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The Arab World and some winning novels in 2012

Omer Karasapan's picture

As we all watch the  events unfolding in the Middle East, transfixed by the politics and social and economic ramifications of it all, it occurred to me that it might not be a bad idea to look at what the Arab World was reading by way of fiction. I could not locate a best-sellers list covering the region but work on putting together such a regional list is ongoing. So I turned to the 5th International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), a literary prize managed by the Booker Prize Foundation in London, and funded by the Emirates Foundation in Abu Dhabi. The prize is for prose fiction by Arabic authors, very much like the Man Booker Prize in the UK. The award recognizes and rewards excellence in contemporary Arabic fiction. It is designed to encourage wider readership of good Arabic and to encourage translation into other languages. An independent Board of Trustees appoints 5 judges every year to review the proposals (101 in 2012) and the winner of the prize receives US$50,000 while the six short-listed authors receive US$10,000 each.

In 2012 the winner was the Lebanese writer Rabee Jaber with his novel "The Druze of Belgrade" (click on title for synopsis) which chronicles the tale of a poor Christian egg-seller who is forced to join a group of Druze fighters as they are being exiled to  the furthest corner of the empire from Lebanon to Belgrade, by Ottoman authorities in the wake of the 1860 communal fighting in Lebanon. By all accounts an excellent historical narrative, well-told and well-researched.

The other short-listed novels are listed below:

Nasser Iraq, an Egyptian author, was short-listed for his novel "The Unemployed" which chronicles the tale of an educated young Egyptian man working in Dubai where he discovers a world filled with people from all over the world. In a twist of fate, he finds himself imprisoned for the murder of a Russian woman just as he falls in love with an Egyptian woman. The novel was completed  in August 2010 and also reflects the author's longing for a more open Egypt.

Algeria's Bechir Mefti was short-listed for his novel "Toy of Fire" which focuses on the post-independence Algerian generation and their relationship with their parents' generation. This is conveyed through a mysterious (fictional) character who describes his life in a manuscript that he delivers to the author. In the writing, he strives to be different than his father who killed himself after running a prison in the 1970s. Fate, however, forces him to follow a similar path of his father.

Tunisian Habib Selmi's"The Women of Al-Basatin" tells the tale of a Tunisian man returning from France for a visit and the changing face of Tunisia. The sister-in-law now wears the hijab but does not renounce modernity in other aspects - similar in many ways to the men as they try and reconcile modernity and religion. The reviews depict a non-judgmental look at a modest family living in Tunisia dealing with modernity and tradition.

Egyptian Ezzedine Choukri Fishere's "Embrace on Brooklyn Bridge" is a novel of alienation, from the culture they now live in, from each other and parts of themselves. Familiar refrains include an embrace of Islam by the main protagonist's daughter, a son trying to reconcile with the West and inter-family struggles and rivalries.

The Lebanese author Jabbour Douaihy and his novel "The Vagrant" tells the story of the Lebanese Civil war through the eyes of a young man who is uprooted by the war.

Some common themes emerge but these are for others to explore in depth. I thought it useful to point out the obvious: the narrative of the current struggles in the Arab world is told in many ways from gatherings in Tahrir Square to the new phenomenon of a free press in many countries and unfortunately ongoing tragedies in Syria and beyond. With the Arabs long masters of literature, this is another way of following this narrative as writers begin tackling the Arab Spring - stay tuned.


Submitted by michael massey on
salam, omer, thank you for this interesting reporting. would you kindly give us readers your brief observations on the quantity and quality of recent palestinian (gaza, west bank) fiction? any comments on either print and film would be most welcome. sincerely, michael massey

Dear Michael,

I wish I could but do not feel qualified to do so. My foray into recent Arabic novels was one born of a curiosity to see what the fiction readers of the Arab world were reading in the period just prior to the Arab Spring. This was a way of understanding the overall cultural milieu in which the revolts took place and see if one could make some immediate links between the winning novels and the political events now shaping the region. That too proved to be more complex than I thought, especially if I was going to go beyond generalities. This is why I declined to expand in that direction in my blog, leaving that to those better qualified than I.

There are certainly numerous on-line and other venues where one can get a sense of what is happening in terms of the Palestininan novel as well as poetry, films, etc. The Journal of Palestinian Studies provides regular reviews of Palestinian literature (no link included since there appears to be a problem with the site), The Institute for Middle Eastern Understanding has literature, performing arts, visual arts, and and culture pages that are regularly updated which provides good reviews, etc. This is just a sampling, with links to eminently better qualified critics, authors, etc. and obviously much more is available.

Also, there may well be readers of this blog who can provide much more of an insight in to this than I can - anyone?

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