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The year in books - 2005 saw the publication of several challenging, reflective and enjoyable reads

In a year that has witnessed the English-language publication of literally hundreds, if not thousands, of books on and from the Middle East, the following "Top 10" does not presume to list the best or most enduring of the lot.

It does, however, delineate a selection of works - including fiction and nonfiction, poetry and prose, art books and cook books - that are worthwhile for their insight, intimacy, creativity and ability to play against type.

Among them are no overblown novels (Nedjma's "The Almond"), premature memoirs (Azedeh Moaveni's "Lipstick Jihad"), dreary tomes of post 9/11 policy wonk (too numerous to name) or sensationalist studies solidifying the "clash of civilization" paradigm (ditto). The following books are neither medicine nor fashion. Instead, they are books that may actually make you want to sit down to read, think, challenge, reflect and overall, ultimately, enjoy.

Hashem El Madani: Studio Practices; Edited by Lisa Le Feuvre and Akram Zaatari; Arab Image Foundation, Mind the Gap, and the Photographers' Gallery; 128 pages, $40

This small, beautifully produced clothbound volume pays tribute to Hashem El Madani, the oldest living photographer in Saida. Madani maintained a commercial portrait studio in the southern seaside city for over 50 years and built up an archive of some 50,000 images. Stemming from an exhibition at the Photographers' Gallery in London, recently reprised at Galerie Sfeir-Semler during Beirut's Home Works III: A Forum on Cultural Practices, "Studio Practices" boasts an incisive essay by writer and philosopher Stephen Wright and an interview with the photographer by Akram Zaatari, which is, by turns, poignant, mundane and funny.

In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs: A Memoir of Iran; Christopher de Bellaigue; Harper Collins; 283 pages, $26.95

From a 33-year-old journalist and correspondent for The Economist in Tehran comes a remarkably mature and nuanced portrait of contemporary Iran. De Bellaigue structures his book as a series of interlocking character studies, and in doing so captures the complexity of a country suffering post-revolutionary poop-out syndrome and still reeling from 10 years of war with Iraq.

An Iraqi in Paris: An Autobiographical Novel; Samuel Shimon; Banipal Books; 249 pages, $20

"An Iraqi in Paris" tells the story of a man from a tiny village in Iraq who is determined to bulldoze his way to Hollywood but gets intricately ensnared in Damascus, Beirut, Nicosia and Tunis along the way. Then he gets definitively stuck in Paris, where he often ends up sleeping on the street. His escapades come off as rollicking and raunchy, fast-paced and brash. But if it were a film, "An Iraqi in Paris" wouldn't be strictly all action and adventure. There is a stillness and sadness at the core of the book, expressed through recollections of Shimon's relationship with his deaf-dumb father Kika.

A House at the Edge of Tears: A Novel; Venus Khoury-Ghata; Graywolf Press; 113 pages, $12

Using evocative and poetic language, the prolific and accomplished French-Lebanese writer Venus Khoury-Ghata delves into autobiographical material, picking apart the story of her brother's descent from poetic brilliance to addiction, madness and mental oblivion.

No God but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam; Reza Aslan; William Heinemann; 310 pages, $30

Reza Aslan's first book resists the be-my-spokesman-mode and explores the complexity of Islam, from its roots through the present day. As a writer, Aslan emphasizes the compelling, and often conflicting, use of narratives and doesn't shy away from thorny and difficult questions.

Istanbul: Memories of a City; Orhan Pamuk; Faber & Faber; 288 pages, $30

Orhan Pamuk, Turkey's best known novelist, returns to the turf he tread in "The Black Book," namely, Istanbul, the city he at once loves and mourns for. Offering competing histories and dizzying anecdotes, "Istanbul" appeals to literature buffs, urbanists, political analysts and social historians alike.

Desertion; Abdulrazak Gurnah; Bloomsbury; 262 pages, $30

The seventh novel by this Zanzibar-born writer tells a captivating tale about a British travel writer and self-styled orientalist who washes up on a shore near Mombassa in 1899. From there, the novel treads nimbly through the heyday of empire and the post-colonial legacy in Arab Africa.

Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey and Lebanon; Claudia Roden; Michael Joseph Ltd; 352 pages, $45

Anyone who grew up with either roots or interest in Middle Eastern cuisine has likely laid eyes on a food-stained Claudia Roden cookbook. More Julia Child than Betty Crocker, more elegant than efficient, her latest book, "Arabesque," mixes stories, anecdotes and recollections into timeless, delicious recipes.

Victims of a Map; Adonis, Mahmoud Darwish and Samih al-Qasim; Saqi Books; 168 pages, $17

The indefatigable Saqi Books has released a reissue of this stunning bilingual poetry edition, featuring 15 poems by each poet, English on one side, Arabic on the other. "Victims of a Map" includes 13 poems by Darwish never before published in book form, and a long work by Adonis written during the 1982 siege of Beirut, also published here for the first time.

Ashura: This Blood Spilled in My Veins; Jalal Toufic; Forthcoming Books; 107 pages, $20

This year saw the release of not one but two news books by film theorist and video artist Jalal Toufic, bringing his total tally to seven. In its short but dense essay on martyrdom, "Ashura" accomplishes what the onslaught of speculative books published in 2005 on suicide bombings do not - text-based research, intellectual inquiry and serious critical thinking.

BONUS: Stemming from three comprehensive but nonetheless contentious exhibitions, the catalogues for Sharjah Biennial 7, the "Languages of the Desert" show (which was on view this fall in Bonn and travels to Paris in April) and "Nazar: Photographs from the Arab World" are invaluable as such, as catalogues of contemporary artworks, providing much needed reference points in a region marked by a dearth of artistic documentation.

Beirut,01 02 2006
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie
The Daily Star
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