Hoda Barakat wins the 2019 International Prize for Arabic Fiction

The Lebanese author's winning work, The Night Mail, will receive a guaranteed English translation

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 23 APRIL 2019. Hoda Barakat, winner of the 2019 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Saeed Saeed. Section: National.
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The International Prize for Arabic Fiction has its first outright female winner.

Hoda Barakat scooped the prize for her novel, The Night Mail, in a glittering ceremony in Abu Dhabi.

The Lebanese author received $50,000 (Dh183,600) and a guaranteed English translation and publication of her winning work, which will be released next year.

Barakat’s prize comes on the back of a record number of four women out of six authors shortlisted for the award.

“I write in Arabic and the mere fact that I won an award because I write in my mother tongue is much more important to me than any prize or any recognition in the world,” Barakat said at the Abu Dhabi awards ceremony.

“I believe the artistic movement that the Arabic literature is going through is very important and significant. I would like to thank the Arabic reader to be encouraged to read even more Arabic novels."

The other five 2019 finalists received $10,000 each at the ceremony. They were: Iraqi author Inaam Kachachi for The Outcast; Jordanian Kafa Al Zoub'bi for Cold White Sun; Egypt's Adel Esmat for The Commandments, Moroccan Mohammed Al Maazuz for What Sin Caused Her to Die and Syria's Shahla Ujayli for Summer with the Enemy.

The latter work has been picked up by publisher InterLink who acquired the English translation rights to the novel with a release set for next year.

Barakat's win will also help to create further distance from the 2011 prize when Saudi Arabian author Raja Alem had to share her award, for the novel The Doves Necklace, with Moroccan writer ­Mohammed Achaari for The Arch and the ­Butterfly.

It was the first and only instance that the prize has been split and the decision was criticised in literary circles.

The Night Mail tells the stories of letter writers, in which a cast of seemingly random characters share the ache of dislocation. Some are exiles and migrants, while others are homeless. They share their lives in letters and eventually their fates intertwine.

Moroccan literary critic and chairman of the award judges, Charafdin Majdolin, praised the work’s lack of literary pretense.

"The Night Mail is a highly accomplished novel that stands out for its condensed economy of language, narrative structure, and capacity to convey the inner workings of human beings," he said.

“By choosing to use techniques well-known in novel writing, Barakat faced a challenge, but she succeeded in creatively innovating within the tradition to successfully convince the reader.”

Prof Yasir Suleiman, the chair of the board of Ipaf trustees, described Barakat's work as "an intense and disciplined novel".

“The novel punches above its word count, turning brevity into a virtue," Prof Suleiman said.

"Using an epistolary structure to deal with displacement and its effects on the refugee experience, the novel exposes us to the precarious nature of human existence in a world in drift.

“It is destined to speak to readers in multiple tongues because of the intensely human condition it evokes.”

Barakat said The Night Mail was written in response to the migrant crisis that is sweeping the world. In an interview published on the Ipaf website, she said she wanted her novel to act as a voice for those displaced.

“At this time, we are seeing a regression in the humanitarian dimension of those civilisations, as countries protect themselves by closing their doors,” she said.

“This doesn’t mean that I want western countries to fling open their borders. I just wanted to listen to the lives of those wandering across the world.

"I hope that this novel, somehow or other, will have given voice to brittle lives, which are judged by others without understanding them or investigating what brought them to their current state.”

All of this year's shortlisted authors will appear at this week's Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

The Abu Dhabi International Book Fair runs from April 24 to April 30 at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre. For details go to www.adbookfair.com

The Night Mail by Hoda Barakat published by Dar al adab. Courtesy IPAF
The Night Mail by Hoda Barakat published by Dar al adab. Courtesy IPAF