empire, war, & people: a booklist in response to current events

I don’t really have any idea how to start this, beyond saying that war is bad and empire is toxic and war and sanctions hurt the little person and we have all been here before, every single one of us, and we know where it goes and we know it’s nowhere good. Because I tend to turn to books, from which I have learned that people are generally people, no matter where they are from, I’m putting books out here.

content note

This is a wide-ranging booklist. Most of the material herein is related directly to the Middle East; however, I do step outside those bounds for a more full picture of coloniality and imperialism, particularly related to United States history and policy.

The literature I include is also wide-ranging. Particularly among the children’s works, I have attempted to include both books about the realities of war but also those about daily life in countries such as Iran. Similarly, I’ve stepped a few times away from the Middle East in these choices, adding in books about refugees from other wars, other places, and other times.

When our countries go marching to war, our propaganda machines start spinning, and it is all too easy to forget that the people Over There are, indeed, just people, not so different from you and I. I’d like, if possible, to counteract those propaganda machines—the war pigs, if you will—even if just a little.


coloniality, colonialism, and empire: U.S.

Empire in Retreat: The Past, Present, and Future of the United States by Victor Bulmer-Thomas

Bulmer-Thomas takes readers on a tour of the United States’ imperial activities, beginning after independence.

Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery by Mark Charles & Soong-Chan Rah

Explore the lasting, and damaging, legacies of the Doctrine of Discovery.

Teaching Empire: Native Americans, Filippinos, and US Imperial Education, 1879-1918 by Elisabeth M. Eittreim

Empire isn’t innate, it’s taught. (It also happens in re-education camps, or gulags, or whatever the term du jour may be.) Eittreim discusses imperial education throughout the United States and its territories in this book.

Decolonizing Ethnography: Undocumented Immigrants and New Directions in Social Science by Daniel M. Goldstein, Carolina Alonso Bejarano, Lucia López Juárez, & Mirian A. Mijangos García

Goldstein et al’s book Decolonizing Ethnography might not seem like a direct fit for this list of books largely pertaining to crises of empire—yet I would argue that for us to adequately oppose colonial and imperial wars, it’s necessary to do our own personal decolonizing work. Books like Decolonizing Ethnography can help us start getting there.

coloniality, colonialism, and empire: beyond the U.S.

Coloniality at Large: Latin America and the Postcolonial Debate edited by Mabel Moraña, Enrique Dussel, & Carlo A. Jáuregui

I first met this book in undergrad, when my then-professor, Fabrício Prado, suggested it. I spent more time with it in graduate school. It is, for me, a foundational text, and is, indeed, the theoretical underpinnings of most of my work. It strongly influences the way I see and navigate the world, and I think it is worth reading, or at least visiting.

Licentious Worlds: Sex and Exploitation in Global Empires by Julie Peakman

Peakman’s work goes well beyond the United States—and the present era—to explore the ways in which sex and sexuality has been used, exploited, and abused by the forces of empire.

memoirs & general nonfiction

The Pianist from Syria by Aehman Ahmad & translated by Emanuel Bergmann

The story of a Palestinian man born a refugee in Syria, then forced by war to flee the only home he’s known.

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

In this graphic memoir, Thi Bui tells the story of her family’s flight from Vietnam, and of its lasting effects.

Poppies of Iraq by Brigitte Findakly & Lewis Trondheim

Brigitte Findakly tells the story of her middle-class childhood in an Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

The World Between Empires: Art and Identity in the Ancient Middle East by Blair Fowlkes-Childs & Michael Seymour

The area we know as the Middle East has a long and rich history. Explore some of the art and culture of the region’s ancient past in this book, filled with full-color images.

Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq by Sarah Glidden

Cartoonist Sarah Glidden chronicles her time in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, traveling with two journalist friends. (this one feels like it could pair well with Lena Khalaf Tuffaha’s poetry, listed below and dealing with being an Arab in our relentless news cycles.)

Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World edited by Zahra Hankir

In essays, nineteen Arab women journalists who report on their home countries and their region describe what their work and lives are like.

Arabicity: Contemporary Arab Art edited by Rose Issa

Explore the work of 50 contemporary Arab artists in this book.

Under the Palm Trees: Modern Iraqi Art with Mohamed Makiya and Jewad Selim by Ahmed Naji

Step into contemporary Iraqi art with this volume, filled with full-color photographs.

We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria by Wendy Pearlman

Stories of Syrian refugees and of the homeland they left behind.

The Rise of the Arab American Left: Activists, Allies, and their Fight Against Imperialism and Racism, 1960s-1980s by Pamela E. Pennock

Explore the beginnings of Arab American activism in the United States with this award-winning history.

The Arab of the Future by Riad Sattouf

In this multi-part graphic memoir, Riad Sattouf tells the story of his childhood caught between dictators: Muammar Gaddafi, Hafez al-Assad, and Sattouf’s father.

Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco

Cartoonist Joe Sacco immerses himself in Rafah, site of a 1965 massacre of Palestinians, and neighboring Khan Younis, looking for Gaza past and present.

Palestine by Joe Sacco

This edition of Sacco’s groundbreaking Palestine, a graphic history of Palestine, the West Bank, and Israel, has an introduction by Palestinian luminary Edward Said.



If They Come For Us by Fatimah Asghar

Pakistani American Fatimah Asghar’s If They Come For Us tracks the long-ranging effects of colonial and imperialist violence.

Registers of Illuminated Villages by Tarifa Faizullah

Bengali American poet Tarifa Faizullah’s beautiful, heartbreaking Registers of Illuminated Villages intertwines the personal with the politics of empire, reminding us of the human cost of imperial and colonial policies.

Before the Next Bomb Drops by Remi Kanazi

Remi Kanazi’s hard-hitting poetry travels from the Middle East to New York and back again, as he takes on the damage wrought by imperialist policies and celebrates living another day.

Whereas by Layli Long Soldier

Lest we forget the colonial violence unleashed upon our own shores: Layli Long Soldier’s powerful, heartbreaking Whereas explores the United States’ history of violence against Native people, exuding defiance in the face of ongoing violence.

Mare Nostrum by Khaled Mattawa

Mattawa follows refugees from their homes across the treacherous Mediterranean Sea in this deeply important, and painful, chapbook.

Baghdad: The City in Verse edited & translated by Reuven Snir

Have you ever wondered how people have seen Baghdad, a center of culture and learning, through the millennia? Explore its past and its present in these nearly 200 poems, selected and translated from the Arabic by Reuven Snir. (If you’re in Chicago, you can grab your copy at the Seminary Co-Op, also known as my favorite bookstore ever.)

Arab in Newsland by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha

Lena Khalaf Tuffaha’s Arab in Newsland explores news cycles and violence meted out upon one’s family.

Water & Salt by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha

Water & Salt delves deeper into the cycles of news, violence, and despair, coupled with the minutiae of daily life.


Salt Houses by Hala Alyan

In her award-winning first novel, Palestinian American poet Hala Alyan tracks generations of a Palestinian family as they are displaced by the 1967 Six-Day War.

Zahra’s Paradise by Amir & Khalil, et al

When Iranian protestor Mehdi disappears, his mother and his blogger brother refuse to leave him to his fate.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

As war flares around them, lovers Nadia and Saeed use a door that opens to elsewhere to escape—but once they’re into the strange and alien world, they must fight to maintain their stories and even themselves.

The Map of Salt and Stars by Zeyn Joukhadar

Two girls, separated by centuries, traverse very different Syrias.

Embroideries by Marjane Satarapi

Step into a kaffeeklatch of Iranian women discussing love, lust, sex, and virginity in this graphic novel, where the Other isn’t so other at all.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Young Marjane, daughter of Marxist intellectuals, comes of age in Revolution-era Iran, leaves for Vienna, and eventually returns, in this autobiographical graphic novel.

books for younger people

picture books

The Three Lucys by Hayan Charara & Sara Khan

In this Lee & Low New Voices Honor Book and Arab American Book Award Honorable Mention-winner, Luli sees the horror of war in Lebanon first-hand, as one of his family’s three cats disappears and homes are reduced to rubble.

My Grandma and Me by Mina Javaherbin & Lindsey Yankey

Mina and her grandma are never far apart as Mina grows up in Iran.

Tomorrow by Nadine Kaadan

In Kaadan’s Arab American Honor Book winner, little Yazan copes with the changes of war.

Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets: A Muslim Book of Shapes by Hena Khan & Mehrdokt Amini

Learn about shapes and Islamic traditions in this beautifully illustrated book.

Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors by Hena Khan & Mehrdokt Amini

Explore the colors of the Islamic world in this picture book.

middle grades & young adult

A Game for Swallows: To Die, to Leave, to Return by Zeina Abirached

When Zeina’s parents don’t return one day, her neighbors create a safe space inside their apartment building for Zeina and her brother to wait.

I Remember Beirut by Zeina Abirached

Follow a young Zeina through the streets of Beirut, as she travels past bullet-riddled cars, collects shrapnel from the sidewalk, and goes about her life.

The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees by Don Brown

Follow refugees from Syria to Europe in Don Brown’s award-winning graphic novel about Syrians fleeing war.

Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram

Clinically depressed Darius has no idea, but his first-ever trip to his mother’s native Iran is about to change his life. (This book has won all the awards, basically. And it’s the first in a series!)

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

As Saigon falls, Hà and her family flee their home, making their way to America and a new way of being.

Nowhere Boy by Katherine Marsh

When Syrian refugee Ahmed and homesick American ex-pat Max meet each other in Belgium, their lives change.

Americanized: Rebel Without a Green Card by Sara Saedi

The story of a young Sara Saedi, Iranian immigrant, who discovered at thirteen that her family was undocumented.

Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga

As her Syrian home becomes more dangerous, Jude and her mother are sent to live with relatives in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Internment by Samira Ahmed

In the mood for a dystopia (that isn’t quite real yet)? Try Chicagoan Samira Ahmed’s dystopian Internment.

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