x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Arabic Booker

Six authors, five countries, one award: tonight, the region's best novelists will see whose story wins the top prize.

As every reader knows, it's always a thrill when a double identity is revealed - especially when its possessor is as much in the dark as the rest of us. This evening, out of the utmost secrecy, the winner of the second International Prize for Arabic Fiction will come to know themselves as such. The field of six contenders for this "Arabic Booker" - whose prize is $60,000 (Dh220,000) and a guaranteed English translation, paid for by the Granta magazine owner Sigrid Rausing - was selected from 131 entrants hailing from 15 countries. As with any big book prize, there have been catcalls about the inevitable snubbings along the way; occupying the traditional Martin Amis chair for this particular award is the veteran Tuareg novelist Ibrahim al Koni, the recipient of last year's Sheikh Zayed Award for Literature. He entered the long list but fell, rather dramatically, before the final six.

Who did make the cut? Five men, one woman. The line-up skews west - two Egyptians, two Levantines, one Tunisian and one Iraqi. Of these, the most talked-about contender is Ibrahim Nasrallah, a much-censored Jordanian author whose entry, Time of White Horses, is a saga depicting the plight of Palestine through three generations of a single family. Nasrallah is a poet foremost, and writes prose of heady lyricism. Nasrallah is up against The Scents of Marie-Claire, the latest novel from the important Tunisian writer Habib Selmi. The book uses a relationship between an Arabic man and a western woman as a metonym for the story of their respective cultures - though not at the expense of lifelike and intimate detail. It would be interesting to see Fawwaz Haddad's entry, The Unfaithful Translator, take the prize, if only to see what the Granta people make of it. The Syrian author tells the tale of an interpreter whose unconventional views on the role of free translation in creativity and culture see him condemned for betrayal.

Unorthodoxy is also much on the mind of the Egyptian author Yusuf Zeydan. His entry, Beelzebub, is a historical spectacle, conjuring in flamboyant style the schisms and wranglings that beset Coptic Christianity in fifth-century Alexandria. It hit a head wind of religious controversy at home, but that needn't keep it from the finish line. The other Egyptian on the shortlist, Mohammad al Bisatie, is more of a favourite to win, however: in laconic, naturalistic prose, Hunger presents the deep reflections and momentous trivialities of life lived a meal or two away from starvation. It's a bleak book, but much enlivened by the author's sly wit.

Finally, the one woman on the list, Inaam Kachachi, presents what may be the timeliest offering. The American Granddaughter shows the ravages of modern Iraq through the eyes of an American-Iraqi woman. She returns to her home country in the compromised role of US Army interpreter; how else could that old feminist saw "the personal is political" be made to pack a more dramatic punch? May the best book win.