We Need Better Middle Eastern Representation in Books

by Jia

Hello! Today’s post is about something that I’ve been thinking about for a while now. As a Middle Eastern reader and blogger, it’s something I feel is very important to talk about, and almost no one does. So here we are. I don’t know how long this is going to be, but I am feeling very rant-ish. In the book community, we often have discussions about representation and how we can do better by marginalized communities. There are movements dedicated to reading and writing better books for diverse, marginalized people. But there is one community that is almost always missing from these discussions – Middle Easterners.

We need better Middle Eastern representation in books. 

No, I don’t mean better Muslim representation or better Middle Eastern diaspora representation – although that is very important too; that is a different discussion to this one. I don’t mean Middle Eastern characters in Western settings. What I mean is we need better representations of Middle Eastern characters with stories set in the Middle East.

Almost all the books I’ve read that have been set in the Middle East have in a way revolved around the wars. Allah knows I’ve been begging the universe for more books set in the modern Middle East that do not revolve around the seemingly infinite conflicts going on there. I love reading books that are set in a background or place that I am familiar with but unfortunately, there are not very many. Recently, there have been a few YA fantasy novels set in the ancient Middle East or a setting inspired by the ancient Middle East, and although I absolutely love them, I cannot help but wish for more. The Middle East is such a beautiful region, with beautiful cultures, languages, folklore, customs – beautiful everything. But I think people are too scared of this one. Almost every fictional book I’ve read set in the Middle East has either been about the wars and conflicts, or is set in an ancient Middle East (inspired) setting. There are very few books set in modern Middle Eastern countries that do not revolve around the wars, and I hope one day authors start writing books set there without the story revolving around them in some way. The Middle East is more than just a war zone.

We have become synonymous with war and suffering and tragedy, and it sucks that even in books – something that is used as a way to slip away from reality by so many readers – we cannot escape this. I am not saying that we should ignore the wars and conflicts in books, writing those stories is very important too – I’m currently working on a story set in the West Bank about characters and their lives under occupation myself. But what I mean is that we shouldn’t have to centre all our stories around them – we shouldn’t think “war zone” every time we think of the Middle East. Yes, we should definitely address the politics and conflicts in the region, but they don’t have to be the driver of the story in all of our books. I guess what I’m trying to say with this discussion post is that these stories shouldn’t be the only stories we write about the Middle East. We need to write beyond the conflicts so that people around the world realize that we aren’t just victims of endless wars. We do things just like you. We laugh and smile and watch movies and dance and party and fuck and cry about school just like the rest of you. We need to write better books about the Middle East so that we finally being to humanize the region. We need to write better books about the Middle East so that people finally begin to humanize us.

Middle Easterners have been so dehumanized for so many years and this needs to change. Books have the power to change so many things and to start so much dialogue. We need to take advantage of this. People need to realize that we’re just as human as they are. As Middle Eastern diaspora, we owe it to our people back home to do better. We need to address the lack of good Middle Eastern representation in books, and the lack of dialogue about this within the book community. Ask yourselves: how many books have you read about the Middle East? How many of those books were set in an ancient Middle East setting? And if it was a modern setting, did the story revolve around the wars/conflicts in some way?

We need to normalize writing books in the Middle East. Give me a forbidden romance, an office love story, a Middle Eastern remake of Romeo and Juliet, a modern retelling of our many folktales, a story set in Damascus about a shopkeeper and his young grandkids’ adventures, or a young couple that sneaks around their village at night. Please, give me anything. We deserve happy stories too.

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Rums the Reader October 10, 2019 - 10:50 am

This post and discussion is SO necessary and valid – I must admit, I haven’t read a book set in the Middle East, in a modern setting that doesn’t somehow mention war or conflict in some way. It’s honestly sad to think that such a rich region and it’s diverse and beautiful people are not being done justice in the way they deserve. Your work in progress sounds so great and will add a necessary story and voice. The way you ended this post is everything, it would be so great to read a happy story where war or conflict doesn’t take centre stage and there’s a rom com or like you said, the story of a shopkeeper in Damascus with his grandkids, a simple human story which has just as much impact and would mean so much. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and shedding light on this topic, it’s clear that this means a lot to you and it’s so amazing to read such an impassioned post 💛

Jia October 10, 2019 - 10:56 am

Thank you! I hope this starts a discussion or dialogue, no matter how small. Middle Easterners deserve so much better.

Siham October 11, 2019 - 8:45 am

I honestly couldn’t agree more! I’m itching to get good stories set in the Middle East but not just that but have them be written by middle easterns as well. Like most Middle Eastern inspired fantasy aren’t written by own voices – which isn’t an issue – but like I’d love to see someone who identifies as one write such novel as well!

Jia October 11, 2019 - 8:53 am

Yes of course! Middle Easterners should be leading this.

Mari @ Musings of a (Book) Girl October 14, 2019 - 2:33 pm

This was such a good post and so incredibly important! Thank you for speaking up and bring this to people’s attention. Your whole point about only being seen as a war zone was eye opening. I truly hope you start to see more of yourself and your culture in books very soon!

Sophie Li October 28, 2019 - 7:54 pm

Hi Jia,
Love this post so much. I absolutely agree and I would love to see more Middle Eastern representation in literature. Thanks for sharing!


Jia October 28, 2019 - 8:07 pm

Thank you!!


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