Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 15 September 2019

International Prize For Arabic Fiction 2017: our take on the shortlisted nominees and their chances to win

With protagonists as diverse as a 12th-century Sufi thinker, a Libyan slave, a ghettoised Palestinian and an Iraqi bookseller, the shortlist for the 10th edition of the International Prize For Arabic Fiction is as intriguing and wide-ranging as ever. Ahead of the announcement of the winner on April 25, on the eve of the Abu Dhabi Book Fair, Ben East looks at the shortlisted books and authors, and predicts their chances of taking home the US$60,000 prize. Given one of the aims is to encourage publication of winning works in English, through a guarantee to subsidise translation costs, we also look at how previous victors have fared internationally.

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Mohammed Hasan Alwan

If there is one author who sums up how the aims of Ipaf go beyond merely celebrating a winner, it is Mohammed Hasan Alwan. The 37-year-old Saudi participated in Ipaf’s first nadwa – awriters’ workshop – in 2009, and just four years later he earned his first nomination for The Beaver.

His nominated book, A Small Death, was inspired by the life of 12th-century Sufi thinker Ibn Arabi. Alwan says he read not only everything Ibn Arabi wrote, but everything written about him, too.

Alwan wanted to portray Ibn Arabi as a human being rather than a saint, and given there is no complete history of his life, he was able to go on similar flights of fancy as Ibn Arabi did on his journeys.

A properly historical novel of this kind hasn’t won since Rabee Jaber’s The Druze of Belgrade in 2012, so Alwan might find the time is right for A Small Death.

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Saad Mohammed Rahim

From the past we come right up to date with Iraqi writer Saad Mohammed Rahim’s The Bookseller’s Murder. Set in post-occupation Iraq, it sits happily in an increasingly popular Iraqi genre: the investigative novel.

In this instance it involves not only the murder of Mahmoud El-Marzouq, but the events of his life and how they typify the kind of place Iraq has become.

Rahim stands a very good chance of winning – while the thirst for Iraqi literature shows no signs of abating, Ahmed Saadawi was the last writer from the country to win, three years ago, for Frankenstein in Baghdad.

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Elias Khoury

An author who will always be among the favourites for any prize, and one of Arabic literature’s great names, is Lebanese writer Elias Khoury.

His “epic of the Palestinian people”, 1998’s Gate Of The Sun, is one of the rare contemporary Arabic novels to enjoy worldwide acclaim after its translation into English in 2005.

Yet Children Of The Ghetto – My Name Is Adam perhaps has a greater pull on Khoury’s mind: the story of a child in a Palestine under occupation in 1948, it has taken him 15 years to write.

There are direct connections between the two books and Khoury will be a clear favourite by sheer dint of his name – although the 68-year-old probably deserves the prize as much for lifetime achievement as this particular novel.

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Ismail Fahd Ismail

Another celebrated author to make the final reckoning this year is Kuwaiti writer Ismail Fahd Ismail, for Al-Sabiliat.

Longlisted in 2014 for The Phoenix and the Faithful Friend, he is widely regarded as the founder of the novel in Kuwait – quite an honour.

Ismail, now in his mid-70s, has been publishing books for longer than some of his fellow Ipaf nominees have been alive, and Al-Sabiliat has had a longer gestation than even Khoury’s Children Of The Ghetto: he began writing it in 1989.

It is the story of a village that seems to have been spared during the Iran-Iraq War thanks to its bountiful water supply – and is also the village where Ismail was born, so the personal connection lends the novel a real emotional sweep. Like Khoury, whether it is his best book is a moot point as the sheer weight of Ismail’s bibliography will count for something.

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Najwa Binshatwan

The only female author on the shortlist is Najwa Binshatwan, whose third novel, The Slave Pens, explores the hidden history of slavery in Libya.

Taking on the scope of an epic tragedy, Mohammed and his slave Ta’awidha fall in love and are expecting a child, but his father sends him away to end the romance. His mother causes his love to miscarry and marries Ta’awidha off to another slave.

Mohammed is distraught and sets out to find his lost love.

Binshatwan says that writing the book was painful and difficult, not only because of the subject matter but because it reminded her how Libya continues to repeatedly wound itself.

A chapter translated in the current edition of Banipal – which features English excerpts from all the nominated works – reveals a propulsive narrative that makes The Slave Pens one of the more accessible books on the shortlist – and an outside favourite.

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Mohamed Abdel Nabi

Finally, a book that has prompted some commentators to describe the 10th Ipaf shortlist as “daring”.

In The Spider’s Room, by Egyptian writer Mohamed Abdel Nabi, is based on a real-life news story about men arrested in the infamous 2001 Queen Boat incident in Cairo. Also known as the Cairo 52, they were charged with “habitual debauchery” and “obscene behaviour”. It is seen through the eyes of the fictional Hany Mahfouz, who unlike many of the men is declared innocent, but is so traumatised during the trial he loses the ability to speak and turns to writing. Abdel Nabi has said his shortlisting is a “small miracle” – and it is rare to find such subject matter dealt with so sensitively in an Arabic novel. Whether that’s enough to overcome a rather blunt writing style remains to be seen, but Abdel Nabi will be celebrating anyway. Publishing house Hoopoe has already acquired English translation rights.

Updated: April 24, 2017 04:00 AM

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