Excerpts and Micro-reviews of the ‘Arabic Booker’ Shortlisted Novels

Again this year, excerpts from the six novels shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF, or “Arabic Booker) were published and sent to subscribers of The National (in English) and al-Ittihad (in Arabic).

As last year, some of the translations seem to have been a bit rushed. However, the opening sections to the six shortlisted novels nonetheless give a taste of the tone, setting, and pacing of each: The Arch and the Butterfly, The Doves Necklace, An Oriental Dance, My Tormentor, The Larvae Hunter, and Brooklyn Heights.

The winning novel will be announced tomorrow in Abu Dhabi.

Two novels seem to have attracted more predictions than others: Miral al-Tahawy’s moving Brooklyn Heights, which explores the life of a woman between marginalized communities in the U.S. and Egypt, and Bensalem Himmich’s compelling My Tormentor, which follows an innocent man confronting a system of torture and extraordinary rendition.

Could al-Tahawy win? Egyptian author Amina Zaydan told Youm7 that a woman won’t win the IPAF. Leading French-Arabic translator Richard Jacquemond wrote on this site that, “Many considerations other than literary interfere in the final choice of literary prizes in general and this one is no exception – much more than any judge will ever admit! And choosing a woman might be one of those consideration.”

Ahram Online critic Sayed Mahmoud has written than al-Tahawy’s Naguib Mahfouz Medal, for Brooklyn Heights, has lessened her chances of winning the IPAF with the same novel. Besides, the prize has already filled its “Egyptian quota” with the two initial winners: Bahaa Taher (2008) and Youssef Ziedan (2009).

Mahmoud predicted a win by one of the Maghrebi authors, Himmich or Mohammed Achaari. However, one of the criticisms of the IPAF is that it’s been too closely allied with government interests and “approved” authors, and Himmich is Morocco’s current Minister of Culture; Achaari a former one.

Today in Ahram Online, Sayed Mahmoud rules out the Egyptian authors, the Moroccan authors, and Raja Alem—Alem because a Saudi, Abdo Khal, won last year—and chooses Amir Tag El-Sir, who is Sudanese (no Sudanese have yet won!) and a physician (not a minister of culture!).

In any case, the list this year is strong and varied, even if lacking some of the big novels (such as Radwa Ashour’s Tantoureya) whose authors refused to let them be nominated.

The Arch and the Butterfly

by Mohammed Achaari, trans. John Peate

This novel has the gentlest tone of the six. It’s billed as an exploration of what happens to a left-wing Moroccan man after he receives a one-line note informing him that his son has died “as a martyr.”

The protagonist had already been proceeding through life without enjoyment, but in memory of past pleasures. He treated each accomplishment—seducing women, writing meditations on passion—as a technical one. He was successful in this until he found that his son, who he believed was studying at an engineering college in France, had joined the Taliban in Afghanistan. And soon after died.

The novel opens:

When I read the letter, with its one line of scrawled handwriting, an icy pulse shot through my body. I was cast outside of myself so far that I no longer knew how to find my way back from that bewilderment.

After reading this letter, he loses the sense of smell; a wall comes between him and the world.

An officer who brings his son’s body asks:

“Do you agree with him dying like that? Sorry, I mean, do you sympathise with his cause? Ah, I’m so sorry, you didn’t know, of course. Neither of you knew a thing. But, well, you know, are you sad it happened?” I replied truthfully: “No, I’m not sad.”

The Doves’ Necklace

By Raja Alem, trans. Robin Moger

This novel—in the tradition of The Necklace of the Dove (Tawq Al-Hamaamah), written by the Andalusian theologian, philosopher and writer Ibn Hazm (994-1064 CE)—is told in a high, historic-folkloric tone, not unlike Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red.

Part of the opening is told by an alley called Abu al-Roos:

I am Abu al-Roos, the King of Breath; an epithet earned by my skill in confronting the impossible. For since no one has ever concerned themselves with my enlightenment I have learned to sit intoxicated in the gloom, inhaling a deep breath and trapping it for full minutes before slowly releasing it in the shape of rumours, legends and things forbidden with which I choke my inhabitants, who have begun scrabbling in their past for opiates, unable to bear their current grim reality or comprehend the atomic age that will grind them into the dust.

Like My Name is Red, it also begins with a murder, a girl found dead and naked in an alley. The novel looks at the “secret life of Mecca,” or the “machinations of love and revenge,” Abu al-Roos states, “behind my doors”:

I said that this story begins with a body, and because it is my story I also choose that we ignore the body. We are not so much concerned with the dead here as with chasing away the living. Until this body unmasked us, I had taken great care to conceal the machinations of love and revenge behind my doors.

An Oriental Dance

By Khaled al-Berry, trans. Ghenwa Hayek

This novel is the fastest-moving of the six. The excerpt occurs largely in dialogue: between the married couple Margaret and Ibrahim and the illicit lovers Katia and Hussein.

It takes place on Valentine’s Day, when secrets are clearly being kept—and perhaps manufactured—between the couples. The section begins with a meditation on figures and femininity:

When did man invent the interrogatory form? And how did he come to fashion the question mark? Rounded at the top,dotted at the bottom, like an hunchbacked old woman hiding a key under her foot. The question mark is feminine, for sure. Its curves look nothing like the bodies of men, which resemble the sharp English numbers 1, 7 and 4. The rest of the numbers look like women: 2 is a woman yawning, 6 and 9 are a woman writhing anxiously in bed, 5 is a pregnant woman looking apprehensively into the future; 3 is a woman whose femininity is being eaten away, while 8 is a woman in her full feminine glory, curvaceous, voluptuous, mischievous and flexible, not harmful nor badly put together.

Only Yasser’s section, and Yasser is alone, slows down a bit, with Yasser thinking about “the corpse.”

My Tormentor

By Bensalem Himmich, trans. Thomas Aplin

A sharp, bleak look at the relationship between a man and his tormentor, the two both mirror images and opposites. The tormentor notes that they graduated from colleges “in sister countries,” that they both have certificates in Islamic law and are trained in the humanities.

And yet it is equally clear that these men are not at all alike. We don’t know what the prisoner looks like, but the tormentor has a “chin that plunged into a fat neck, the shape of his sunken eyes behind his thick tinted glasses, and his mouth like a chicken’s arse, above which sat a clipped Hitler moustache of saffron colour . . .”

The most terrifying part of the tormentor is perhaps his opening conviviality and his abrupt topical switches:

Believe it or not, I have never struck a prisoner, even the stubborn and defiant ones. I have never tortured. I haven’t even so much as spat in the face of a prisoner. This is my nature; this is how I was raised . . . In my lifetime, I haven’t slaughtered a single animal, not even a chicken; so how could I do that to a human being! The practices of the executioner and his leather mat in the Islamic world, as in the history of all faiths and regimes, make me tremble and sicken me to the very soul . . . Yet I don’t deny that sometimes, purely in my imagination, I skin some of the arrogant trash and boil them, or cut their bodies into tiny pieces and feed them to the hungry lions. Now you, tell me about your violence.

The Larvae Hunter

by Amir Tag Elsir, trans. William Hutchins

This novel follows a man of greatly changed circumstances; once a secret service agent, now he’s retired following an accident in which he lost one of his legs.

The narrator, with strange naiveté, accepts both his old lot and his new with something like indifference, and only wishes to write a novel.

He visits a tailor, who treats him coldly and tells him the alterations of his suit will be ready in ten days. Before:

He had seemed keen to measure me with extreme accuracy after I gave him the bolts of cloth. Most often, even before I left the market, he would hand me – fully tailored and ironed – the new shirt or trousers. Occasionally, with strange insistence, he had refused to accept my payment.

Brooklyn Heights

By Miral al-Tahawy, trans. Nancy Roberts

As al-Tahawy’s protagonist enters her new Brooklyn neighborhood, she is both pushed and pulled—by her son’s apparent fluency in navigating this new world, by the people’s apparent differences and similarities.

This is a question that dogs her throughout: Are people like her or different? Is she unique or the same? Among the most wonderful parts of the book are the interactions between mother and son.

From one of her early visits to a Chinese restaurant:

She nibbled at a tasteless, brittle “cookie”, then quickly spit it out, exclaiming: “What’s this?!”

The little boy let forth a loud giggle. “You don’t eat those, Mama,” he explained. “You just look for your fortune inside.”

She was interested in seeing her fortune in anything: the horoscope, tarot cards, playing cards and sometimes the palm of her hand. She would not have minded someone reading her forehead if there had been someone able to do it. However, she did not expect to find her fortune inside a desiccated piece of dough and written on a little piece of paper neatly rolled into a small cylinder. She opened it with the greatest of care as though she were afraid of knowing what destiny the paper held. Then she read out: “What awaits you is no better than what you’ve left behind.” She tore it into tiny pieces, dropped them into the glass of water and got up to leave. As she walked out the boy hurried behind her, saying: “Mama, are you mad at me?”