International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2021: Jordanian writer Jalal Barjas named winner

The winning novel 'Notebooks of the Bookseller' is set in Jordan and Moscow between 1947 and 2019

Jordanian writter Jalal Barjas. courtesy: Shaama Oubayda Mahfoud.
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Jordanian writer Jalal Barjas has won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his work Notebooks of the Bookseller.

The novel, published by The Arabic Institute for Research and Publishing, was named this year’s winner of the prize during an online ceremony on Tuesday.

Besides receiving a monetary prize of $50,000, Barjas will also be given funding towards securing an English translation of his novel.

Notebooks of the Bookseller is set in Jordan and Moscow between 1947 and 2019. It tells the story of Ibrahim, a bookseller and voracious reader, who loses his shop and finds himself homeless and diagnosed with schizophrenia. He begins to assume the identity of the protagonists of the novels he loved and commits a series of crimes, including burglary, theft and murder. He then attempts suicide before meeting a woman who changes his perspective on life.

The novel is structured as a series of notebooks and has many narrators whose fates sometimes collide. Notebooks of the Bookseller is a heart-rending, fragmented tale of people who are ignored and overlooked by society. Barjas's work daringly depicts a difficult reality not only in Jordan, but the Arab world as a whole.

“Apart from its rich, refined language and tight, thrilling plot, this bold winning novel is distinguished by Barjas’s impressive ability to strip the masks from the face of tragic reality,” Lebanese poet Chawki Bazih, who was the head of the judging panel, said.

“The author presents us with the darkest portraits of homelessness and poverty, where meaning has been lost and hope torn up the roots, turning life into a realm of nightmares.”

Bazih said the novel does not call for despair, however. “Rather, through it, the author is saying that reaching the depths of pain is a necessary condition for finding new dreams and standing up once more with hope on firmer ground.”

'Notebooks of the Bookseller' by Jalal Barjas. Courtesy The Arabic Institute for Research and Publishing

Who is Jalal Barjas?

Born in 1970, Barjas is a Jordanian poet and novelist who worked in the field of aeronautical engineering for several years. He is currently head of the Jordanian Narrative Laboratory and presents a radio programme called House of the Novel. He has also written articles for Jordanian newspapers and headed several other cultural organisations.

Jordanian writer Jalal Barjas is the author of two poetry collections and four novels. Courtesy International Prize for Arabic Fiction

Barjas's published work includes two poetry collections and four novels. His 2012 short story The Earthquakes won the Jordanian Rukus ibn Za'id ʻUzayzi Prize.

His 2013 novel Guillotine of the Dreamer won the Jordanian Rifqa Doudin Prize for Narrative Creativity in 2014. His Snakes of Hell won the 2015 Katara Prize for the Arabic Novel in the unpublished novel category, and was published by Katara in 2016. His third novel, Women of the Five Senses, was longlisted for the Ipaf in 2019.

Barjas said he was grateful for the prize for the way it has “opened all these beautiful paths to readers so my words could reach them".

"Through these words, I endeavoured to sow joy into the field of humanity.”

Notebooks of the Bookseller was chosen by the Ipaf judges from a shortlist of six novels by authors from Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia.

The shortlisted works were all published between July 2019 and August 2020 and included The Eye of Hammurabi by Abdulatif Ould Abdullah, The Calamity of the Nobility by Amira Ghneim, The Bird Tattoo by Dunya Mikhail, File 42 by Abdelmajid Sabbath and Longing for the Woman Next Door by Habib Selmi.

The shortlisted authors will receive $10,000 each.