Ave Maria by Sinan Antoon
An Iraqi poet, novelist, translator, documentary director and teacher, if there’s one writer you’d turn to for a nuanced portrayal of Iraq, it’s Antoon. “I focus on two members of one Christian family living in Baghdad who give us a snapshot of Iraq’s history,” he explains.
“Through all the upheavals of the past 50 years, I explore their relationship to their home and homeland. We’ve had five million Iraqis leave the country over the past 15 years, which is a staggering amount for a country of 30 million people. So I was intrigued by this issue of whether to leave or whether to stay. I’m haunted by this myself.” In the book, Youssef is elderly and, as Antoon puts it, “clings to his house despite life becoming unbearable, because he has built his house himself.” From there, Antoon explores Iraqi society and religion (he is from a Christian family, but atheist). “The younger generation do not believe that there was a time where your religious, ethnic background was not all important,” he says. Ave Maria explores the past and what the future of Iraq could be.
I, She and Other Women by Jana El Hassan
The youngest writer on the list, the 28-year-old Lebanese novelist says she wrote I, She and Other Women after reading a number of books that had “helped me, made me figure out hidden parts of me, or made me feel I am not alone”. Such belief in the power of the novel was El Hassan’s trigger upon learning a dear friend had been a victim of domestic violence. “I have always asked myself what would make a young, beautiful woman tolerate being abused,” she says. An answer, of sorts, is found in the heroine of the novel, Sahar, but El Hassan also broadens her focus to look at the “abuse committed by those in power against the citizens of the Arab world”.
“The book is basically about our right to be ourselves,” she adds. “Our right to go beyond customs and norms imposed by society on individuals.”
The Beaver by Mohammed Hasan Alwan
It’s not often that a novel shortlisted for a major literary prize has a beaver at its core. But for the 33-year-old Saudi writer Alwan, it made perfect sense. “It is about Ghalib, a Saudi man in his 40s who grew up in a dysfunctional family. He’s away from home in America and, reflecting on his childhood, he comes across a beaver,” says Alwan. “He’s never seen one before and is surprised at how much this animal’s behaviour reminds him of his own family.”
There is another beaverish link in this family saga: Alwan wrote the book while studying for his MBA in Oregon – the Beaver State. And if all this sounds glib, Alwan is keen to emphasise The Beaver’s thoughtful credentials. “I wanted to show readers how lack of love and care during the childhood years leaves hard-to-heal wounds and renders people in their adulthood unable to fulfil their potential,” he says. “Although financially stable and commitment-free, Ghalib remains unable to deal with his psychological bitterness that is deeply rooted inside him.”
Our Master by Ibrahim Issa
Inspired by his own work on religious television programmes in Egypt, an idea formulated in Issa’s mind of telling the story of one charismatic sheikh who battles with the disparity between what he preaches on screen and what he truly believes. But Our Master slowly becomes a thriller – the sheikh finds that the veiled woman with whom he begins to form a relationship is in fact an actress working for the secret services – and the book adeptly reveals the culture of fear and corruption in Egypt. And as the editor of Al-Tahrir newspaper since July 2011, Issa certainly knows what he’s talking about.
The Bamboo Stick by Saud Alsanousi
The shortlisted novel with perhaps the most resonance for Emirati readers, Alsanousi takes a timely look at the life of marginalised foreign workers in the Middle East. “I found I possessed the expressive tools that they lacked and from this came the idea of the novel,” he says. And it’s a multilayered story: Jose is the offspring of a marriage between the son of an eminent Kuwaiti family and his Filipino housemaid Josephine. Sent back in disgrace to the Philippines as a baby, Jose returns as an adult, only to find himself rejected because of his connection to his mother – even though he is the last Al-Taruf in the family line.
“Will this gain him acceptance or will our customs, tradition and culture prevail, this is the question,” says Alsanousi, who went to the Philippines for research. “It was really important to do that. We in Kuwait, as well as other Arab countries, know nothing about foreign workers, what they suffer and the hardship of their life in far distant countries. I want us to see ourselves as they see us.”
His Excellency the Minister by Hussein Al-Wad
From the youngest author to the oldest, Al-Wad was born in Moknine, Tunisia, in 1948. You might expect a university professor to set his latest novel in the academic world and, sure enough, His Excellency the Minister charts the rise of a humble Tunisian teacher to the annals of power. Like many of the books on the list, it reflects common concerns about governmental corruption and it’s no surprise to learn it was actually written pre-revolution. IPAF’s website calls His Excellency the Minister “richly humorous”, but other reviews have noted its serious tone – which makes for a multifaceted read.
• The winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2013 will be announced at an awards ceremony in Abu Dhabi on April 23. Visit www.arabicfiction.org
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