As art prizes go, the International Prize for Arabic Fiction is no ordinary trinket. It comes with $50,000 cash plus an unusual guarantee that the winning book will not just be rewarded but also be translated and published in English for a start, with translations in other languages no doubt to follow.
This week (26 April 2016) IPAF’s 2016 edition was won by Rabai Al-Madhoun, a Londoner and a Briton via Palestine, for his novel, Destinies: Concerto of the Holocaust and the Nakba.
The writer’s use of the word concerto in the title and the novel’s format, a four-part narrative on the lives of Palestinians in exile, under occupation and as part of the Israeli society, proved a winning proposition for the judges. Accomplishing a good translation, before it appears, will be a challenge both for the author, who isn’t a stranger to English, and the translator.
Rabai al-Madhoun (pictured) was born in 1945 in Al-Majdal, Ashkelon, a southern Palestinian coastal town, now Israel and 31 miles south of Tel Aviv. During the 1948 exodus, his family emigrated to Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip. Rabai al-Madhoun studied at Cairo and Alexandria universities but left Egypt in 1970 before graduating, hounded out for his political activism. He began work in London as a journalist and currently is an editor at Al-Sharq Al-Awsat in London. Rabai Al-Madhoun’s earlier works include the novel, The Lady from Tel Aviv, which was shortlisted in the 2010 edition of the same prize. The Lady from Tel Aviv, translated by Elliot Colla, won the English PEN Writers in Translation award.
During the International Prize for Arabic Fiction presentation in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Al-Madhoun described his win as a special moment for Palestinians. “Palestine rejoices today, as I rejoice,” he said. “If only for a year, the Palestinian novel sits on top of the Arab literary scene.” Watch interview.
Emirati academic and poet Amina Thiban, who led the five-person judging panel, said Destinies had opened new horizons for the Palestinian novel in terms of both structure and content. “Every novel deserved to win, but we all agreed, as a panel of judges, that this novel deserved it the most.”
Five other shortlisted novelists — including Syria’s Shahla Ujayli, the only woman contender with A Sky Close to Our Home — also received cash prizes of $10,000 each. They are Morocco’s Tareq Bakari with a debut novel, Numedia; Egyptian Mohamed Rabie for Mercury; Palestinian Mahmoud Shukair for his novel, Praise for the Women of the Family and the Lebanese George Yaraq for The Guard of the Dead.
Destinies was selected from 159 novels submitted by authors from 18 countries. It has been praised as a pioneering novel, possibly an epic enterprise in its own right, its four parts representing each a musical concerto movement. How the device or the metaphor work can be judged by readers in English once a translation is out.
Destinies looks at Palestinian lives after the creation of Israel in 1948 (known to Palestinians as nakba or the catastrophe). It also puts in context the holocaust targeting Jews and other minorities in German-occupied Europe and weaves into the narrative the Palestinians’ right to return to their homeland and the intractable, destructive imbroglio of Israel/Palestine.
The International Prize for Arabic Fiction is often unfairly compared with the Man Booker Prize. Who instigated this juxtaposition isn’t clear, but the comparison is misleading at best. So far the Arabic fiction prize hasn’t shown signs of the kind of cut-throat politics that stain publishers, promoters and the various coteries of authors and judges. But if the prize organisers aren’t careful that may swiftly change. Interest is growing in Arabic fiction publishing and, before too long, the genre risks going the way of the contemporary art markets in the Middle East.
The International Prize for Arabic Fiction is currently run with the support of Britain’s Booker Prize Foundation and funded by Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority. This partnership has proved vital in the development of the Prize and the gradual accumulation of its influence on the vast expanse of the Arabic fiction writing communities. ©Sajid Rizvi. Sajid Rizvi is Commissioning Editor of Saffron Absolute Fiction series at SaffronBooks.