A Glance 2012 ‘Arabic Booker’ Shortlisted Titles: The Excerpts

Banipal has now published excerpts from all the 2012 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF)-shortlisted novels: Two separate excerpts of Rabee Jaber’s The Druze of Belgrade have appeared (in Banipal 41, 43) and two of Habib Selmi’s The Women of Bassatin (42, 43). The UK-based magazine also published one excerpt each from Jabbour Douaihy’s The Vagrant (43), Ezzedine Choukri Fishere’s Embrace at Brooklyn Bridge (43), Nasser Iraq’s The Unemployed (43), and Bashir Mufti’s Toy of Fire (43).

As in previous years, a book of extracts were also distributed in the UAE in Arabic through al-Ittihad (this year on March 22) and in English through The National (today). Copies of the book-of-extracts will be available at the awards ceremony on March 27.

In his foreword to the book of extracts, judging chair Georges Tarabichi noted that, by reading more than 100 Arabic novels in the course of four months, a picture of contemporary fiction began to emerge. The first thing Tarabichi notes is a point made by Iraqi writer Faris Adnon on this site last week: This is a season of migration to the novel.

He also adds: “The second point is the tendency in most of the one hundred plus novels in this fifth year of the prize, including those that were selected onto the long and short lists, towards technical innovation; or, to be more precise,attempts at such innovation.” The insistence on innovation, he writes, “even in its failed attempts, demonstrates that we are before a season of migration to a novel form that wants to be Arab, not in the nationalist or ethnic meanings of the word, but in a purely aesthetic meaning that is not merely a reflection, whether successful or not, of the classical Western novel.”

Judging mainly by the extracts, there are many elements to recommend the experiments in four of the shortlisted titles: The Vagrant, The Druze of Belgrade, The Women of al-Bassatin, and Embrace at Brooklyn Bridge.

Jabbour Douaihy’s The Vagrant

Douaihy’s The Vagrant (Or Chased Away), was awarded the Lebanese Hanna Wakim Prize late last year, a prize for which Jaber’s The Druze of Belgrade was also shortlisted. The Vagrant, which is characterized by Douaihy’s dense poetic language, is a strong candidate to win the IPAF. Inaya Jaber, writing in Assafir (trans. Yasmina Jraissati):

«Chased Away» evoked in me the aesthetic of Arab films, in terms of the smoothness of the story telling, the humanity, and the scenes that are read as if through a camera zooming in on events and personalities. Even the tragic end of the hero is reminiscent of these films. The author this time avoids falling into the trap of a film-like drama, because of his firm and experienced grip of the novel’s thread, which obey his desire to reveal a certain truth, at a certain time.

The excerpt in Banipal, translated by Ghenwa Hayek, is dense and shifting and dizzying. It opens:

The apartment in al-Manara, where chaos reigned. The small apartment with its wide balcony became a ship groaning beneath the weight of its cargo, bustling, its front door wide open by day, its lights beckoning at night, the hungry bringing their own food and drink. The only one who paid the electricity and water bills when the collector came was Vasco. No one cleaned, no one complained.

Nizam kept a black-and-white photograph of those crowded days, revealing the young men’s long, ugly sideburns and their obligatory thick moustaches, both markers of revolutionary dourness. It was a group picture of the gang, with all its members save Yusra Maktabi. They had heard her father never stopped complaining that he had spent his life in Africa only to see his daughter imprisoned for theft. But her parents gave her a lot of money, most of which she distributed among her fellow prisoners; they would bring her hot food, and she would share it. Her mother fretted that maybe her daughter would catch something.

The book is set during the early period of Lebanon’s civil war, from the early 1970s until 1976. Inaya Jaber asked Douaihy if he was a writer of history.

I do not feel that I am. Perhaps the past relived is still somehow present. Speaking of history, I find it difficult to write fiction of the present, as if the present setill needed to reach completion.

Douiahy’s first novel, June Rain, is scheduled for English-language publication by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing next year.

Rabee Jaber’s Druze of Belgrade

Fellow Lebanese author Rabee Jaber’s Druze of Belgrade also has much to recommend it. Two excerpts have appeared in Banipal, both trans. Nancy Roberts.

This novel takes place after the 1860 civil war in Mount Lebanon, when a number of Druze fighters are kidnapped and forced into exile in Belgrade. In the first excerpt, the protagonist — a Christian eggseller — is caught up with the Druze being exiled to Belgrade. We read:

This is the story of Hanna Yacoub, his wife, Haylana Constantine Yacoub, and their daughter Barbara. It recounts the tragedies that befell this small family from Beirut on account of hard luck and the fact that this man — an egg vendor of medium build with a wheat-coloured complexion, black eyes and black hair — happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And later, when our egg vendor is in the Belgrade fortress, one of his fellow inmates bashes his own head against the wall until it results in his suicide. The prisoners, who are packed in so tight it is difficult to move in the darkened space, nonetheless go through the ritual of condoling the man’s closest relative, a Sheikh Othman.

And so on it went in the darkness. One of them would turn Sheikh Othman’s hand over to the next person, until his fingers were wet with perspiration and his wrist had started to hurt from shaking so many hands. Some of them, though not very many, would raise one hand in a gesture of sorrow and, instead of shaking Sheikh Othman’s hand, offer their condolences with one hand on their heart. Such gestures were lost in the darkness, of course. However, they completed the rites in full, as though they were in a spacious house, complete with fresh air in the mountain sun beyond the sea.

None of Jaber’s work has yet appeared in English translation. But his novel The Mehlis Report has been signed by New Directions (thanks to translator Kareem James Abu-Zeid) and is currently scheduled for release in the spring of 2013.

Habib Selmi’s The Women of al-Basatin

The Women of al-Basatin is Selmi’s second novel to be shortlisted for the IPAF. The Tunisian author’s first, the charming The Scents of Marie-Claire, was somewhat awkwardly translated by Fadwa Qasem and published by AUC Press.

As journalist Anwar Hamed writes:

In the previous novel, the protagonist attempts to get close to ‘the world of the other’, whereas in this one he tries to relocate to his own, or at least to the world he left behind when he went to live in France. In both cases he remains an outsider, not fitting into either reality

In the first chapters, trans. Maia Tabet, the narrator returns from Paris to Tunisia to visit his brother Ibrahim. The narrator’s first big shock is that his sister-in-law Yusra will no longer hug him, and further has taken the hijab. This is perhaps a well-worn path, but Selmi brings it to vivid life with the particularities of the characters’ psychological discomforts.

Here, over the gifts the narrator has brought from France:

Yusra remarks that she is well-acquainted with this kind of chocolate – many of her neighbors buy the very same kind for their children from the French supermarket, Carrefour, which opened in Tunis two years earlier – implying that my gift is of little value, and that it falls well short of what a man like myself, living in France, is expected to bring to the only son of his closest brother after a long absence.

The narrator pulls out the clothes (too big) that he bought for his nephew:

Summoning Ibrahim to bring it into the room, I open my suitcase and take out a plastic bag that I hand to Wa’el, whose eyes are shining as he follows the scene. Wa’el feels around the package, takes out the trousers and shirt that I bought for him and thrusts them at Yusra, as if the gift is for her.

In the second excerpt, our protagonist is eyeing the neighboring divorcee, and has a wonderful conversation with his young nephew about the mosques in France.

“And is there an imam?”


“Like ours?”


“And does he have a white beard?”

“He does.”

“And does he know the entire Qur’an by heart?”


He snuggled up close, putting his head on my chest.

“The teacher at school told us that people who don’t pray are infidels,” he went on.

“Do you know what infidel means?”

“Infidel means that you don’t love God…”

He looked up and gazed at me. It was clear that he expected me to voice my own opinion, make a comment or say something in response. But I said nothing.

Ezzedine Choukri Fishere’s Embrace at Brooklyn Bridge

The fourth is Egyptian novelist Choukri Fishere’s Embrace at Brooklyn Bridge, his fifth novel, which perhaps feels melancholic and incomplete, but also has some compelling character portraits and an interesting structure.

In her review for this site, Mohga Hassib likened the structure to Canterbury Tales and wrote that, “Fishere focuses on eight central characters, the most interesting of which is Rami.”

Rami features in the excerpt, trans. John Peate. In a conversation with his daughter Sasha:

He kept talking and she listened, interrupting now and again with questions. The more she asked him, the more open he became with her, until he acknowledged that he sensed his separation even when talking to his wife and daughters in a language not his own. He knew they could never really share an appreciation of Egyptian movies starring Shadia, or Souad Hosni, or Magda. They couldn’t truly listen to Abdel Halim Hafez together. He knew he had to translate everything when he spoke, as if he were still at work — a translator by night as well as by day, having to translate not just words but whole ideas. He had to explain what he meant every time he spoke of the things he loved or hated or when he told them about things that had happened in Egypt or were happening now. Isolation was to be a man in one place while those who loved you were in another. It was a divide he had to span whenever he spoke.

None of Choukri Fishere’s novels have yet been translated into English.

The Final Two Novels

The remaining two novels, Nasser Iraq’s The Unemployed and Bashir Mufti’s Toy of Fire, don’t seem — at a glance — as strong to me. Toy of Fire is reviewed by Zainab al-Mansi in Egypt Independent