.
In The Four Humors, Mina Seçkin eloquently conveys the feeling of being caught between two countries and believing that you don’t belong in either. Throughout this compelling novel, she philosophically questions the ideas of conservative nationalism, the various ways to express female independence, and how much börek one can eat from their grandmother’s kitchen until they can no longer move.
The Other Americans by Laila Lalami
Told through a multitude of perspectives, The Other Americans revolves around the aftermath of the death of Driss Guerraoui—father, husband, and Moroccan immigrant. His daughter Nora pauses her career as a jazz composer to return to her hometown in Mojave, California where she’d hoped she’d left for good. On the other hand, her mother, Maryam, yearns to return to her hometown in Morocco and is shaken by the hostility they face in America. Other characters emerge to tell their story, including a man named Efraín—who was a witness to Driss’s death but is afraid to speak up due to his undocumented status; Jeremy, an old friend of Nora’s and a recent Iraqi War veteran; Coleman, a detective trailing secrets; and Anderson, a neighbor trying to save his disintegrating family.
The novel contains a tapestry of voices, perspectives, faiths, upbringings, and accents which all come together to make sense of one tragedy. In a country where belonging is as much a mystery as the book’s central murder, Lalami masterfully integrates a family saga and a love story within the harsh realities of existing inside a foreign home on American soil.
Savage Tongues by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi
The past ruthlessly confronts and distorts the present in this mesmerizing novel about Arezu, an Iranian American woman, who returns to Spain for the first time since living there as a teenager. During a summer on the cusp of adulthood, Arezu had expected to reunite with her father in Marbella, but when he never showed up, she instead began a haunting affair with an older Lebanese man. The passionate, mercurial, and traumatic encounter between the two (and its rippling effects) remain unforgettable for her. Twenty years later, Arezu is back with her Israeli American best friend to excavate the apartment where the affair first occurred along with the ghosts that stole her innocence. Weaving themes of Edward Said’s Orientalism with a modern-day Lolita in a narration reminiscent of the voices of Rachel Cusk and Marguerite Duras, this book tears you apart—while keeping you just intact enough to continue turning the next page.
A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum
This powerful debut by Etaf Rum explores the experience of Deya—an 18-year-old Palestinian American woman—as she prepares to choose a husband for her undesired arranged marriage. Her conservative grandparents push this tradition, even though it is 2008 and they live in Brooklyn, and Deya finds this particular inherited fate unjust and insufferable. The narratives of Deya’s mother and grandmother are also intertwined throughout the novel. Deya notices the oppressive patterns that repeat for all the women in her family. Until one day, something changes. Believing that her parents died in a car accident when she was a girl, Deya’s world is turned upside down when a stranger drops a note on their Brooklyn doorstep, unveiling long-held family secrets that betray everything she thought she knew.
You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat
Zaina Arafat’s stunning debut follows a “love-addicted” Palestinian American protagonist navigating life in Brooklyn. When she comes out to her traditional mother, she is faced with shame and the response, “You exist too much.” The young woman’s yearnings contrast with her religious and cultural upbringing and spill over into her art—until her reckless obsessions get her admitted into a treatment center called The Ledge, where she is forced to reconcile with her past and her present desires. Collecting vignettes from New York to Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine, Arafat writes this restless and relatable character’s story into one that becomes unforgettable and extremely profound.
The Skin and Its Girl by Sarah Cypher
Betty, a queer Palestinian American woman living in the Pacific Northwest, has always been a miracle in her family. On the same day that her family’s soap factory in Nablus exploded in an air strike, Betty was stillborn but came back to life with permanent cobalt blue skin. Decades later, as a young woman, she’s faced with a life-altering decision: should she stay in the U.S. or follow the woman she loves (but in doing so continue her family’s burden of exile)? When Betty discovers her great-aunt’s notebooks, she thinks she might have found the answer, along with a pandora’s box of hidden feelings and confessions that span generations as much as continents.
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
This list wouldn’t be complete without The Idiot. Perhaps one of the most popular works with a recognizable Middle Eastern American narrator, Elif Batuman’s novel records Selin’s first year at Harvard University. Told in a vulnerable, philosophical, political, and diaristic voice, The Idiot follows a young and naive Turkish American protagonist as she navigates the historic halls of her dorm, learns as much Russian as possible, pines for an older Hungarian student who studies mathematics, exchanges emails with him (their version of modern-day love letters), and follows him across the world with the hope that he’ll finally confess his secret love for her.
Either/Or by Elif Batuman
Batuman’s sequel to The Idiot traces the older (but still naive) Selin during her sophomore year as she meets Ivan’s ex-girlfriends, attends dorm parties, investigates the mystery of her virginity, and travels across Turkey in the summertime, contemplating and conspiring against the ethical implications of becoming an artist.