Yesterday, organizers announced that the Palestinian novelist Sahar Khalifeh had won the Mohamed Zafzaf Prize for Arabic Literature:
The prize is named for the acclaimed Moroccan novelist, known as the “Godfather of Arabic literature,” who died in 2001. It is awarded every three years.
The judging committee — composed of novelists Ahmed Al-Madini, Wasini Al-A’raj, Ismail Fahd Ismail, and Abdu Jubair, as well as the Asilah Forum Foundation’s Mohamed Benaissa — said in a statement that honoring Khalifeh “is an act of recognition of her contributions in the Arab World and beyond and comes to support the Voice of Palestine and humanitarian values.”
Which perhaps overshadows Khalifeh’s importance as an author-qua-author.
Khalifeh’s Door to the Courtyard is perhaps her most acclaimed work. Bab el-Saha, however, has not yet been translated into English. You can find it in German as Das Tor (Unionsverlag, 2004) and French as L’impasse de bab essaha (Flammarion, 1998).
Still, you can find at least these five novels by Khalifeh in English: Of Noble Origins (trans. Aida Bamia, AUC Press), The Inheritance (trans. by Aida Bamia, AUC Press); Wild Thorns (trans. Trevor Legassick and Elizabeth Fernea, Interlink); The End of Spring (trans. Paula Haydar, Interlink); and The Image, the Icon and the Covenant (trans. by Aida Bamia, Interlink).
The Zafzaf prize is awarded alternately with the Tchikaya U Tam’si Prize and the Buland Al-Haidari Prize for young Arab poets. It was previously won by the Syrian novelist Hana Mina (during the last cycle, in 2010), and before that by Sudanese novelist Tayeb Salih, Libyan novelist Ibrahim al-Koni, and Moroccan writer Mubarak Rabi.
More on Khalifeh:
Occupation and the City: a Reading in Sahar Khalifeh’s the Sunflower, by Wisam Mansour
An excerpt of my review of Khalifeh’s Of Noble Origins (2012) that ran in the Women’s Review of Books:
Sahar Khalifeh’s Of Noble Origins is, by contrast, full of specific names, from the UK’s General Allenby to Egyptian feminist Hoda Shaarawi to first Israeli president Dr. Chaim Weizmann. Khalifeh plants her narrative in the middle of these public characters at a highly documented moment in history. On the eve of the establishment of Israel, Khalifeh focuses on the stories of a handful of ordinary characters, most of them women.
Of Noble Origins, which was longlisted for the 2010 International Prize for Arabic Fiction and translated by Aida Bamia and published by AUC Press (2012), is, like Dabbagh’s, informed by multiple layers of Palestinian and Israeli history. But her book, written in Arabic, feels less shadowed by the expectations of Western readers.
Khalifeh’s book is particularly unique in that she brings together a unusually diverse cast of characters. Generally, books set at the eve of Israel’s creation are told only with Israeli and British characters, such as Amos Oz’s Panther in the Basement, or are told with only Palestinian and British characters, as in Ibrahim Nasrallah’s The Time of White Horses. But in Khalifeh’s book, Palestinian Christians and Muslims, Jewish immigrants, and British colonial leadership are all treated with an equal narrative interest.
Unfortunately, the book opens with a brief, telescoped chapter that rushes through a generation of history. It is not as clearly shaped as the rest of the novel, and begins with a grandmother’s premonition that Palestine will be lost. …
The first chapter ends with a summing-up of the British Mandate period (1923-1948), that asserts that, “When the British inherited what was left by the Turks to manage, to liberate, and to modernize, they handled it like owners and masters.”
In the rest of the novel, however, characters are given a chance to spread out and contradict these broad assessments. The British Mandate governor is not just an owner or master; indeed, he is a complex character who sympathizes with the Palestinians and is half in love with a Palestinian Christian, Lisa. Most of the book’s Jewish characters, particularly the women, are similarly complex.
The book’s core character is the narrator’s mother, Wedad, who is married off to her rich and ugly cousin just as the Mandate is coming to its end. Instead of paying attention to Wedad, her new husband prefers to run around after Jewish girls. The history here is also “secret,” but these are secrets of a more banal sort. Wedad leaves home, participates in a march, and tries on many different identities. Her mother tries to rein her in, but Wedad cannot or will not hear her: “The mother repeated what she had said to her daughter. ‘Wedad. Listen to me, Wedad.’
“Wedad mumbled, ‘Humham, humham.’”
Another thing the official histories miss is love. In the end, the governor is blindly reaching out to Lisa. Despite the incipient war, a party is being held at her house to celebrate Christmas Day, because “the nascent revolution in the mountains was far from the cities and the Jerusalem suburbs.” The British governor arrives uninvited. He, Arab political activists, and the Jewish philanthropist and her friends all surround Lisa at this uncomfortable holiday celebration.
The lights go off, increasing the confusion and blurring identities. The sound of fighting comes from outside. None of the party-goers have a light, and none knows who is fighting against whom. The British governor goes to the window, where he is shot. As he dies, he is taken to his secret love: “The pain increased and so did the darkness, and he did not know whether the darkness was in his eyes or around him. He did not know what to say, to whom to say it, and whom to hold.”
The histories Khalifeh is weaving together are public declarations and private thoughts, the history of men and the histories of women. The book is sometimes too direct in suggesting that today’s “branches” have come from yesterday’s “roots,” as in the original Arabic title, Root and Branch. But when it gets away from large narrative pronouncements, Khalifeh’s novel is remarkable in its ability to balance such a wide range of characters in a believable manner.