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10 Reads from the First 10 Years of the ‘Arabic Booker’

The latest issue of Banipal, the London-based literary magazine with a focus on Arabic, hosts a vibrant debate about Arabic book prizes. While there are many new awards—the Katara Prize in Qatar, Almultaqa in Kuwait—most of the Banipal debaters focus praise and ire on the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), the most high-profile among the new arrivals. This prize, popularly known as the “Arabic Booker,” is set to announce its tenth annual award in Abu Dhabi at the end of April.

In his amusing short essay for Banipal, Syrian novelist and journalist Khalil Sweileh sets his satirical gaze on the IPAF. Sweileh, who recently won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal, asks, “What have the awards done to my fellow Arab novelists?”

The prize seems to “emulate those contests on satellite TV channels, where the best singer, actor, acrobat or dancer is selected, and is seen to reach the top one step after another,” Sweileh writes, in an essay translated by Valentina Viene. “That is how the longlist appears. Then comes the shortlist, then the ‘Big Brother,’ the moral coronation and its material twin, while tens of other novels exit the sorting mill.”

While high-profile, multi-stage literary prizes have been around French and English literature for a century or more, they are relatively new to Arabic letters. Authors, critics, and publishers have been alternately hot and cold on the phenomenon. The IPAF isn’t the biggest-money prize, offering a not-inconsiderable $50,000 to its winner, $10,000 to each shortlisted novel and the cost of translation into English of the winning novel. But it certainly is the most well known, and its shortlisted novels regularly become bestsellers.

Lebanese publisher Hassan Yaghi, in his lit-prize essay, had some criticism of the new surge in literary prizes. But, Yaghi wrote, he looks at the IPAF from a "highly positive perspective."

Before this new prize surge, Arabic literary prizes went only to the most established writers, Yaghi notes. And government-sponsored prizes often went to safe, uncritical, regime-friendly writers. The IPAF, meanwhile, has brought lesser-known writers and controversial topics to the center of the literary debate. Yaghi particularly cites the attention the prize has given prolific Lebanese novelist Rabee Jaber.

Jaber was on the longlist and shortlist before he finally won the IPAF for his novel The Druze of Belgrade. And, Yaghi writes, "Arab readers are now going back to his [Jaber’s] early works and are waiting enthusiastically for his new ones.”

Not every book on the IPAF longlists—by now a group around 150 strong—has been equally worthy. Some of the prize-winning novels came and went without making much of an impression, such as the 2008 winner, Bahaa Taher’s Sunset Oasis, translated by Humphrey Davies. Some have made readers question the judges’ judgment, like the 2010 winner, Abdo Khal’s Throwing Sparks, translated by Maia Tabet and Michael Scott. Some were edited too drastically by the English-language publisher, such as Khaled Khalifa’s In Praise of Hatred, translated by Leri Price. And a good many excellent Arabic novels never made any of the IPAF lists.

Still, among the “Arabic Booker” books available in English, there are many strong reads. To mark the prize’s first ten years, I chose ten novels, the first by the celebrated Rabee Jaber:

Confessions

(Longlist, 2009) Translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid

It’s hard to see how any of the books listed for the 2009 IPAF could have competed with this gorgeous short narrative about identity, told through the point of view of a boy rescued and raised by his parents’ killer during the Lebanese civil war. The English translation was shortlisted for the 2017 PEN America translation prize in recognition both of the beauty of Jaber’s writing and Abu-Zeid’s work bringing it into a clear, quivering, startling English.

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The Dove's Necklace

(Co-Winner, 2011) Translated by Adam Talib and Katharine Halls

You could get lost in Raja Alem’s The Dove’s Necklace, and, if you’re not careful, you might. Alem’s stories within stories within stories (within stories) feel like an organic representation of the tangled, multilayered, centuries-old streets of Mecca, where the novel is set. If you feel you need to signpost yourself along the way, read Alem’s wild book alongside Ziauddin Sardar’s Mecca.

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June Rain

(Shortlist, 2008) Translated by Paula Haydar

One of the prize’s strange oversights is that Jabbour Douaihy has never been declared its winner. But, equally, one of English’s strange oversights is that so little of Douaihy’s work has been translated. If you read in French, you can enjoy two more of Douaihy’s IPAF-listed books, translated by Stéphanie Dujols. June Rain, in beautiful translation by Haydar, is a story of identity and truth. At its center is a boy-man who is constantly in the process of inventing and narrativizing himself.

The Bamboo Stalk

(Winner, 2013) Translated by Jonathan Wright

I was recently asked by a high-school teacher for a translated coming-of-age story that could work for teen readers. This book was the first to spring to mind. The story of a half-Kuwaiti, half-Filipino young man, The Bamboo Stalk is about how to navigate identity, borders, religions, racism, and more as the narrator moves from the Philippines to meet his Kuwaiti family. Although it’s an accessible read for teens, there’s much in it to interest adults as well.

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The Grub Hunter

(Shortlist, 2011) Translated by William Hutchins

Elsir is a prolific writer who focuses mostly on short novels, often satirical. Although he lives in Qatar, his novels are generally set in his home country, Sudan. His Ebola ’76 and French Perfume are also both in English, and both make for blackly and bleakly funny reads. Among his IPAF-listed works I recommend The Grub Hunter, narrated by a retired Sudanese security agent who now wants to write a novel.

Of Noble Origins

(Longlist, 2010) Translated by Aida Bamia

Khalifeh is one of the great Palestinian novelists of the twentieth century, and it’s hard to understand why her Bab al-Saha or Door to the Courtyard hasn’t yet been translated into English. Her only IPAF-listed work is Of Noble Origins, which tells the stories of a wide array of characters in the lead-up to the 1948 establishment of Israel and expulsion of many of the country’s Palestinians. Two things that are remarkable about this historical novel: the wide sympathy Khalifeh has for all of her characters, whatever their background or religion; and how she tells the stories of the women of 1930s and 1940s Mandate Palestine.

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No Knives in the Kitchens of This City

(Shortlist, 2014) Translated by Leri Price

Khalifa was shortlisted for his In Praise of Hatred and No Knives in the Kitchens of This City, although his latest novel, Death is Hard Work, also forthcoming in translation by Leri Price, was surprisingly overlooked. As In Praise of Hatred was unfortunately edited in its English translation, that leaves us with No Knives, which also won the 2013 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature.

Khalifa didn’t receive a visa to Egypt to accept his award, but in a prepared statement he called this “the novel that changed my life, that made me less harsh and more precise in passing sentences that are valuable, unequivocal, and unquestionable, because in the novel everything is subject to question, change, and alternative possibilities, because it is simply a human record that still reiterates its questions about joy, love, and hatred, and still seeks its central question and here I mean the question of death.”

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The Broken Mirrors: Sinalcol

(Longlist, 2013) Translated by Marilyn Booth or Humphrey Davies

My favorite Elias Khoury novel is As Though She Were Sleeping, which may have been longlisted for the inaugural IPAF, although this information is no longer on the website. Davies has also translated an excerpt from Khoury’s new novel, shortlisted for the 2017 IPAF, available in the latest Banipal. But the only full-length work definitely listed for the IPAF and available in translation is Khoury’s Sinalcol, a novel of broken mirrors, memory, and the Lebanese civil war, a twisting circular narrative that builds on much of his earlier work. His novels can be very different—from the murder mystery White Masks to the feminine As Though She Were Sleeping to the big Palestinian historical novel Gate of the Sun—but always have compelling ways of fragmenting the world and putting it back together again.

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The President's Gardens

(Longlist, 2013) Translated by Luke Leafgren

Al-Ramli was also longlisted for his novel Dates on my Fingers, also translate by Leafgren. This novel, which won a PEN Translates award, centers on an Iraqi village that wakes to find the severed heads of nine of its sons stacked in banana crates by the bus stop. As Malu Halasa wrote in a review for Bookwitty, “For an author as compelling and important as Al-Ramli, the great heroes of Iraq are not intellectuals or sheikhs…. He leaves us with the severed head of a humble man of conscience in a region controlled by killers, religious extremists and crazy American presidents. We’re lucky to get that.”

The Baghdad Eucharist

(Shortlist, 2013) Translated by Maia Tabet

Antoon’s Ya Mariam was shortlisted for the 2013 IPAF and is a story of contemporary Iraq told through Iraqis of different generations who see their country in distinctly different ways. The events take place in a single day.

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Two more forthcoming later this year and early next year:

Ahmed Saadawi's Frankenstein in Baghdad, translated by Jonathan Wright, will be out from Penguin in early 2018. (Winner, 2014)

Rabai al-Madhoun’s Destinies: Concerto of the Holocaust and the Nakba is scheduled for release by Hoopoe in Fall 2017. (Winner, 2016)

Four more if you read in French:

Jabbour Douaihy's Saint Georges regardait ailleurs. (Shortlist, 2012). Won the Prix de la Littérature Arabe in 2013. translated to French by Stéphanie Dujols.

Jabbour Douaihy's Le Quartier américain. (Longlist, 2015) Translated to French by Stéphanie Dujols.

Mohammed Hasan Alwan's Le castor. (Shortlist, 2013), translated to French by Stéphanie Dujols. Won the Prix de la Littérature Arabe in 2015.

Ali Al-Muqri's Le Beau Juif. (Longlist, 2011). Translated by Khaled Osman in collaboration with Ola Mehanna.

Marcia Lynx Qualey is a court poet, ghost writer, and itinerant scribe with a focus on Arab and Arabic literatures. Writes for The Guardian, The Chicago Tribune, Deutchse Welle, The National, and ... Show More

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Marcia Lynx Qualey
Excellent! I would love to hear what you think of it. Not sure if you saw, but this year's prize was announced yesterday, it went to Mohammed Hasan Alwan for A SMALL DEATH (https://arablit.org/2017/04/25/mohammed-hassan-alwan-wins-2017-international-prize-for-arabic-fiction-with-a-small-death/) & here are a few of his bits & bobs in translation (https://arablit.org/2017/04/26/6-reads-in-translation-by-2017-international-prize-for-arabic-fiction-winner-mohammed-hasan-alwan/).

I was rooting for the Elias Khoury novel, but, oh well!

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