Two Winners for This Year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction

Organizers have announced the winners of the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF, or “Arabic Booker”).

This year, judges have hedged their bets, and it’s not one novel, but two: The Arch and the Butterfly, by Moroccan author Mohammed Achaari, and The Doves’ Necklace, by Saudi author Raja Alem.

Both novels explore love, religion, and death, and both make reference to The Necklace of the Dove (Tawq Al-Hamaamah),  written by the Andalusian theologian, philosopher and author Ibn Hazm (994-1064 CE).

According to judging chair Fadhil al-Azzawi: “The Judging Panel decided to give the Prize equally to two novels, which are The Arch and the Butterfly by Mohammed Achaari and The Doves’ Necklace by Raja Alem. They are two wonderful novels with great literary quality and they both deal with important and realistic problems in the Middle East, problems which have been reflected on banners during the recent protests that have shaken the Arab world, demanding change.”

No comment on why two winners instead of one, outside of al-Azzawi’s “it was impossible to decide on just one winner,” but Salwa Mikdadi, head of the Arts and Culture Programme at the Emirates Foundation, did speak to two of the controversies surrounding the prize:

We are proud to acclaim two worthy winners – and the first winning female novelist! We have continued as primary funder of the Prize; however I must stress that the Foundation plays no part in managing the award or selecting either judges or winning novels. We are happy to help preserve the Prize’s independence.

The Arch and the Butterfly is an exploration of what happens to a left-wing Moroccan man (a man who has written “the most important work on love since The Ring of the Dove“) following his receipt of a one-line note informing him that his son has died “as a martyr.”

The first paragraph of The Arch and the Butterfly, translated by John Peate:

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. With considerable effort, I returned to myself, yet found nothing. I had become another being, setting foot for the first time on alien and empty terrain. In this new land I began to experience a kind of total insensitivity, where everything was the same. I no longer experienced even a trace of pain or pleasure or beauty. All I wanted was to stir myself into doing something. All that remained within me was the inability to do anything.

The Doves’ Necklace, an explicit echoing of Ibn Hazm’s work, is told in a high, historic-folkloric tone, not unlike Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red. 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” that go on behind closed doors. From one of the early sections of The Doves’ Necklace, translated by Robin Moger:

The sole certainty in this book is the location of the body: the narrow alley named Abu al-Roos, the Many-Headed. Who would dare write of an alley like Abu al-Roos other than me, Abu al-Roos himself, the Many-Headed? I am the small alley by the pilgrimage station on the margins of Mecca, the place of purification for those who come to perform the Umra pilgrimage, that is the washing away of a previous year’s transgressions in preparation for a year of sins to come.

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.

From yesterday:

Micro-reviews and excerpts from the six novels

English translations of previous winners and shortlistees:

2008: The winner, Sunset Oasis, by Bahaa Taher, was translated by Humphrey Davies and published by Sceptre. Shortlisted Cairo Swan Song, by Mekkawi Said, was translated by Adam Talib and published by AUC Press. Rights to June Rain, by Jabbour Douaihy, have been acquired by Bloomsbury-Qatar. Random House has the rights to Khaled Khalifa’s In Praise of Hatred.

2009: The winner, Youssef Ziedan’s Azazel, has been translated by Jonathan Wright and should be out from Atlantic Books this summer. Shortlisted The Scents of Marie-Claire, by Habib Selmi, was translated by Fadwa Qasem and published by AUC Press. Hunger, by Mohamed al-Bisatie, was translated by Denys Johnson-Davies and published by AUC Press. The American Granddaughter was translated by Nariman Youssef and published by BQFP.

2010: The English-language rights to the winner, Abdo Khal’s Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles, have, I believe, gone to Bloomsbury-Qatar. I haven’t heard of any of the English-language rights being sold, although rights to Mansoura Ezz Eldin’s Beyond Paradise have apparently gone in Italian and Dutch.

2011: It looks like, prior to winning, Bloomsbury-Qatar already had the English-language rights to the winning The Arch and the Butterfly, by Mohammad Achaari. AUC Press has the English-language rights to Brooklyn Heights, by Miral al-Tahawy, and I believe will be publishing a translation later this year.