Ahmed Saadawi wins International Prize for Arabic Fiction award

The International Prize for Arabic Fiction winner Ahmad Saadawi speaks to Saeed Saeed about winning the Arab world’s top literary award.
'Frankenstein in Baghdad' by Ahmed Saadawi was named the winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Mona Al-Marzooqi / The National
'Frankenstein in Baghdad' by Ahmed Saadawi was named the winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Mona Al-Marzooqi / The National

Sometimes you have to look back for inspiration.

In Ahmed Saadawi’s case, the classic horror novel Frankenstein by the 19th-century British author Mary Shelley was the ideal foundation to build a modern tale expressing the trauma facing war-torn Iraq.

Frankenstein in Baghdad, which was awarded the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) last week in a gala ceremony in Abu Dhabi, takes the plotline and gives it an Iraqi twist.

The plot begins with Hadi Al Attag, a Baghdad resident who trawls the city streets in search of dead victims from the country’s long-running conflict.

After sewing the flesh together to create a new body, the figure — whom Al Attag addresses as “what’s its face” — goes on a mission to avenge the deaths those whose body parts gave it life.

Saadawi, who is also a poet and screenwriter, describes the writing process as his most painstaking yet rewarding.

“I have written at least three drafts of this story before I was happy with it,” he says. “But the hard work was worth it and I did enjoy it because the story allowed me to use a wide variety of tools ranging from fantasy to journalistic events to describe the state of the Iraqi people today.”

This blend of fact and fantasy is no gimmick, Saadawi explains, adding that both elements are present in many discussions surrounding the Iraqi conflict today.

“Fantasy here is a way of dealing symbolically with a number of major issues dominating the life of Iraqis today,” he says. “Indeed, an analysis of the reasons for the destruction, deterioration and breakdown of social elements, and the political struggle sometimes ends up in imaginative or exaggerated interpretations.”

Born in Baghdad, the 41-year-old’s writing career explored different writing formats. He published a collection of poetry, Anniversary of Bad Songs (2000), in addition to three novels including Frankenstein in Baghdad, which was published last year.

Each novel received critical acclaim, his 2004 The Beautiful Country won the UAE-based Al Sada magazine competition for Best Novel. His 2008 follow-up He Dreams, Plays or Dies had him listed by the British literary event, The Hay Festival, as one the 39 best Arab writers under the age of 40.

While grateful for the regional acclaim, Saadawi hopes his IPAF triumph galvanises fellow Iraqi novelists.

“Iraq is known for it’s great history when it comes to poetry,” he states. “But now the novel is the most popular written form and as writer it is also a great way to discuss various issues whether it is social, political or philosophical. I hope the award helps in giving encouragement to the new generation of [Iraqi] writers.”

In addition to the US$50,000 (Dh183,650) cash prize, Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad is guaranteed a future English translation. And he is looking forward to the novel’s reception by western readers.

“It is one of any novel’s big tests — to see how it is viewed when exposed to different readers and cultures,” he says. “There are lot of Arabic novels that are great but for some reason or another it didn’t do well when translated to another language. I hope my book connects with different readers and once it is published. Either way, it will take on a new life, and that is exciting.”

* With additional reporting by Ben East

sasaeed@thenational.ae

Published: May 1, 2014 04:00 AM

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