The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Reflections from Amman and Havana: Literature and Music Abroad

View of the University of Havana campus from the library

One of the parts of studying abroad that I enjoyed the most was being exposed to new literature, music, and art. I was constantly learning about artists or authors that I had never heard of beforelegends and heroes in Cuban or Jordanian history and culture that had never been a part of my education before. Literature, music, and art say so much about a country or history, and in this I found a wonderful way of learning about my host countries, the people my professors and friends looked up to, and local histories and perspectives. I won’t pretend to have read all their works or know enough about all these artists, but for a lot of them I am in the slow process of trying to read in Arabic or Spanish whatever books I've accumulated. Below are a few people that came up consistently in my classes or daily life in these two countries, and the answers that people gave me when I asked for recommendations about the most important people to read/listen to: 


Books the author brought back from Jordan
Books the author brought back from Jordan


  1. Mahmoud Darwish 

Darwish was the poet who came up the most in my time in Jordan when I asked for recommendations. He is often regarded as the national poet of Palestine. Books include Mural, Memory of Forgetfulness, Unfortunately It Was Paradise.

  1. Ghassan Kanafani 

Kanafani was the author that I heard the most about in Jordan. He was a Palestinian author, refugee and political activist. His most popular book is Men in the Sun, but one of my friends gave me as a gift two more of his books: The Other Thing (Who Killed Laila Hayek?) and Returning to Haifa.

  1. Kahlil Gibran

Gibran was a Lebanese poet, writer, and illustrator. He is best known for his English book, The Prophet, which earned him the spot as the third best selling poet of all time behind Shakespeare and Lao-tzu. 

  1. Naguib Mahfouz

Mahfouz was an Egyptian author who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. He became famous for The Cairo Trilogy, a series following a family in Cairo. 

  1. Ayman al Otoom

A Jordanian poet and author who won the International Prize in Arab fiction and has been jailed in Jordan for his writings. Books include: My Friend, Prison, They Hear Her Whispering, and The Taste of Death. 

  1. Fairuz

A Lebanese singer who is widely considered one of the most admired and influential singers in the region. Some of her popular songs that I know include "Habbaytak Bissayf" (“I loved you in the summer”), "Behebak Ya Libnan" (“I love you, Lebanon”), and "Nassam Alayna el Hawa" ( I think "the air breezed upon us"). 

  1. Umm Kathoum 

Umm Kathoum was an Egyptian singer, songwriter, and actress and is very popular. Some of her songs are "Enta Omri" (“You are my life”) and "Alf Leila wa Leila" (“A thousand and one nights”).

I have an ongoing list of recommendations from my friends and teachers, some more from this list include: 

Writers: Ahlam Mosteghanemi, Nizar Qabbani, Mai Ziadeh, Ghada Al-Samman 

Singers: Amr Diab, Wael Kfoury, Abdel Halim Hafez, Nancy Ajram, Ragheb Alama, Mohammed Abdel Wahab

Murals inside the library at the University of Jordan
Murals inside the library at the University of Jordan 
View of the library at the University of Jordan
The library at the University of Jordan



Books the author brought back from Cuba
Books the author brought back from Cuba


  1. Jose Martí

By far, the author and poet I heard the most about. Considered a national hero, his essay Nuestra America (Our America) was really influential and I read it for my sociological thought class. He wrote a children’s book called La Edad de Oro (“The age of gold”) that is considered a classic. 

  1. Nicolás Guillén

The poet that was recommended the most after Jose Martí was Nicolás Guillén, who is considered the national poet of Cuba. He was a writer, journalist, and activist. Some of his works: Songoro Cosongo, Le Grand Zoo, and Man Making Words.

  1. Alejo Carpentier 

Carpentier was a novelist, essayist, and musicologist and wrote books in a magical realism style. Some of his popular books: The Kingdom of this World, and The Lost Steps.

  1. Dulce Maria Loynaz 

Loynaz was another poet in Cuba that was really popular. Some of her works: Jardin (Garden), Absolute Solitude: Selected Poems. I found a small book by her called La Novia del Lazero, a collection of poems that I am still reading.

  1. "Open Veins of Latin America" by Eduardo Galeano

While Galeano was not Cuban, he was Urugyan, when I asked one of my professors what book I need to read to understand the history of Latin America she recommended starting with this one without hesitation. I'm about halfway through and can back up that recommendation. It's a deeply sad, intense history, but that makes it all the more important to know. This book also got famous when Hugo Chavez gave it to President Obama as a gift on his visit to Venezuela. Following this, my professor recommended Historia Mínima de America Latina (Minimal History of Latin America) by Sergio Guerra Vilaboy. 

  1. Toques del Rio

This is not from the "essentials" list my friends gave me, this is a personal recommendation because, having saw this band perform live, I can attest to how wonderful and unique they are. They put on an amazing concert that I was lucky enough to see.  

  1. Celia Cruz

Celia Cruz’s rendition of "Guantanamera" I heard so often. The song is actually based off of a Jose Martí poem. She left Cuba following the Revolution and continued her career in the States, becoming one of the spokespersons for the Cuban community in exile. She represents an important side of the history in her music and was an incredible singer. Some songs: “Oye Como Va,” and "La Vida es un Carnaval." 

  1. Benny Moré

Moré was an important singer/songwriter known for his smooth voice and has been compared to Frank Sinatra in his standing. Some songs: "Como Fue," and "Bonito y Sabroso."

  1. Silvio Rodríguez

Rodriguez is a musician, songwriter, a folk singer, and considered Cuba’s best folk singer and leader of the Nueva Tropa Movement. 

  1. Carlos Varela 

A singer/songwriter in the Nueva Tropa Movement. One of my friends said, “Varela before everyone else” when I asked who to put on this list. 

  1. Pablo Milanés

Milanés is a singer, songwriter, and guitar player that uses influences from Tropa and Son. 

I also have an ongoing list of recommendations from my friends and teachers in Cuba, some more from that list: 

Writers: Onelio Jorge Cardoso, Mirta Aguirre, Gertrudis Gómez de Aellaneda, José Maria Heredia, Julián del Casal, José Lezama Lima, Virgilio Piñera, Leonardo Padura, Eliseo Diego, Cintio Vitier, Fina García Marruz, Carilda Oliver Labra, Roberto Fernández Retamar, Pablo Armando Fernández, Antón Arrufat, Cirilo Villaverde, Miguel Barnet, Graziella Pogolotti

Singers: Vicente and Santiago Feliú, Frank Fernández, Irakere, Juan Formell, Los Van Van, Alexander Abreu, Havana D'Primera, Buena Fe, Faustino Oramas, Bola de Nieve, Chucho Valdés, La Original de Manzanillo, Los Papines, Los Zafiros, Ernesto Lecuona, Omara Portuondo, Polo Montañez, Rita Montaner, Compay Segundo, Maria Teresa Vera, Celina González, Elena Burke, Barbarito Diez, Moraima Secada, Noel Nicola, Sara González, Amaury Pérez, Raul Torres, Gerardo Alfonso, Kelvis Ochoa, David Torrens, Leoni Torres, Adalberto Álvarez, David Calzado, Pupi y los que Son Son, La Charanga Habanera, Elito Revé, Pachito 

The library at the University of Havana
The library at the University of Havana