Who is Basim Khandaqji? Imprisoned Palestinian author and winner of literature award

Khandaqji has won the 2024 International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his novel A Mask, the Colour of the Sky

Palestinian author Basim Khandaqji is serving three life sentences in an Israeli prison. Photo: International Prize for Arabic Fiction
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Basim Khandaqji has been named the winner of the 2024 International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his 2023 novel A Mask, the Colour of the Sky.

Born in Nablus, Palestine, in 1983, Khandaqji studied journalism and media at An-Najah National University in the northern West Bank.

He has been in Israeli prison since 2004, when he was convicted of terrorism charges and sentenced to three life sentences for allegedly planning a bombing that killed three people in Tel Aviv.

Until his imprisonment at the age of 21, Khandaqji wrote a number of short stories.

In prison, he has continued to study and write, releasing poetry collections Rituals of the First Time (2010); The Breath of a Nocturnal Poem (2013); The Narcissus of Isolation (2017); and novels, The Eclipse of Badr al-Din (2019); The Breath of a Woman Let Down (2020); and A Mask, the Colour of the Sky (2023).

The Eclipse of Badr al-Din is a novel that intertwines history and fiction. According to the StoryTel synopsis, the story is set in the European part of Turkey in the late 14th and 15th centuries, revolving around the tale of Sheikh Badr al-Din Mahmoud. The reader accompanies Badr al-Din on a journey of rebellion against corruption, as he questions the value of knowledge without dignity.

His 2020 release, The Breath of a Woman Let Down, depicts an artistic alternative reality, informed by life in Palestine in the years after the First Intifada.

In 2019, Lebanese news channel Al Mayadeen spoke to an unnamed brother of Khandaqji, who said, "My brother's first writing was a scathing article titled Thank You for Your Life Sentences." Al Mayadeen's coverage describes Khandaqji's work as a "statement [that] is directed at the three military court judges who decided to issue a life sentence against him three times in a row. His words brought tears to the lawyer defending him and astonished the military court judges."

According to the International Prize for Arabic Fiction website, he has registered with Al-Quds University in Jerusalem and continued to study Political Science from prison, with a thesis on Israeli Studies.

When Khandaqji was announced on the longlist of the 2024 International Prize for Arabic Fiction in January, prize organisers published an interview with an unnamed brother of the writer.

His brother told prize organisers that there had been "no means of communicating with [Khandaqji] for the past four months".

Speaking about his brother's writing habits from prison, he said that he writes daily from 5am until 7am, when he usually produces around two pages.

Khandaqji's Ipaf prize was awarded in Abu Dhabi on Sunday. It was collected on his behalf by Rana Idriss, founder of Dar Al Adab, the Lebanese publisher of A Mask, the Colour of the Sky.

As part of the prize, he won a $50,000 sum. Ahead of the awards, a representative from the Israel Prison Service told Israeli public radio station KAN News: "We do not recognise the book or the identity of its author. If it decided that a terrorist should be rewarded with a prize, it would be impossible to receive it."

About A Mask, the Colour of the Sky by Basim Khandaqji

A Mask, the Colour of the Sky follows the life of Nur, a Palestinian archaeologist residing in a refugee camp in Ramallah. Upon finding the blue identity card belonging to an Israeli citizen in the pocket of an old coat, Nur takes on the life of the card’s namesake in an attempt to understand life behind the Israeli security fence.

The novel was written between June and November 2021, but took several years to research, according to his brother, who describes the work as "a huge fictional advance in Basim’s literary career as a novel writer", which "differs stylistically from his other novels".

"Basim is inspired by ancient and contemporary Palestinian history. He based his novel on his reading of research and studies about Palestinian history, including eyewitness accounts of some of the prisoners inside and outside prisons, especially the Palestinians living inside Israel," his brother says. "Among them is the Palestinian historian Dr Johnny Mansour, who gave Basim information about the village of Lajjun and kibbutz Mish’ar Ha’imek and the Roman Sixth Legion."

Updated: April 29, 2024, 6:50 AM