The best of new Arabic fiction

Ahead of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, announced tonight, this year's shortlisted authors speak about their careers.

Ahead of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, announced tonight, this year's shortlisted authors speak to Nabil Shawkat about their careers.

Mansoura Ez Eldin wrote most of her first novel, Maryam's Maze, with one hand while she held her newborn with the other. Muhammad al Mansi Qindeel writes mostly at night and says that his talent only wakes up at seven in the evening. Rabee Jabir was writing a letter to a friend when it suddenly became a novel about Lebanese immigrants to America. Raba'i Madhoun retires to the conservatory in his garden to write for one to four hours every night. Jamal Naji can work anywhere, even with noise around him or in the car. The writers have all made the shortlist of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2010, known also as the Arabic Booker Prize. It is run with the support of the Booker Prize Foundation in London and the Emirates Foundation in Abu Dhabi. Interestingly enough, they all are, or were, newspaper editors. Ez Eldin is with the Cairo-based Akhbar al-Adab; Qindeel with the Kuwait-based Al-Arabi; Jabir with the London-based Al-Hayat; Raba'i Madhoun with the London-based Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, and Abdo Khal with the Jeddah-based Okaz. Jamal Naji, currently the head of the Intelligentsia Centre for Research and Survey in Amman, was chief editor of the magazine Awraq between 2001 and 2003. It is hard to rank writers, as anyone who has followed the news of this prize fully knows. There are people who walk out of panels, complaining about the method of selection. There are people who write afterwards, contesting the worth of the novel that finally won. This is all normal, for a good writer cannot appeal to every taste. Just as good singers, good dancers and good actors each have their own fans. What caught my attention more than anything about these writers was the fact that almost all were early bloomers, publishing their first work while in college or right afterwards, usually to critical acclaim. Ez Eldin published her first novel at 25, Qindeel won a prize for his first short story at 21, Jabir produced a much praised novel at 20, Jamal Naji at 23. But who are they, and how do they do it? The following review of their lives, work and ideas, brief as it is, hopes to offer a sliver of an answer.

Ez Eldin knows her way around the land of dreams. In her short novel Beyond Paradise (Wara al-Firdaws), she packs enough imagery for a three-volume work. Her power of imagination is such that sometimes, while reading her novel, I wished that she would drop some of the subplots and forget about some of the side characters. But even as the thought went through my mind, I enjoyed every sketch and every little dream. In a detailed, compact and colourful style, she tells the story of two friends, Salma and Gamila, living in the Egyptian countryside in the 1980s. Gamila, the poorer one, rises from poverty to become a respectable academic, while Salma, the more affluent one, finds herself in an unsuccessful marriage and decides to seek salvation through writing. This is perhaps a reference to Ez Eldin's own life, for she used to sit near the bed of her dying mother and pretend to write simply because her mother took pride in her daughter's career. Born in 1976 in a small village on the Nile in the Delta, Ez Eldin got a job with the prestigious Akhbar al-Adab (Literature News) upon her graduation from the Mass Communication College at Cairo University in 1998. Her first book was a collection of stories called Daw' Mohtazz (Flickering Light) that came out in 2001. Her first novel, Matahat Maryam (Maryam's Maze), won her wide recognition and has been translated into English. "Even when I am too busy at the paper, I write down notes, ideas, and sketches for whenever the time allows, and I work on those later," she said in response to written questions. "I write in my room on a laptop. I cannot work in coffeehouses. "I wrote a major part of my first novel, Maryam's Maze, holding my baby in my left hand while I typed with my right. Sometimes I put her in her crib to play while I wrote, and when she cried I stopped. "I use mythology and dreams for purely aesthetic reasons. Our literary tradition is rich with artistry. Take, for example, The Interpretation of Dreams (Tafsir al-Ahlam) by Ibn Sirin, a work that I greatly admire. It is full of poetic interpretations of dreams. Also, our oral history is stunningly beautiful."

Jabir is a prolific writer - so prolific that you'd expect him to slip into mediocrity. But he doesn't. His America is a well-told, well-researched novel about early Syrian immigrants to America that was inspired by tales about his great-grandfather that he heard as a child. While telling the story of Martha Haddad, a woman who goes to America to search for her husband, Jabir draws an intimate portrait of early 20th-century America as seen from the eyes of Arab immigrants. Born in Beirut in 1972, Jabir studied computer engineering and physics at the American University of Beirut for five years, most of which, by his own admission, he spent socialising and playing football. While at college, he spent many days examining the archives of 19th-century Ottoman newspapers at the Jafet Library; the experience left its mark on his writing. His first novel, Master of Darkness, appeared in 1992, when Jabir was only 20. Since then, he has written 15 more novels, almost one per year. "The Arabic writer lives in the margin but maybe that is not such a bad destiny. Maybe in the margin he keeps himself intact. Like Homer, like Kafka, he better pray not for recognition first, but for two more important things: good health and enough time to finish his work." "In 1998, while doing some research in the New York Public Library for a novel on Herman Melville, I kept thinking of a great-grandfather of mine who reached America before the end of the 19th century," Jabir said. "Around that time, a friend asked me why I wanted to return to Beirut rather than stay in America and become an American. Flying above the Atlantic, returning to the old world, I started writing a long answer to my friend's question and that answer became a novel, not about Herman Melville but about my great-grandfather Yusuf Jabir, or Yusuf al Inglizi." "The Arabic writer lives in the margin but maybe that is not such a bad destiny. Maybe in the margin he keeps himself intact. Like Homer, like Kafka, he better pray not for recognition first, but for two more important things: good health and enough time to finish his work."

Qindeel sometimes complains that he is not writing enough; he's being coy. So far, he has written four novels, five short story collections and four non-fiction books as well as film scripts and children stories. That's maybe one major work every two years or so, not bad for a full-time journalist. Born in al-Mahallah al-Kubra in the Nile Delta in 1949, Qindeel started working as a doctor in al-Minya, southern Egypt, after his graduation in 1975. He left his medical career for writing, but still says that his years in the countryside were crucial for his work as a writer. His first full-length novel, Inkesar al-Roh (Broken Spirit), is a love story taking place in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Since then, there has been a strong political component to his writing. A Cloudy Day on the West Side is no exception. It tells the story of a village girl, Aisha, who runs away from her village, takes refuge in a convent, becomes a translator and gets to hang out with Egypt's most influential people, including Howard Carter, Lord Cromer, Mustafa Kamel and Abdel Rahman al Rafie. Qindeel is a history buff, which impels him to place Aisha in unlikely situations to shed light on Egypt's history. His 569-page novel reads as several novels bound together in one volume. With little effort, it could be broken into three smaller novels, one about Carter, one about the convent and one about King Akhenaten, with enough material left for a separate work on Egyptian political life at the turn of the century. "I have no particular rituals for writing," he said in an interview, "but I only write at night. Even when I take time off to write, I cannot write in the morning. I tell my friends that until seven at night I am just a regular guy and that my talent, lazy as it is, wakes up only in the evening. "In the Arab world, one cannot live off writing. You give the publishers your novel almost for free and if they pay you, it is only symbolic. You don't make real money unless you win a prize or your novel goes to the screen. "There are many constraints on the freedom of the writer. My Moon Over Samarkand was mutilated by the editor of Dar al Helal, who omitted more than one third of it for political reasons. Later on, I had Dar Merit publish it in full."

My first impression of The Lady from Tel Aviv was that it was too sophisticated for its own good. It involves a writer writing about a writer and a traveller writing about another traveller, all of whom curiously resemble Madhoun himself. But I eventually started to appreciate what Madhoun was doing. His account of his homecoming to Palestine-Israel is entrancing, and his deadbeat account of the crossing to Gaza is masterful. The novel is likely to become controversial because of the friendship that develops between the Palestinian protagonist and an Israeli actress (it's actually a credit to the author's open-mindedness). Born in Magdal, near Askalan (now Ashkelon) in 1940, Madhoun moved with his family to a refugee camp in Khan Yunis after the 1948 war. He studied history in Alexandria, a logical choice since Gaza was at the time administered by Egypt. After graduating in 1970, he found work as a journalist. He now lives in London and works for the newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat. "Our part of the world is governed by the fate of two nations who live in one land that is impossible to divide, and any attempt to banish one of them is mad and inhuman and unfeasible to start with," he said. "Besides, the two-state solution is a lame formula that cannot make for good neighbours. The Palestinian will never forget his Palestine, not in a thousand years, and the Israeli will not disappear as if nothing ever happened. "After The Lady from Tel Aviv, I will continue to explore the dimensions of the Palestinian-Israeli question. I will visit Nazareth, Haifa and some Arab villages in Israel where, if everything goes to plan, some of my future fictional characters will reside."

Naji's sixth novel, When the Wolves Grow Old, is a story of social climbing in modern-day Amman told by multiple narrators and with a record number of characters. Born in 1954 in Aqabet Jaber refugee camp near Jericho, Naji moved to Amman in 1967. After obtaining a diploma in plastic arts, he worked as a teacher and banker. His first novel, The Road to Balharith, came out in 1982 and went into six editions. Another novel, 1988's Remnants of the Last Storm, became a television series. Currently the director of the Intelligentsia Centre for Research and Survey in Amman, Jamal writes for Al Thaqafiya magazine in Dubai and Al Rai and Al Dustur newspapers in Jordan. "I used to have certain rituals for writing, such as wearing loose and light coloured clothes and drinking white coffee and working at night," he said. "But now I gave up all these rituals and can write even with noise around or in the car. I now wonder why I used to have all those rituals. "It wasn't easy to write When the Wolves Grow Old because I used multiple voices in the narration. Each character has its own vocabulary and mood. This technique is one that the readers love but it is exhausting for the writer."

For a man who lives and writes in Saudi Arabia, Khal is a phenomenon. His novel She Throws Sparks (Tarmi Besharar) borrows its name from a verse in the Quran that warns the infidels of the horrors of hell (Sura 77, Aya 31). If this wasn't enough to raise brows in his country, Khal makes, in the opening pages of the novel, a comparison between two parts of Jeddah in the midst of a real estate boom. He refers to the best part as heaven and the worst part as hell, then he races into a graphic account of sex, repression, love and despair. One might expect Khal to run out of breath after a few chapters of trauma-inducing scenes, but he keeps the madness going at relentless pace, with characters cheating and being cheated, torturing and being tortured, exacting revenge and becoming objects of revenge. Khal has written a thriller from beginning to end, and his brand of writing is quite unusual for this part of the world. Born in 1962 in a small village in southwestern Saudi Arabia, Khal studied in Riyadh and Jeddah, earning a bachelor's degree in political science from King Abdel Aziz University in 1987. He is the chief editor of the Saudi newspaper Okaz, for which he also writes a daily column. Khal told us that he was "pleased and honoured" to be shortlisted for the IPAF and felt that his selection will "create great attention for the book and the topic". Additional reporting by Marten Youssef.

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