'Arabic Booker' 2011 shortlisted authors talk about their work

Before tomorrow's announcement of the winner of the IPAF or 'Arabic Booker' prize, we talk to the six shortlisted authors about their work.

Khalid Al-Bari. An Oriental Dance centres on the life of a young Egyptian who, after marrying an older British woman, uproots to England for a new life.
Powered by automated translation

When the inaugural International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) was awarded in 2008, western readers were introduced to important new voices from a frequently misunderstood region of the world.

This year is no different as the six shortlisted authors set their unique gazes on topics ranging from the timely to the universal.

Among the shortlisted novels there are ones that include characters inspired by the written word, in search of identity and rebuilding lives shattered by tragedy.

This year's finalists include two physicians, a poet and a government minister. The eclectic nature of the literary work mirrors some of the authors' professions.

Dubbed the "Arabic Booker," the IPAF is supported by the Booker Prize and funded by the Emirates Foundation. The winning author receives US$50,000 (Dh183,650) as well as guaranteed translation of the novel.



Shortlist announced for Prize for Arabic Fiction 2011
'Arab Booker' sees rise in female contenders

Shortlisted authors walk away with $10,000. However, the award's prestigious reputation often results in many of their works also being translated.

The award's administrator Joumana Haddad says the IPAF acts as a gateway to the most important fiction in the Arab world. "The notable success of the prize is in firmly establishing the presence of the Arabic novel internationally," she says.

Mohammed Achaari

Since September 11, 2001, global best-seller lists have frequently included works of fiction tackling terrorism and religious extremism.

The Moroccan writer Achaari says he wants to bring new insights into the sensitive topic by exploring a different angle in his IPAF shortlisted work The Arch and the Butterfly.

The novel begins with a father receiving a letter from al Qa'eda informing him that his son, whom he believes to be studying abroad, has been killed in Afghanistan.

The book follows the father as he struggles to rebuild his shattered life and keep his family intact.

Achaari says the novel touches upon real fears facing Moroccan families. "In the past, parents were worried their children would fall into taking drugs or joining gangs,'' he says.

"Now that is replaced with their children joining radical movements and fringe groups."

Achaari is a prolific poet with 10 poetry anthologies and a short story compilation published. The Arch and the Butterfly is his second novel.

While pleased at being shortlisted for the award, Achaari says it was finishing the novel that makes him most proud: "That was itself a prize for me.

"If the award raises the novel's stature and it is translated so others can read it that would also be an important thing to me."

Raja Alem

The Saudi novelist Raja Alem describes her work, The Doves' Necklace, as more than a novel about her home city of Mecca. Instead, she says it is a rare journey into a life far removed from the city's historical role as the centre of Muslim worship.

The Doves' Necklace speaks of an old Mecca swept away by modern skyscrapers, crime and religious fundamentalism.

"The Mecca of my grandmother is disappearing," she says. "It is becoming a modern city of glass and iron while its original buildings were built from the stones of its mountains."

While the novel speaks of mafia building contractors intent on destroying the city's historical roots, Alem believes the city itself has its own life and "will choose its future".

The author says the IPAF nomination is even more thrilling, as The Doves' Necklace was originally planned as her last Meccan novel.

"I wrote it as a kind of eulogy for the city," she says. "But a month after I finished it I was hooked with a new story about the generation of my aunts and that book is also nearly finished."

Khalid Al-Bari

Egyptian author Al-Bari always knew his life would eventually involve the written word. This is despite a first career in medicine, and he describes the pull of the pen as much stronger than that of the stethoscope.

"I always loved writing and reading,'' he says from London, where he has lived and worked since 1999. "I first enjoyed nonfiction, autobiographies and reportage. It was only later that I started getting interested in novels."

It's a case of better late than never for Al-Bari, as his second novel, An Oriental Dance, is among the IPAF shortlist.

The novel centres on the life of a young Egyptian who, after marrying an older British woman, uproots to England for a new life.

This is Al-Bari's second consecutive novel following his writing debut, the autobiographical The World Is More Beautiful Than Heaven.

While An Oriental Dance details the trials of the Arab expatriate community in the UK, he stresses the story is not just about the migrant experience. He says the personal struggles described in the book are universal.

"Yes, they are about people from different places living in different parts of the world," he says, "but it's also about their search for identity, culture and faith... things we can all relate to."

Bensalem Himmich

Moroccan author Himmich's novel focuses on the controversial practice of extraordinary rendition.

My Tormentor is a dark psychological drama about the plight of Hamouda, an innocent man kidnapped near the Algerian border and transported to a secret American-run prison.

Repeatedly subjected to torture and interrogation by Arab and foreign security services, Hamouda strives to make the best of his dire situation.

Himmich, who is the Moroccan minister of culture, says while the story was triggered by the news headlines, the hard work lay in building a believable plot.

"The writer can be aware of the situations happening around the world like in Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and lots of other Arab prisons," he says. "But we are not eyewitnesses to these events, so we have to create our own worlds and characters. Some readers may find some truth in this novel in relation to where they come from."

No stranger to literary awards, Himmich's achievements include the Naguib Mahfouz Medal in 2002 and the Unesco Sharjah Prize in 2003. The IPAF eluded him in 2009, however, when his previous work The Man from Andalucia made the longlist.

"It does feel great to progress to the shortlist this time," he laughs. "Of course, I do hope I win the prize, but if this doesn't happen then I will accept the decision of the respected panel with due sportsmanship."

Amir Taj Al-Sir

The love of the written word is a strong theme for any novelist, and one which Sudanese author Taj Al-Sir explores in-depth in The Hunter of the Chrysalises, also known as The Head Hunter.

It is based in an unnamed Sudanese city, where readers are introduced to a former security officer who is forced to retire following an accident.

After visiting cafés frequented by writers and intellectuals, he is inspired to pen his own novel loosely based on his former career.

Al-Sir, whose 14 books include novels, biographies and poetry, says he is drawn to characters exploring new frontiers.

"I wanted to speak about people who have no relation to writing but who write novels," he says. "It's the story of the security apparatus and the life of a novelist."

After graduating from a British university, Al-Sir spent his early career in Sudan before moving to Qatar where he is presently a physician.

He says his profession never got in the way of his self-imposed regime of writing a novel every two years.

"Medicine taught me the discipline and patience needed to write and read," he says. "I also met so many different characters who come for treatment and that also helps with the writing."

Miral Al-Tahawy

Egyptian author Al-Tahawy's novel speaks of the flip-side of the American dream.

Narrated through the eyes of Hind, a newly arrived Egyptian migrant, Brooklyn Heights gives voice to the silent struggle of those living on society's margins.

Caught between making a fresh start in Brooklyn and the longing for her homeland, Hind finds solace through a group of fellow migrant women who share similar experiences.

Al-Tahawy says the inspiration for the characters came from her time spent working in a Brooklyn refugee centre a decade ago.

"It was a great professional and personal experience for me to read their case files and help them with their problems," she says.

The author currently lives in the US where she is an assistant professor of Arabic literature at the University of North Carolina.

She describes being nominated for the IPAF as an affirmation that she is truly a successful writer.

"You know, I have been to Abu Dhabi lots of time on visits,'' she says. "But to return there this time for the award as a writer with all these strong nominees... that is special for me."