5 Enchanting, yet culturally-relevant books

Do you love Aladdin but don’t love the cultural homogenization? In light of the live-action adaptation of Aladdin, here are 5 compelling books that have influences from One Thousand and One Nights and/or Persian culture and written by authors with culturally-relevant backgrounds.

1.One Thousand One Nights retold by Hanan Al-Shaykh

I’ve always been interested in One Thousand One Nights and the fantastical elements of early Near East cultures. At the same time, I’ve always been hesitant because of the patriarchal influence imbedded in these stories, until I came across Hanan Al-Shaykh’s beautiful retelling. She keeps a strong focus on Shahrazad, the storyteller and partner of the king, while maintaining the integrity and flow of the stories.

2.The Map of Salt & Stars by Zeyn Joukhadar


The Map of Salt and Stars follows the lives of Nour and her family as they move from New York to Syria, after her father’s death. 2 things that I enjoyed about this novel: 1.) the shape poems that introduce each part of the story corresponding with the next country that the family will encounter and 2.) the bedtime story that Nour’s dad once told her that is interspersed throughout the story and has influences from One Thousand and One Nights. Joukhadar blends the uncertainties of reality with the comfort of imagination with refreshing and lyrical prose.

3.Equal of The Sun by Anita Amirrezvani

This book was such a powerful and important read. It takes place in 1576 Iran and follows the actions of an intelligent princess named Pari and her loyal eunuch adviser Javaher. I loved that it was told in Javaher’s point of view and how he served as a bridge between the different gendered realms. Amirrezvani’s descriptions are a vivid backdrop for the women networking and influencing the happenings of the Safavid court.

4.The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani

Amirrezvani’s first novel captures the lyricism and beauty of seventeenth-century Isfahan. It was hard to read about how much women had to struggle to forge their own paths, but it was also uplifting that the unnamed protagonist is strong-willed and passionate about carpet-making. Amirrezvani’s prose are beautiful and distinctly describe sensory details, especially related to the carpet designs that seem to tell their own story. She weaves One Thousand and One Nights-inspired stories into the text to create a nuanced narrative.

5.The House of WisdomHow Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance by Jim Al-Khalili

This is a historical nonfiction book that describes the House of Wisdom in early Baghdad, Iraq. Al-Khalili writes about how he was drawn into researching the Abbasid caliphate, and I got a strong overarching picture of how caliphs and scholars of science influenced the making of the House of Wisdom. This time period is especially fascinating because many records and architecture related to the Abbasid caliphate and the House of Wisdom were destroyed.

These books and more have been so important to my understanding of culturally relevant content, as well as their influences on the novel I’m working on. While the architecture, clothing, traditions, and patterns of the Near East are breath-taking, we are also responsible for seeking knowledge on the people and places of its past and present—without an orientalist lens.

For more book recommendations, please check out my GoodReads account! 

“Be like the date that grows sweeter and sweeter, even though the soil that nourishes it is rocky and harsh.”


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