This Side of Syria: Best Books to Understand the Syrian Experience

Homs, Syria, September 2013/Photo © ART production / Shutterstock, Inc.

Americans have long prided themselves on the idea that we are a nation of immigrants. Even considering the complexity of this notion, the idea itself remains a point of emphasis in our national identity. One of the most enduring symbols of the United States is a woman holding a torch aloft in a harbor beckoning travelers to safe refuge, our Statue of Liberty. And yet in times when we have perceived that our security is waning, we lash out at these very immigrants who, in times of relative safety, we claim as a point of national pride.

Now, in the midst of a staggering global refugee crisis, we are seeing the fabric of our nation’s identity being tested once again. The brutal civil war plaguing Syria has displaced millions, forcing Syrians to flee their war-torn home and seek solace from inhumane and terrifying conditions. The United States has often stood at the forefront of refugee resettlement, but under the cloak of fear, President Trump is pushing this country to once again close off its borders.

It is, unfortunately, easy to ignore this crisis, to forget that those fleeing are seeking refuge from cruel circumstance – and often death. Literature once again, though, proves to offer a powerful window of empathy – a reminder of the essential humanity in all of us. In times like these, empathy and understanding are paramount. To hopefully help gain a better understanding of Syria, its people, and its rich literary tradition, we’ve pulled together a number of books and novels by Syrian authors or simply about the Syrian experience.

  • The cover of the book Dark at the Crossing

    Dark at the Crossing

    A novel

    Istanbul-based writer Elliot Ackerman set his new novel, Dark at the Crossing, at the Turkey-Syria border. Against the backdrop of the fight against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, we meet Haris Abadi whose existential crisis collides with his love of country.

  • The cover of the book Nujeen: One Girl's Incredible Journey from War-Torn Syria in a Wheelchair

    Nujeen: One Girl's Incredible Journey from War-Torn Syria in a Wheelchair

    Nujeen tells the powerful story of Nujeen Mustafa, a teenager born with cerebral palsy, and her harrowing journey to escape the war raging throughout Syria. Following the increasingly violent clashes between ISIS militants and US-backed Kurdish troops, Nujeen and her family had no choice but to flee and embark on an arduous sixteen-month trek that eventually landed them in Germany.

  • The cover of the book Sarmada


    Written by exiled Syrian journalist Fadi Azzam, this debut novel is a mesmerizing account of three Druze women in an isolated, fictional village in Syria. It is a haunting story filled with violence, sexuality, magical realism, and a profound sense of culture and place.

  • The cover of the book No Knives in the Kitchens of This City

    No Knives in the Kitchens of This City

    Syrian author Khaled Khalifa provides a powerful window into his native city of Aleppo with No Knives in the Kitchens of this City. Set between the 1960s and the 2000s, the novel chronicles the lives of a single family in Aleppo, as the city crumbles to decay and violence under the Assad regime.

  • The cover of the book Adonis: Selected Poems

    Adonis: Selected Poems

    Adonis – pen name of Ali Ahmad Said Esber – is one of the most celebrated and influential poets in Syrian literature. This collection, the first comprehensive survey of Adonis’s works, covers the gambit of his literary career. His works are provocative, emotionally wrought, and deeply human, touching on exile and existence.

  • The cover of the book Sabriya: Damascus Bitter Sweet

    Sabriya: Damascus Bitter Sweet

    Considered the seminal work of Syrian novelist Ulfat Idilbī, Sabriya: Damascus Bitter Sweet follows a young girl name Sabriya in Damascus in the 1920s. The novel explores Sabriya’s increasing awareness of her national identity amid the rising nationalist tide of the era and the ways that awareness is increasingly stifled by the patriarchal society she was born into.

  • The cover of the book A Word for Love

    A Word for Love

    A Novel

    Emily Robbins’s debut novel, A Word for Love, introduces us to Bea, an American exchange student living in Syria. In writing this novel, Robbins tapped into the knowledge and experience she gained during her own time in the Middle East as a Fulbright Fellow in Syria from 2007 to 2008. During that time, just before the Syrian War, she studied religion and language with a women’s mosque movement and lived with the family of a leading intellectual.

  • The cover of the book The Silence and the Roar

    The Silence and the Roar

    Set in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, The Silence and the Roar by Aleppo-born author Nihad Sirees is classic dystopian fiction. It is a Kafka-esque tale centering on a single day in the life of Fathi Sheen, an author who is banned from publishing as punishment for his refusal to write government propaganda.

  • The cover of the book Fragments of Memory: A Story of a Syrian Family

    Fragments of Memory: A Story of a Syrian Family

    This autobiographical novel from author Hanna Mina examines Syrian culture throughout the twentiethh century through the story of poor boy raised in Northern Syria. Through this lens, Mina explores the ways the silkworm industry gave way to modern technology and the impact of these events on modern Syria.

  • The cover of the book On Entering the Sea

    On Entering the Sea

    Nizar Qabbani is one of the most celebrated poets of the Arab world and his works have come under increasing fire in his native Syria. Tinged with eroticism, his poetry explores the shifting status of women in contemporary Arab culture.

  • The cover of the book Syrian Folktales

    Syrian Folktales

    Folklore is often central to understanding any culture, as it provides a view into foundational values, family structures, and often local history. Syria, like most other countries, has a rich folkore tradition and this collection gathered by Muna Imady provides a solid cross-section of the storytelling therein.

  • The cover of the book The Forbidden Wish

    The Forbidden Wish

    Though more fantastical than most of what’s on this list, the young adult novel The Forbidden Wish by half-Syrian author Jessica Khoury taps into the histories of Iran and Syria, adapting the story of Aladdin from 1001 Nights. The story of Aladdin traces its own roots back to Syria, and Khoury’s take on the story came together when her grandfather asked her to write a book inspired by his homeland.