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Suad Amiry: reading in Arabic and English in the West Bank

Suad Amiry just published her seventh book, the novel “Mothers of Strangers.”Adolfo Fredriani

Suad Amiry still seems surprised that she is a writer, though she just published her seventh book, the novel “Mothers of Strangers.” “I became a writer by accident,” the architect says. She published her first book at 50, the memoir “Sharon and My Mother-in-Law,” about her life in Ramallah. Amiry, who grew up in Jordan, studied architecture at the American University in Beirut, the University of Michigan, and the University of Edinburgh. She moved to Ramallah in 1981, where she still lives.

BOOKS: What did you bring with you to read on your book tour?

AMIRY: I have downloaded “We Wrote in Symbols: Love and Lust by Arab Women Writers” edited by Selma Dabbagh. It just came out in America. It covers Arab women writers over 2,000 years. Because it’s not what I would normally read it’s very interesting.


BOOKS: How would you describe yourself as a reader?

AMIRY: I read a lot in Arabic. I read two books in Arabic for every one English. When I studied in English, I discovered I’m dyslexic in that language, which made me a very slow reader. I had to take a special course.

BOOKS: What kind of books do you like to read?

AMIRY: I’m very interested in historic books. For example, the last book I reread is Sinan Antoon’s novel “The Baghdad Eucharist,” which is about the Iraqi War and how Iraq changed as a result of the war. I’m always interested to see how novelists deal with history. I’m also interested in European and American writers. I recently read Sally Rooney’s “Normal People.” That was fantastic. I just got her “Conversations With Friends.” The last book I read was Lucia Berlin’s “Manual for Cleaning Women.” That was amazing for me.

BOOKS: Who are some of your favorite Arab writers?


AMIRY: My favorite is Hisham Matar, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his memoir “The Return.” He’s a Libyan architect whose father was kidnapped and imprisoned by the Quadafi regime. It’s a very personal story about losing a father but also a historic story about the Arab world. What touched me the most is how delicate his writing is. He writes in English.

BOOKS: Are there many Arabic writers writing in English now?

AMIRY: Now you have a younger and much bigger scope of young Arab people who are writing in English. For example, Susan Abulhawa in America, who wrote “Against the Loveless World,” which is a wonderful novel.

BOOKS: Which Arabic writers do you wish were better known in the United States?

AMIRY: Hoda Barakat, whose novel, “The Tiller of Waters,” touched me a great deal. It’s about the civil war in Lebanon, which I lived through. It’s about a merchant who is in love with a Kurdish woman. Through this love story you learn about how a country was destroyed.

BOOKS: Which books capture what life is like in Ramallah?

AMIRY: Two books. One is Raja Shehadeh’s “Palestinian Walks: Forays Into a Vanishing Landscape.” It’s about his walks in the mountains around Ramallah. He describes this in a beautiful way but you realize how the settlements are eating up the landscape. The other is a memoir by the poet Mourid Barghouti, “I Saw Ramallah.” He was exiled from Palestine until the Israeli government made an agreement in ‘93 [the Oslo Accords] that allowed him to visit his hometown. He writes about his disappointments in the things he remembered as beautiful in Ramallah. It moves from a romantic vision to the reality of Palestine.


BOOKS: Is it hard to get books in the West Bank?

AMIRY: Until ‘93, we were forbidden to bring books from outside. Any kind of book was confiscated. When I moved to the West Bank in ‘81 I had to leave all my books behind at my mother’s. Now Israel controls the post office. If you have a book sent by regular mail you may never get it. Also most of the Arabic books are printed in Lebanon, but Israel will not allow any book printed in Lebanon to enter the West Bank. It’s always an issue to get books to the West Bank. I download books for that reason but I’d always like to have the book in my hands. I’d like to scribble in it, make notes and what have you.

Follow us on Facebook or Twitter @GlobeBiblio. Amy Sutherland is the author, most recently, of “Rescuing Penny Jane” and she can be reached at amysutherland@mac.com.