On Wednesday, the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) announced this year’s six-novel shortlist, bringing together writers from six countries and showing the work of familiar faces and debut writers. Most of the selections focus on themes of war and displacement, but they have distinct forms – from meta- to future fiction – and there is also a well-told satire about a young man’s ordinary, workaday life. The announcement was made in Jordan by this year’s judging chairman, Ibrahim Al Saafin, and was streamed live online.
The six books honoured by the prize – which is popularly known as the "Arabic Booker", are: Sudanese author Amir Tag Elsir's Flowers in Flames; Saudi novelist Aziz Mohammed's The Critical Case of K; Palestinian-Jordanian novelist Ibrahim Nasrallah's The Second War of the Dog; Iraqi author Shahad Al-Rawi's Baghdad Clock; Palestinian writer Walid Shorafa's Heir of the Tombstones; and Syrian writer Dima Wannous's The Frightened Ones.
Judges Mahmoud Shukair and Barbara Skubic were in attendance. Two others, Inam Bioud and Jamal Mahjoub, were absent.
Al Saafin said that the six novels “delighted the judges with their fresh exploration of social, political and existentialist themes,” and added that “they allude to the challenging new realities of the Arab world – from Syria to Sudan – but transcend the factual and prosaic”. Indeed, while nearly all the novels revolve around war, most also have a fantastical or magical element.
Skubic said later that the “decision was unanimous, reached after a lively and positive debate”.
Not everyone agreed with the choices, and some found them of varied quality. "Every year, the Booker Prize insists, with stunning persistence, in surprising us by the great disparities in quality between the different works on their long and shortlists," said Egyptian critic and novelist Mahmoud Hosny, who was disappointed by the inclusion of The Baghdad Clock.
Familiar faces, frightening stories
Prolific authors Amir Tag Elsir and Ibrahim Nasrallah have been on four of the past 11 IPAF longlists, and this is a second shortlisting for both. Elsir was previously shortlisted for his compelling retired secret police novel The Grub Hunter, translated into English by William Hutchins, and Nasrallah was previously shortlisted for his Ottoman-era historical novel Time of White Horses, translated into English by Nancy Roberts. This year, Elsir's shortlisted novel is Flowers in Flames, which follows a teenage girl, Khamila, who returns to her hometown of Al Sur, where a Daesh-like force is taking over. Khamila's situation is not unlike the Iraqi and Syrian women enslaved by Daesh, and she is kidnapped and at risk of being "married" to one of the new leaders. Elsir has said this novel was, in part, inspired by a reader who contacted him after he'd published The Copt's Worries, which that reader said focused too exclusively on the troubles of men.
Nasrallah's futuristic Second War of the Dog also involves a Daesh-like group in power. Second War is Nasrallah's first book set in the future and takes the reader in a very different direction from his previous, largely historical, novels. Nasrallah told IPAF organisers that he wrote the novel in Amman. But while he wrote, the city appeared different to him, and "I felt that Amman was no longer the city I know. It had become just like the one I was writing about. For me, it was a terrifying and worrying state of affairs."
Two young, debut novelists
Aziz Mohammed and Shahad Al Rawi were the two youngest writers on the 2018 longlist. They were also the longlist’s only first-time novelists.
Mohammed's The Critical Case of K has been a darling of critics, who were largely charmed by this unexpected Saudi satire. It's also the single novel on the shortlist that is about "ordinary" life, set in an unnamed Gulf country.
Egyptian novelist and critic Ahmed Naji named The Critical Case of K one of his favourite reads of 2017, saying, "finally the Saudi novel has gotten away from history and boring realism". Novelist Mohamed Rabie, shortlisted for the 2016 IPAF, said it had been a "long time since I've read anything as beautiful as this novel", and that part of the The Critical Case's charm is that the book "remains simple without being naïve". The book boasts youthful, satirical humour. "If Kafka and Salinger read Arabic, they'd give it a thumbs-up," said Abu Dhabi-based critic Rana Asfour. Mohammed told IPAF organisers that he started writing The Critical Case of K in 2015 while living in Saudi Arabia, and he'd pushed himself to finish and submit it to a publisher before he turned 30.
Reviews of Al Rawi's novel, The Baghdad Clock, have been more mixed. Asfour said she enjoyed the novel, adding that, "Baghdad Clock is in no way literary fiction, but it is nonetheless a very well-told story about Iraq". The novel opens in 1991, when two young girls meet and become friends inside the confines of a Baghdad bomb shelter. Then a stranger comes from the future to tell his frightening tales about what's to come. This spurs the friends to write an intimate history of the neighbourhood, in order to keep its memories alive. A favourite, the book is scheduled to appear in Luke Leafgren's English translation from OneWorld this summer. Leafgren called it "an important story, imaginatively told", and said that the book "gives a new perspective both on human experience and on a critical moment in Iraq's history by letting us see, from the inside, what it was like for one young girl to grow up in that place, at that time."
More fear, anxiety, and extremes
Dima Wannous's The Frightened Ones is a novel-within-a-novel that has created waves from its publication. Wannous, the daughter of internationally acclaimed playwright Saadallah Wannous, was named one of the "39 best Arab writers under 40" in 2009. But it was not long after, the summer of 2011, that she was forced to leave Syria, and it took a while before she returned to creative writing. The novel opens in contemporary Damascus, around a therapist's waiting room, where two patients meet. Although it centres on the Syrian conflict, the novel alternates between realism and magical realism. The English translation, by Elisabeth Jaquette, is forthcoming from Harvill Secker in 2019. Jaquette has praised the novel's confessional voice as "powerfully intimate."
Walid Shorafa's Heir of the Tombstones is another novel about war and exile. It's told by Al Wahid from his prison cell on Mt Carmel, from which he remembers his childhood during the '67 war. Al Wahid also reflects on the eviction of his father and grandfather from their village. Shorafa told IPAF organisers that he aimed to create something different from the "classical, tear-jerking representation of Palestinian uprooting and displacement". Instead, he wanted his novel to "reject fundamentalism and champion the experience of the Palestinian people, who paid the price for these religious narratives".
The winner of this year's IPAF is to be announced April 24 in Abu Dhabi, on the eve of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. In its 11th year, it continues to be the most-watched among Arabic literary prizes. Each shortlisted author will take $10,000, with an additional $50,000 prize for the winner.