If you happen to have a few hours to spare and a swash to buckle, here are two rousing epic adventures from Persia and the Middle East to fill in the time. If we think of Persian epics, the two titles which probably come to mind are Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh and Vis and Ramin by Fakhruddin As’ad Gurgani, both available in excellent Penguin translations by Dick Davis. There’s also Matthew Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum, which is based on an episode in Ferdowsi’s poem. As for Arabic ones, the massive (and anonymous) Thousand and One Nights is the best-known.

Year in year out Spain produces 1,500 kilos of that delicate spice, saffron, sold wholesale for US$700 per 100 grams. Gourmets were puzzled a few years back when 1900 kilos of Spanish saffron hit the market. Food inspectors soon discovered that the yellow powder contained traces of the flavorless plant root, or worse, animal droppings. The huge increase in volume came from the diversion of Iranian saffron, whose sale is stifled by the American embargo, to Spain’s packagers. Along the way crooks put their fingers on the scale by adding the impurities. Similar scams were practiced by spice dealers in 13th-century Damascus, involving precious products like myrobalan, agarwood, ginger, indigo, musk, ambergris. “Wise up to these things,” exhorts the Book of Charlatans, this newly translated compendium of tricks, cheats and phony spells.

The title of this book is the first “imposture”, flouting the venerable approach of calling this 12th-century Arabic classic the “Assemblies” or the “Seances of Hariri”. Maqamat means a halting place, where an audience might sit around and tell stories. It can, at a stretch, mean “to get up”, focusing on the storyteller standing before his audience. With “Impostures” as the title, Michael Cooperson, a professor of Arabic literature at UCLA, puts us on notice not to expect a traditional translation. The Maqamat recounts in 50 episodes the impostures of the protagonist Abu Zeid, posing as beggar, poet, plaintiff, scholar or sufi, in order to con money out of his appreciative and affably gulled assembly of listeners. He succeeds in opening their purses by deploying the most dazzling verbal gymnastics imaginable. Acrostics, palindromes, rhymed verse, rare words, this does not even begin to describe the extent of Abu Zeid’s rhetorical arsenal.

In the Sahara Desert, Ukhayyad, the son of a powerful tribal leader, receives a camel as a gift. The Mahri camel is not an ordinary breed. It is beautiful, unique. Ukhayyad develops an endearment towards the animal which only grows and runs parallel with his coming-of-age. Gold Dust, its English edition recently republished, follows their bond, as events quickly trouble their tranquillity.

In a collection of essays penned by Arab women reporting from the Arab world, one can expect destruction and bullets, bodies and despair to litter the pages. And rightfully so. Our Women On The Ground: Essays By Arab Women Reporting From The Arab World does not shy away from the front lines and splashes copious amounts of reality onto readers who dare to venture into its chapters.