Mohammed Hasan Alwan Wins 2017 International Prize for Arabic Fiction with ‘A Small Death’

The 2017 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) has gone to Mohammed Hasan Alwan for his A Small Death:

Photo courtesy Chip Rossetti.

A Small Death follows the life of the philosopher-poet Ibn Arabi from his birth in Muslim Spain in the 12th century until his death in Damascus, by way of Azerbaijan, Morocco, Egypt, the Hijaz, Syria, Iraq, and Turkey.

Judging chair Sahar Khalifeh said, in prepared comments, “A Small Death explores the life and thought of Ibn ‘Arabi. With striking artistry and in captivating language it sheds light on Ibn ‘Arabi’s view of spiritual and temporal love in their most refined forms. The life of Ibn ‘Arabi, the man, evolves and takes shape against the background of a tumultuous historical period filled with wars and conflicts.”

Alwan was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, but now lives and works in Toronto, Canada. A Small Death is his fifth novel; his 2011 The Beaver was shortlisted for 2013 IPAF, and its French translation by Stéphanie Dujols went on to win the 2015 Arab World Institute’s Prix de la Littérature Arabe. It has not yet been translated into English, although several of his short stories have been.

Alwan has also written a non-fiction book, Migration: Theories and Key Factors (2014) and was, in 2009, one of the “Beirut39,” a group of 39 Arab authors under the age of 40. Alwan has long been affiliated with the now 10-year-old IPAF, as he was invited to join prize’s first nadwa, or writers’ workshop, in 2009. In 2016, he returned to the nadwa as a mentor.

Excerpt of “A Small Death” from Banipal magazine, issue 58, trans. Paul Starkey.

In a film organized by the prize, Alwan said, “It might seem odd to choose to write a novel about Ibn ‘Arabi with all those extreme Eastern concepts, whilst residing in this distant cold corner of the world in Canada. I often think about this. So, at first, I directly linked it to me feeling nostalgic, then I realised that being exposed to what is seemingly foreign or different is what drives me to reconnect with myself, as well as with my heritage and old culture.”

You can now watch all the shortlist films. They are, as in previous years, directed by the talented Kheridine Mabrouk.

This year marks the third time the prize, sometimes accused of being “too geographically balanced,” has gone to a Saudi writer. It also went, questionably, to Abdo Khal’s Throwing Sparks in 2010; Raja Alem’s The Dove’s Necklace was a co-winner in 2011. Other winners have been Palestinian (2016), Tunisian (2015), Iraqi (2014), Kuwaiti (2013), Lebanese (2012), Moroccan (2011 co-winner), and two Egyptians (2008 and 2009).

The other five shortlisted writers of 2017 were Libyan novelist Najwa Binshatwan, shortlisted for The Slave Pens; Iraqi novelist Saad Mohammed Raheem, shortlisted for The Bookseller’s Murder; Egyptian novelist Mohammed Abdel Nabi, shortlisted for In the Spider’s Room; Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury, shortlisted for Children of the Ghetto – My Name is Adam; and Kuwaiti novelist Ismail Fahd Ismail, shortlisted for his Al-Sabiliat. Each of these writers takes $10,000, with an additional $50,000 for Alwan.

An excerpt of the winning novel, in translation by Paul Starkey, can be read in the current issue of Banipal.


An interview with Alwan by IPAF organizers

An English-language excerpt from The Beaver, produced by a translation workshop

A New Generation of Arab Writers: Mohammed Hassan Alwan and Jana Elhassan

9 Questions with Saudi Writer Mohammad Hassan Alwan

Alwan: Book World Prague was right to honour Saudi Arabia

Short story: “Oil Field,” by Alwan, trans. Peter Clark