When asked in 2015 which authors the International Prize for Arabic Fiction longlists were “missing out” on, Sudanese novelist Hammour Ziada mentioned Eritrean novelist Haji Jaber. When Jaber’s Black Foam was longlisted for the 2019 prize, some reactions were, “Finally!”:

By Mariam F. Al-Doseri

If we’re being honest, literary prizes should be taken with a whole lot of salt. Otherwise we — erm, or I — would not have had to wait this long to finally see Haji Jaber, who is seven years and three novels past his literary debut, longlisted for this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF).

Jaber’s first novel Samrawit (2012) won the Sharjah Award for creativity; his Mersa Fatima (Fatima’s Port, 2013) was recently translated to Italian by Iraqi translator Gassid Mohammed and published by L’arcolio, and Lu’bat almaghzal (The Spinning Wheel, 2015) made it to that year’s Sheikh Zayed’s longlist. The IPAF’s tardy acknowledgment is better late than never.

Jaber — who was born in Musawa, Eritrea and raised in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, now moving between Doha, Qatar and Musawa — is paradoxically at the margins and in the niches of contemporary Arabic literature. It’s a margin for writing exclusively, obsessively, about the Horn of Africa, and a niche for doing so in Arabic.

With each of his novels, he offers his readership a prismatic view of history, politics and culture, and readers should get ready to smell the coffee and taste the injera right off the pages. His books are narrated by and seen through the eyes of deeply flawed and vulnerable characters that speak to a universal experience of belonging, or lack thereof, to land and longing for love where both are indistinctly intertwined.

His IPAF debut, Black Foam (2018), is the latest installment of Jaber’s oeuvre. He follows a shapeshifting storyteller, whose survival depends to a large extent on the names and religions he adopts in each of his distorted personal histories: he is Adal in military camps, Dawood the Muslim in Asmara, David the Christian in Indagabona, Dawit the Jew in Tel Aviv. He is a son of the revolution, lover, pervert, free-rider, sinner-saint and refugee. A black foam on the surface of an ever-boiling cup of Eritrean coffee, no matter where it is brewing.

Jaber takes his familiar circular plot into a spiral of deceit and deception, spins it in the language of truth, and draws it out of his equally engaging protagonist through selective flashbacks, subjective recollections, and dexterously employed interviews. With every twist of the plot, he tests his readers’ ability to tell fact from fiction and their ability to overlook faults and forgive transgressions when survival is at stake.

Jaber’s transition from one publishing house to another might have prompted his IPAF listing, yet — regardless of publisher — his novels stand on their own merits. With this year’s exciting longlist — which has a relative absence of the usual literary heavy weights, seven female writes and 10 longlist debuts — it remains to be seen if Jaber will make the final cut when the shortlist is announced in a month’s time. Until then, get yourself a copy of Black Foam, (or any of Jaber’s works, for that matter) and start reading.

Mariam Al-Doseri is a feelance scribbler based in Bahrain. She’s interested in arts and culture, with a focus on literature and languages.

An interview with Haji Jaber is coming on Monday. From the interview:

I was fortunate to receive an invitation to visit Ramallah and Jerusalem while in the middle of writing Black Foam. I dropped everything and flew there. Before that, I had put together a research plan to deepen my understanding of the past and present of Falasha Jews. I scoured book fairs in search of anything related to the subject. I asked friends and researchers, and I watched hours of documentaries. But none of this was comparable to going to see the Falasha and speak with them in Jerusalem. It was exciting to listen to their travails face-to-face, although, on the other hand, I then had to change my plan of action in accordance with this development. The main setting for events was shifted from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as well as some other things. But I did this with love, and I grew closer to the subject I was working on.

Also read:

Habib al-Sayah: Cracking ‘the Shell of the Taboo Around Talking about Algerian Jews’

2019 IPAF Longlist Features ‘Strong, Female-led Narratives’