Meet the six contenders for prestigious 2015 International Prize for Arabic Fiction award

Hala Khalaf talks to the six contenders for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction ahead of Wednesday's ceremony in Abu Dhabi, at which the winner will be announced.

In the eight years since its launch in Abu Dhabi, the leading literary prize for Arabic-language novels has brought global recognition and reward to the winners.

Dubbed the “Arabic Booker”, the 2015 International Prize for Arabic Fiction is an award for contemporary ­fiction, run with the support of the Booker Prize Foundation in ­Britain and funded by Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority. The winning novel – which will be revealed during a ceremony at the Hilton Capital Grand tomorrow, the eve of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair – will be translated into English, and the author goes home with a US$50,000 (Dh183,600) prize.

Ahead of the big announcement, we caught up with the six candidates.

A Suspended Life by Atef Abu Saif (Palestine)

Atef Abu Saif, 42, was born in the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza, where he still lives and works as a novelist, playwright, columnist, journalist and professor of political science. The four novels he wrote before A Suspended Life were published in Gaza, which Abu Saif says "locked" the books inside Gaza, in the same way that its people were locked in.

"When I finished A Suspended Life, I decided I didn't want its fate to be like the other novels, so I emailed it to a friend who got it published in Amman, Jordan," says Abu Saif. "I didn't even see the actual novel until after I was shortlisted." He received a copy only a few days ago.

Being shortlisted, says Abu Saif, has injected life into him and his previous novels, some of which he plans to get reprinted in Jordan.

A Suspended Life is set in a refugee camp in Gaza, where the death of Naim, the man who makes the martyrs' posters, causes upheaval in the lives of the camp's residents. It stems from the idea that people are born and then die during war, says Abu Saif. "Naim's death opens the tales of others in the refugee camp where he lives. It was a starting point, like a magic key that opened a whole box of tales."

Floor 99 by Jana Elhassan (Lebanon)

The youngest author on the list, Jana Elhassan, 30, is a novelist and journalist currently pursuing a master's degree in English literature. This is her second novel shortlisted for the IPAF; Me, She and the Other Women was shortlisted in 2013. In Floor 99, a young Palestinian man living in New York falls in love with a dancer whose family were once key players in the massacres during Lebanon's Civil War.

“The novel deals with the question of whether or not human beings are able to overcome their harsh circumstances,” says Elhassan.

“Getting shortlisted is very important because, as a writer, you get recognition for what you’ve done and for your work from the elite in your field. As a writer, I live in the present and in the future, which means I’m happy with what I’ve accomplished, but I’m always worried about what will happen next. Where will the next idea come from, what will I write next? I hope I will continue to challenge myself.”

The Longing of the Dervish by Hammour Ziada (Sudan)

In 19th-century Sudan, in the city of Omdurman, the end of the Mahdist War is near and a slave has been set free, but he is bent on revenge.

In his second novel, The Longing of the Dervish, Sudanese writer and journalist Hammour Ziada, 38, addresses the idea of believing in something that cannot be questioned, and an individual's relationship with the unknown.

“In my nature, I am in love with stories and a beautiful story is always my first priority. The Mahdi period in Sudan, at the end of the 19th century, is a time heavy with stories that deal well with the subject that I want to present.”

Being shortlisted, says Ziada, is a source of immense pride.

“I am the second Sudanese writer to ever get shortlisted – Dr Amir Tag Elsir was the first Sudani to be nominated – so I am so proud to represent Sudanese literature.”

The Italian by Shukri Mabkhout (Tunisia)

The ltalian is Shukri Mabkhout's first novel, but it certainly won't be his last. "I am gripped by the magic of a novel; after The Italian, I wrote two more novels," says the literary critic, editor and head of Tunisia's Manouba University. The 53-year-old's book is set in Tunis and tells the story of a troubled young man who resorts to violence during his father's funeral, and the chain of events that follows.

“This novel is born out of what we have lived in Tunis after our revolution, from fears and hopes, and in it is a lot of worry and waiting,” says Mabkhout. “In Tunisia, like in other countries, there were signs that indicated this Arab Spring was coming, and nothing can express those other than the genre of a novel, so I feel the novel forced itself on me.

“So I returned to a time in Tunisian society and history that is very similar – the period that is the end of the era of Bourguiba and the beginning of Ben Ali’s era.

“Being shortlisted gives me so much self-confidence as a writer, and at the same time, it makes my mission in writing even harder – so that I do not disappoint those who were pleased with my first novel.”

Diamonds and Women by Lina Huyan Elhassan (Syria)

Novelist and journalist Lina Huyan Elhassan, 39, writes about women chasing their dreams. “They are women searching for freedom, they chased their personal ambitions, their dreams, whether money, or love, or success. This is our right in life,” she says.

In Diamonds and Women, Damascene women congregate in Paris and São Paulo, taking with them the customs of home – but in their own way.

“Damascus is a city of stories,” says Elhassan. “To me, Damascus is a friend, a friend full of stories, and my job is to use my imagination to add the details and embellish, like the painter completing a picture.

“Being shortlisted is like laying the roots of my presence, it is an affirmation of my work. It is an academic acknowledgement of my literary strength, from the relevant cultural society, and a crowning of my literary journey after seven novels. Of course it gives me motivation, but no matter what, I would still write. I was put on this Earth to write.”

Willow Alley by Ahmed El Madini (Morocco)

A novelist, academic and literary critic, Ahmed El Madini, 68, has won numerous prestigious literary prizes in Morocco.

He describes Willow Alley as a look at the individual's right to exist. In a Moroccan town, down a narrow alley, the suffering of a stray dog mirrors that of the alley's residents, because the weak and the poor are powerless when exploitation and injustice exist. That is the premise of Willow Alley.

“The conditions of any novel, good or otherwise, will be different to every reader. It can arise in every reader a different reaction – humanitarian, political, social, emotional. Every reader is different, every reader has his own culture, experience, intellect, environment. Every reader will read in his own way.

“A prize does not make a writer, but this shortlist is an honour and an additional acknowledgement of a literary value from a group of like-minded artists. The writer always wishes for them to read his work and give their opinion, and when they like it and appreciate it – these respected, cultured people – any writer would be proud.”

artslife@thenational.ae