A novel set in 1960s Dubai has been shortlisted for one of the Arab world’s most prestigious literary awards.
Rose's Diary by Emirati author Reem Alkamali is one of six shortlisted novels in the running for the $50,000 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (Ipaf).
It is the first work by an author from the UAE to make it to the shortlist. The news follows February’s announcement of the award’s longlist, which comprised 16 works.
With the award ceremony set to take place in Abu Dhabi on May 22, Alkamali is now in the running to receive the cash prize and a guaranteed English translation of the Arabic novel. All six shortlisted authors will also receive $10,000 each.
The shortlist was revealed online on Tuesday by this year’s chair of judges, Tunisian author and 2015 Ipaf award winner Shukri Mabkhout.
Alkamali is joined by two other Gulf novelists on the shortlist — Oman’s Bushra Khalfan for Dilshad and Kuwait’s Khaled Nasrallah for The White Line of Night.
Rounding off the finalists are Egyptian author Tarek Imam for Cairo Maquette, Moroccan author Mohsine Loukili for The Prisoner of the Portuguese and Libya’s Mohamed Al Nass for Cread on the Table of Uncle Milad.
Makbout praised the shortlisted novels for the diversity of issues covered.
“Some of them took us on a journey to the past, inspired by the aspirations and struggles of people living in various regions across the Arab world,” he said. “They depicted the endeavours of marginalised, oppressed or forgotten individuals throughout history, as they sought to forge and change their destinies.
“Other novelists on this shortlist portrayed freedom from various angles, such as the freedom of imagination to reconstruct a reality in which fantasy and truth intertwine, the freedom of expression and creativity in the face of visible or hidden oppression, and the freedom of individual identity.”
For Alkamali, 49, the achievement confirms her reputation as one of the UAE’s most esteemed novelists.
Her previous works include 2013’s The Sultanate of Hormuz, which won the 2015 Owais Prize for Creativity, and 2018’s The Statue of Dalma, which won the Sharjah Award for Arab Creativity.
In Rose's Diary, Alkamali takes readers to Dubai’s Shindagha neighbourhood of the 1960s, before the formation of the UAE. After the death of her mother, Rose’s uncle refuses to allow her to travel to Damascus to study Arabic Literature. Angry and frustrated, she unleashes her torrent of emotions in a secret diary where she deals with existential issues about the direction of her life, in addition to exploring social and traditional norms.
In an interview published on Ipaf's website, Alkamali said the novel was inspired by prior generations of Emirati women writers.
“We don’t deny that there were female poets. There were many poetesses in the Emirates of the 60s who declaimed their poems in the genres of eulogy, flirtation, rebuke, love and description of beauty, but these were oral poems and were not written down until the '80s,” she said.
“But what about creative fiction in the '60s, which was not poetry? Where was the written down literary story in that period? It was absent, despite the existence of schools, university study trips abroad, the encouragement of education and freedom to choose specialisms.
“For this reason, I gave Rose, who did not go on a university trip, an active imagination and made her absorbed by her notebooks.”
Meanwhile, with Dilshad, Khalfan set the novel in Oman during the first half of the 20th century. Named after its protagonist, the novel follows the young adult as he grows up in the poverty stricken Balochi neighbourhoods of Muscat.
In White Line of Night, Kuwaiti novelist Nasrallah, who at 34 is this year’s youngest finalist, explores the sensitivities of censorship. Set in a dystopian society, the novel follows his lonely life struggling with the banning of a controversial novel he loves.
In The Prisoner of the Portuguese, Moroccan author Loukili explores the relationship between a man and his jailor in a Portuguese jail on the North African coast. In a plot resembling 1001 Nights, the convict enthralls the prison guard with numerous stories to avoid the firing squad.
Cairo in the past, present and future is the focus of Imam's Cairo Maquette. The sprawling work explores the Egyptian capital’s character at four distinct points: 2045, 2020, 2011 and an unknown time in the future.
And in Bread on the Table of Uncle Milad, Alnaas explores the gender roles and notions of masculinity in a remote village in his native Libya.
“Our shortlist-ees have dared to probe topics that are frowned upon, adding more credence to the claim that the novel, in the Arab context, is a surrogate form of political and social expression,” said Yasir Suleiman, the Ipaf award’s chair of the board of trustees.
“It would, however, be unfair to ignore the literary merits that captivate the reader in these novels, including the intertwining of multi-voiced narratives and the reimagining of time to express seamless continuity through fracture.”
More information on the Ipaf Awards is available at arabicfiction.org