ABU DHABI // A debut novel has scooped one of the Arab world’s most prestigious literary prizes.
Shukri Mabkhout was on Wednesday night declared the winner of this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction for The Italian.
The Tunisian author received US$50,000 (Dh183,600) and a guaranteed English translation of his winning book.
“This is simply an amazing honour,” Mabkhout said at the Abu Dhabi awards ceremony.
“I would like to dedicate this award first of all to the women of Tunisia who have always been on the frontline of battling injustice and oppression.”
The other five finalists received $10,000 each at the ceremony. They were: Palestinian Atef Abu Saif for A Suspended Life; Lebanon’s Jana Elhassan for Floor 99; Sudan’s Hammour Ziada for The Longing of the Dervish; Syrian Lina Huyan Elhassan for Diamonds and Women; and Moroccan Ahmed El Madini for Willow Alley.
The awards kick off the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, running from today to May 13.
Set in Tunisia in the politically volatile period of the late 1980s, The Italian follows the life of a young Tunisian, whose nickname is the novel’s title because of his good looks.
He tries to make sense of the troubled political transition from the government of the country’s first head of state, Habib Bourguiba, to the former regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
The Italian was selected from 180 entries from 15 countries across the region.
Leading this year’s jury was Mourid Barghouti. The acclaimed Palestinian poet praised Mabkhout for creating “complex and multi-faceted” characters.
“The whole of Shukri Mabkhout’s debut novel is as astonishing as its first chapter, as it piques the reader’s interest through a mysterious event in the opening scene,” Barghouti said. “The book gradually reveals the troubled history of its characters and a particular period in Tunisia’s history.
“The Italian is a work of art and an important contribution to Tunisian, and Arab, literary fiction.”
True to his reputation of being an exacting literary critic, Barghouti blasted some of this year’s weaker entries, calling them “nothing more than people talking to each other”.
The 70-year-old made a plea to some of the minor publishing houses in the region to employ a literary editor.
“It’s not just about a matter of fixing the linguistics,” he said. “They will help in developing the character, the rhythm, the plot and warn the writer from perhaps delving into certain sections prematurely. They are there to help save the novel.”
Referred to as the “Arabic Booker”, the 2015 Ipaf is run with the support of Britain’s Booker Prize Foundation and funded by Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority.
The ceremony traditionally precedes the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, which begins today at Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Centre and runs until May 13.
Returning for it’s 25th edition, the annual event is one of the region’s biggest literary meetings, with hundreds of authors and publishers converging to promote their latest works and discuss the latest trends effecting the industry.
Mabkhout and the other finalists are set to appear at the session to discuss their works
* Check out Arts and Life on Sunday for an interview with Shukri Mabkhout