ABU DHABI // The authors of a Saudi novel exploring the secret life of Mecca, and a Moroccan story tackling Islamic fundamentalism and its impact on one family, shared this year's International Prize for Arabic Fiction.
The Saudi author Raja Alem and the Moroccan author Mohammed Achaari were chosen as joint winners at last night's ceremony at the Intercontinental Hotel in Abu Dhabi. They will share US$50,000 (Dh183,650) while their novels will be translated into English, opening them to a bigger international readership.
"It is fate. It was written for us to share this moment together," said Ms Alem, who was the first woman to win the award since its inauguration in 2008. "Now Mecca will be introduced to the world in a different way."
The award, known as the "Arabic Booker", has helped introduce works by Middle Eastern authors to the international literary stage. It is supported by the Booker Prize Foundation and funded by the Emirates Foundation for Philanthropy.
"It was impossible to decide on just one winner," said the Iraqi poet and novelist Fadhil al Azzawi, the chair of a five-judge panel.
"Both of these novels are very important. Both of these novels dealt with the world we live in, each in their own style.
"One talks about Mecca, and we all know about Mecca's significance. The other talks about the problems faced in Morocco, which in many ways reflects and explains what is happening in our region now."
Writing in a highly personal style, Ms Alem's The Doves' Necklace, explores the secret life of Mecca, touching on crime, religious extremism and the exploitation of foreign workers, set against the backdrop of a Saudi woman's romance with a German man.
Ms Alem, whose previous work has been translated into English and Spanish, won the 2005 Arabic women's creative writing prize as part of Unesco's 60th anniversary, and the Lebanese Literary Club prize in 2008.
Mr Achaari's novel, The Arch and The Butterfly, draws on his experience as a poet and former culture minister to tackle Islamic extremism and terrorism with its tale of a left-wing father who receives a letter from al Qa'eda informing him that his son died a martyr in Afghanistan.
The effect of terrorism on family life, especially on the father's relationship with his wife, is the crux of the story.
"I didn't write to answer questions faced in our societies," said Mr Achaari. "I wrote about what it does to us and how it forces us to reconcile with failure. We are so scared of being judged by others that our public life has died and we all live our secret little lives."
While both authors joked about sharing the money, they agreed it is "the best time" to be a writer in the Middle East.
"There is a pleasant storm causing havoc in our region," said Mr Achaari. "It brings with it a new bright spring with new flowers and new novels."
Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoun Al Nahyan, the managing director of the Emirates Foundation for Philanthropy, said the prize had "broadened the readership of Arabic literature throughout the Arab world".
He added: "It has also won international acclaim, through the translation of winning works into a variety of languages."
In total six authors, one from Saudi Arabia, one from Sudan, two from Morocco and two from Egypt, were shortlisted for the Arabic Booker prize. Each of the shortlisted authors will receive US$10,000 (Dh37,000).
The shortlist was announced in December and was chosen by five judges from a list of 16, which they had narrowed down the list from 123 submissions from across the Arab world.
Last night's ceremony came ahead of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, which starts today and ends on March 20 at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre.