International Prize for Arabic Fiction Longlistees: Raja Alem

An article in Bomb magazine compares IPAF longlistee Raja Alem—or at least her reputation—to Vladimir Nabokov(‘s): “masterful, erudite, witty, and somewhat dangerous.”

The piece was put together by Alem’s English-language collaborator (translator is the wrong word for what they do) Tom McDonough. The two are listed as co-authors on her books, which I suppose is also the wrong word.

Anyhow, in the Bomb piece, Alem describes her style thus:

My Arabic prose style, like the Empty Quarter, is a wilderness from which no one emerges alive. There’s no way to bring my Arabic into English because what starts out as, say, a two-word sentence in Arabic, with all the historical and mythological allusions, might call for a lengthy paragraph in English. That would kill the narrative flow.

And her relationship with McDonough:

Translating my worlds with you feels like living together, each of us throwing ourselves into the other’s world. Translation is an out-of-body experience. I feel like I’m watching the Raja of my childhood, along with all the aunts and grandfathers who aren’t here anymore, resurrected now in another world, speaking another language, a simpler, more direct tongue.

Alem was born in Mecca in 1970. She studied English literature and worked tutoring kindergarten teachers in Jeddah. She published her first novel in 1991, and has won a number of literary prizes, including the Ibn Tufail Prize, the Al-Yamamah, and the Khalda Saed.

Over at Review AE, blogger Yahya says that Alem’s best work is Fatma: A Novel of Arabia, “a beautifully painted story of one woman’s surreal adventure through ‘Arabia.'” (It’s unclear if he means the English or the Arabic text.)

He continues: “Unfortunately, this year Alem has been nominated for The Doves’ Necklace, a far inferior piece of fiction that I can only describe as sensationalist.”

IPAF organizers describe The Doves’ Necklace thus:

The sordid underbelly of the holy city of Mecca is revealed in this astonishing story. The world painted by heroine Aisha embraces everything from prostitution and religious extremism to the exploitation of foreign workers under a mafia of building contractors, who are destroying the historic areas of the city. This bleak scene is contrasted with the beauty of Aisha’s love letters to her German boyfriend.

Raja Alem in video

New Eyes on the Arab World: Breaking Down Barriers of Fear and Prejudice: With Tom McDonough, Joe Sacco, Peter Theroux, and Sulaiman Al Hattlan


My Thousand and One Nights

California Literary Review

Previously profiled: Egyptian Miral al-Tahawy, longlisted for her Brooklyn Heights, Bensalam Himmich, longlisted for My Tormentor, Fawaz Haddad, longlisted for God’s Soldiers, and Khairy Shalaby, longlisted for Istasia. See the full longlist here.