As we count down to the IPAF shortlist announcement (December 9), I plan to dig up a bit about the sometimes overlooked IPAF longlistees. Obviously, I’m starting with the easy ones.
Moroccan-American author Laila Lalami said that she was excited about the IPAF longlist for two reasons:
Cool things on the longlist for Int’l Prize for Arabic Fiction? Gender parity & Bensalem Himmich (who isn’t a woman, but no one is perfect.)
Himmich’s inclusion is indeed exciting. While not always easily penetrable—he is, after all, as much philosopher as fiction-writer—his work is innovative and rewarding. At his best, as in the Naguib Mahfouz Medal-winning The Polymath, he is very, very good.
The philosopher-author has won several literary prizes (the Naguib Mahfouz Medal twice, the Riad El Rayyes), and his novel Black Taste, Black Odour was longlisted for the IPAF in 2009.
Himmich was born in 1948 in Meknes, Morocco, studied philosophy, and for years taught it at Mohammad V University in Rabat. At the moment, he is Morocco’s Minister of Culture.
At the Naguib Mahfouz awards ceremony in 2002, he spoke about the relationship between fiction and philosophy: “I find in the novel strong semantic ties with informal philosophy revolving around existence and being; it possesses the most fertile grounds for reflection on human issues.”
What I continue to learn and derive from such writers [Naguib Mahfouz, Abu Hayyan Al-Tawhidi] is this lesson: the novel is as much the cultivation of knowledge as it is the application of creativity.
Both of Himmich’s novels in English have been translated by Roger Allen.
In a gripping novel, whose narrative style is a blend of Kafka and One Thousand and One Nights, Himmich imagines an innocent man’s experience of extraordinary rendition in an American prison. During his captivity, the protagonist is subjected to interrogation and torture by both Arabs and foreigners and yet, against all odds, the author manages to find some hope in an otherwise desperate situation.