x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Winners of this year's IPAF talk about their novels

This year's joint winners of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction or 'Arabic Booker', the Saudi Author Raja Alem and the Moroccan writer Mohammed Achaari talk about their respective works, The Doves' Necklace and The Arch and the Butterfly.

The Saudi author Raja Alem, left, and Moroccan writer Mohammed Achaari were both awarded this year's International Prize for Arabic Fiction.
The Saudi author Raja Alem, left, and Moroccan writer Mohammed Achaari were both awarded this year's International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

The International Prize for Arabic Fiction is known for breaking cultural barriers through the translation of winning books and selected nominated titles.

This year's prize, also known as the Arabic Booker, broke further ground by announcing its first joint winners as well as the first female author to win the prize.

Joining the list of distinguished titles is The Doves' Necklace by Saudi Author Raja Alem and The Arch and the Butterfly by the Moroccan writer Mohammed Achaari.

Both authors will share the $50,000 (Dh183,650) prize and the guaranteed translation of their works into English.

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The judges' decision to award the prize to two winners, however, met with criticism.

Speaking in a somewhat hostile press conference, the chairman of the five-person judging panel, the Iraqi poet and novelist Fadhil Al Azzawi, defended the decision to split the award. He said the quality of both books made it "impossible" to decide on one entry.

"We didn't take this decision easily, as it is the tradition of the Booker to award the prize to one winner," he said.

"We discussed in detail the case for each of the stories, examining its points of strength, weakness, its protagonists, and we reached a point where we realised it's not fair to award the Booker Prize to just one story only and that's how we ended with these two winners."

Speaking after the press conference, both authors said they were not disappointed they hadn't won the award outright. Alem and Achaari said they looked forward to their novels taking new life once translated.

Raja Alem

She may be the first female author to win the IPAF, but Saudi novelist Alem dispels the notion she is now a literary pioneer.

"My gender is not the competition - it is the book and I am very happy it won," she says. "People talk about me winning this prize as if women were retarded beings and having the prize will change the view of Arabic women in general. That is not the case."

Instead, she puts her triumph down to a burgeoning literary scene in the Gulf.

"There is a growing literary and cultural movement happening here," she says. "The [cultural] centre has always been Egypt and Lebanon, and the Gulf is taking its place."

In The Doves' Necklace, Alem invites readers to a Mecca beyond Islam's holy sites. Her novel speaks of a darker world beneath the minarets where religious extremism is flourishing, foreign workers exploited and a mafia of building contractors are transforming the Mecca of her childhood.

In the middle of it all is a young Saudi heroine who speaks of her world through love letters to a German boyfriend.

Born and raised in Mecca, Alem says The Doves' Necklace was not an attempt to present the city in an unflattering light.

She says Mecca has all the pros and cons of any cosmopolitan society.

"Humans live in Mecca, not angels, and if we deny what is going on, then we are kidding ourselves," she says. "The truth is whatever you find in other parts of the world you will also find in Mecca."

Considering her subject matter, one might be surprised that Alem's biggest fans are fellow Meccans who have come to view her as the authentic voice of the city.

Some Arab literary critics, however, view Alem as inaccessible due to a poetic prose described as being similar to Sufi writings.

Alem said while her books contain a "Sufi atmosphere" she was not aware of it until she read the comparisons in the press.

She believes it is not her voice gracing the page. She describes herself as channelling "the voices of the city" and that "Mecca itself was the author".

She says she was first aware of "these voices" when she was 16 when attempting to publish a personal reflection piece in a Saudi newspaper.

"The editor wrote back to me and asked if I was, in fact, somebody older and [suggested] I stole this work," she recalls.

"So I immediately sent it to another Saudi paper and they thought I was a really big man with history. That was when I really felt inspired and became aware of these voices in my head."

Alem says her unique writing approach often delivers up some pleasant surprises.

"You know there are times I read what I write and wonder who this person is?" she laughs.

"So I then started experimenting and wrote in English to shut out these voices and the words that came out were again very poetic and I realised this voice can speak English, too!"

Mohammed Achaari

In what was a tense press conference after the award announcement, IPAF winner Mohammed Achaari provided a moment of welcome levity.

When asked whether he was disappointed that he had to share the award with Raja Alem he dryly replied: "Even if I was, I wouldn't tell you."

Speaking after the press conference, a more relaxed Achaari jokingly said he was "happy to share the award with Raja if she would have me as a partner."

Achaari's relaxed wit is in sharp contrast to his IPAF-winning The Arch and the Butterfly, a mournful psychological drama about a left-wing Moroccan father, who after sending his son to study abroad, receives a letter from Al Qaeda informing him that his son has been killed in Afghanistan.

With the family crippled by the tragedy, the father attempts to salvage his relationship with his wife.

"It was important for me to see how a regular man can overcome such a tragedy that shakes his world and how he attempts to survive it through love, friendship, music and poetry," he says.

Achaari says he was disappointed some journalists pegged the novel as dealing exclusively with terrorism. He says while terrorism was a theme, it was "only a key to discuss other themes in the book."

In The Arch and the Butterfly, Achaari's scope is expansive as he tackles a host of social issues affecting Moroccan society from fanaticism and corruption to relationships between fathers and sons.

"I wanted to bring a lot of voices to this novel and touch upon topics that we sometimes ignore as we go through this present time, but when we revisit it we realise its important in life as well as in writing."

Achaari has dedicated his literary and political life to detailing Morocco's changing society. He is a former arts minister, political prisoner and president of the Moroccan Writers Union.

He is widely known as a poet, with 10 anthologies to his name.

The Arch and the Butterfly was completed 14 years after his debut novel, South of the Soul. He says tackling the story in the long form did require some tweaking to his writing methods.

"I view writing as one big map," he says. "Sometimes you want to visit certain parts of that map and in order to do that you have to understand its customs."

Achaari says he is now looking forward to The Arch and the Butterfly's translation into English.

While his poetry and fiction are steeped in Moroccan life, he is excited at the prospect of his novel finding a global audience.

"It is important for me to reach the other," he says. "I believe novels can bring people together from other cultures, more so than anthropology or any other sciences."

But Achaari says nothing can beat the feeling of accomplishment when finishing a novel.

"When I write I never think of any readers," he says. "I always do it for my own literary pleasure first and foremost."