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6+ Romance Novels Featuring Leads of Middle Eastern & North African Heritage To Fall in Love With

Three books by authors of MENA and/or Arab heritage. Image: Avon Books, Algonquin Young Readers, and Bloomsbury.

In celebration of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) Heritage Month, I wanted to share both some tamer books (a.k.a. YA) and some very passionate romance reads with characters of this cultural background. The MENA region is very diverse and borders many places like Southern Europe, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, South Asia, and all large directional of Africa except Southern Africa. MENA people do not have to be ethnically Arab or engage with the faith of Islam, but many do.

With all that in mind, you can now see there are no easy markers to figure out what to include in this list, especially when the publishing largely ignores this genre, and the romance genre often ignores stories not featuring white Anglo-Saxon Protestant characters. When picking books for this list, I leaned into books by authors of MENA heritage who are each informed by their interests and background. However, I also opened it up to include a person with a track record of doing the research and having various voices in the act of solidarity rather than romanticizing these characters into harmful tropes.

Sofian Khan is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik

Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik. Image: Twenty7.

After another possible-husband-to-be encounter falls flat, Sofia Khan wants to take a break from men. If not for good, at least for now. That is until her boss convinces Khan to write a tell-all expose on the life of dating as a Muslim woman. Viewing everything through this new lense, Khan reflects on the varying ways she’s dated in her own life, her friends, and the casual xenophobia and Islamaphobia that colors what’s supposed to be mundane day-to-to activities.

Fans of Pride and Prejudice (especially inspired by works like Bridge Jones’ Diary) will love the contemporary take on the lives of some British Muslim women. After reading this, check out the sequel novel, The Other Half of Happiness.

If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan

If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan. Image: Algonquin Young Readers.
(Algonquin Young Readers)

Farizan’s YA love story starts with a simple premise—two young teenage girls, Nasrin and Sahar, are in love in a place that does not accept same-sex relationships. They keep their love a secret knowing full well their parents are in the process of arranging their marriage with men. When Nasir’s parents announce a suitor, Nasir insists they can continue their relationship secretly, but Sahar doesn’t want that. Sahar learns that while homosexuality is a crime in Iran, gender reassignment surgery is more accessible and grapples with what to do with this information.

The Viscount Made Me Do It by Diana Quincy

The Viscount Made Me Do It by Diana Quincy. Image: Avon Books.
(Avon Books)

Palestinian American author Diana Quincy is best known for her Regency romance novels. While many of them feature characters of MENA heritage, this one is a must for those that like a good healer/soldier dynamic. Book two in the Clandestine Affairs series follows a daughter of Arab merchants whole worked hard to become London’s finest bonesetter. Things get interesting when an attractive former soldier and current Viscount Thomas Ellis comes into her life, after following up on a tip relating to his parents’ murder that leads him straight to her. This story is perfect for people looking to read more regency romances following season two of Bridgerton.

Let Us Dream by Alyssa Cole

Let Us Dream by Alyssa Cole. Image: Createspace Independent Publishing Platform.
(Createspace Independent Publishing Platform)

Originally appearing in Daughters of A Nation: A Black Suffragette Historical Romance Anthology, Cole’s short story features a historical romance set in 1917 Harlem.

Cabaret owner and suffragette Bertha Hines feels like she lives two different lives. With an election drawing near and the women’s right to vote on the ballot, she starts to engage in careful conversations to persuade men to vote in favor of suffrage. In this endeavor, she strikes an exciting and more overtly political discussion with her club’s new immigrant, Chef Amir Chowdhury. Until this point, the Bengali immigrant who couldn’t feel further from American Dream™ finds that this conversation with Hines sparks his passion for his future and lights a flame between him and Hines.

Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan

Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan. Image: Algonquin Young Readers.
(Algonquin Young Readers)

Typically I wouldn’t put an author on a list twice. However, I’m making an exception for Farizan’s work. In looking for sapphic and bisexual MENA romance novels, Farizan’s books just kept coming up! Then, I couldn’t decide which of her two most popular books to choose.

In addition to If You Could Be Mine, check out her more light-hearted, queer YA first love story, Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel. Her novel follows an Iranian American girl, Leila, just trying to keep her head down and get through school. However, things change when a beautiful new girl, Saskia, shows up. Leila starts to develop friendships with other students as she navigates these butterflies and mixed signals she gets around Saskia.

Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif

The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif. Image: Bloomsbury.

Considered a modern literary classic, this tale (first published in 1999) is a nearly century-long, cross-cultural love story. A divorced American journalist, Isabel Parkman, falls in love with a difficult Epgytian American conductor. As they date and develop feelings for one another, the story mirrors Isabel’s great-grandparents, Anna and Sharif, relationship in 1900. Then, the British widow, Anna, goes to Egypt and falls in love with an Egyptian nationalist, Sharif Pasha al-Baroudi. Upon learning about Anna’s story, Isabel treks her great grandmother’s path to learn more about her heritage and the ways people handle love at the beginning and end of empires.

Honorable mentions

The books below are ones we’ve mentioned in the last few months or on TMS Bookclub but want to include here again. Some of these books are romance novels first, while others are SFF or Coming-of-Age with a heavy romance subplot.

What MENA and Arab romance novels did we miss? Let us know in the comments down below! (Especially if it features characters of North African heritage because outside Eygpt, these novels were slim pickings.)

(image: Avon Books, Algonquin Young Readers, and Bloomsbury)

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(she/her) Award-winning artist and blogger with professional experience and education in graphic design, art history, and museum studies. Starting as an Online Editor for her college paper in October 2017, Alyssa began writing for the first time within two months of working in the newsroom. This resident of the yeeHaw land spends most of her time drawing, reading and playing the same handful of video games—even as the playtime on Steam reaches the quadruple digits. Currently playing: Baldur's Gate 3. Still trying to beat Saxon Farm on RCT 3 (so I can 100% the game.)