2019 International Prize for Arabic Fiction Goes to Hoda Barakat’s ‘The Night Post’

Hoda Barakat’s The Night Post has won the 2019 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF):

The announcement was made by 2019 judging chair Charafdin Majdolin at the Tuesday night event in Abu Dhabi.

Hours before the announcement, Lebanese author and former IPAF judge Abdo Wazen leaked in Independent Arabia that Hoda Barakat’s The Night Post had seized the prize, following what he said was a long, stormy discussion and a contentious vote yesterday. Wazen wrote that the win came despite the fact that Barakat had not initially wanted her book submitted to the prize, but that judges had called it in. Wazen added that he found the unexpected because The Night Post is closer to a novella, not like the “fat novels” that normally win the IPAF.

Barakat herself said, in her acceptance speech, she initially did not want to stand for the 2019 prize, but then had discussed it with Booker Prize Foundation chair Jonathan Taylor.

Wazen’s short post, which spread quickly through social media and to the shortlisted authors, called this a “revenge” win, as Barakat previously reached only the longlist with her historical novel The Kingdom of This Earth, in 2013. That novel has not yet been published in English, but The Night Post is set to appear at from in the UK in 2020, and in Italy in 2019, according to Yasmina Jraissati . A French translation has already been published, translated by Philippe Vigreux.

Tuesday night’s event was unusually subdued, as many at the ceremony had already read Wazen’s article. Inaam Kachachi, after reading that The Night Post had won, decided not to attend. However, the other four shortlisted authors were there.

Chair of the board of trustees Yasir Suleiman responded to questions about the leak at the post-award press conference, referring to it as an alleged leak that would be investigated.

In a short film produced for the event by Kheridine Mabrouk, Barakat said of the epistolary novel: “The letter was written at a moment while in motion, from one path to the next. I portrayed those characters through an image taken as they were still on the path. This doesn’t mean that the image is real; it doesn’t mean that the path is real, either. It means that they are currently in that act of motion. Those characters can’t find an open path laid in front of them in the direction they are heading, so they don’t stop wandering.”

From the film by Kheridine Mabrouk.

Barakat has written six novels, three of which have been translated into English. She won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature for her novel The Tiller of Waters and the al-Nagid Award for The Stone of Laughter. In 2002 she became Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and then the Chevalier de l’Ordre du Mérite National in 2008. In 2015, Barakat was a finalist for the Man Booker International.

The Chair of Judges, Charafdine Majdouline, said of the novel: “The Night Mail is a highly accomplished novel that stands out for its condensed economy of language, narrative structure, and capacity to convey the inner workings of human beings. By choosing to use techniques well-known in novel writing, Barakat faced a challenge, but she succeeded in creatively innovating within the tradition to successfully convince the reader.”

Professor Yasir Suleiman, Chair of the Board of IPAF Trustees, commented: “Tightly structured, Hoda Barakat’s novel punches above its word count, turning brevity into a virtue. Using an epistolary structure to deal with displacement and its effects on the refugee experience, the novel exposes us to the precarious nature of human existence in a world in drift. The protagonists’ search for a common thread unites and separates them with equal cruelty. An intense and disciplined novel, The Night Mail will outlive the worlds that animated it. It is destined to speak to readers in multiple tongues because of the intensely human condition it evokes.”

The other five novels on this year’s shortlist were Egyptian novelist Adel Esmat’s The Commandments, Iraqi novelist Inaam Kachachi’s The Outcast, Moroccan novelist Mohammed Al-Maazuz’s What Sin Caused Her to Die?, Syrian novelist Shahla Ujayli’s Summer with the Enemy, and Jordanian novelist Kafa al-Zou’bi’s Cold White Sun.

In addition to its chair, Moroccan critic Charafdin Majdolin, the IPAF panel of judges also featured acclaimed Saudi poet Fowziyah AbuKhalid, Jordanian poet and activist Zulaikha Aburisha, Chinese academic and translator Zhang HongYi, and Lebanese critic Latif Zeitouni.

An excerpt of the prize-winning novel appears at Words Without Borders, in translation by Robin Moger. It opens:

My darling mother,

I write to you from the airport before they can take me, before I go through the security barrier. They’re worried about terrorism, you see. Watching the slightest movement. Soon as you’re through the main entrance they’re there, everywhere, patrolling about in civilian clothes.

In his review of the novel for ArabLit, Mahmoud Hosny wrote:

The five voices of these five letter-writers aren’t related to one another in any way, except through the postman who carries their messages and is trapped in the cycle of war in an unnamed county. The situation the postman finds himself in makes the letters just stories, “Stuck as dead papers, in the corners of empty streets.”

These are letters without addresses. Instead, they’re just titled: “To my father,” “To my brother,” “To my sweet mother,” or “To my dear… because that’s how the letters should begin.” Furthermore, there’s no hint as to where the senders live, because they are always in a temporary place, such as a hotel room, or in an airport waiting for a plane.

With violence surrounds them on all sides, the novel’s characters, who are all Arabs, travel to escape or to seek refuge. Even the more fortunate ones seem to be suffocating as they seek a fresh start elsewhere. But the refuge that the West seems to offer is mostly an illusion, and the characters all have to face their failures.

A brief excerpt of The Night Post (2012):

Trans. Robin Moger

A brief excerpt of Kingdom of this Earth (2012):

Trans. Ghada Mourad

English-language interviews with Barakat:

With Youssef Rakha, 1999

With Elisabeth Marie, in 2002

With Olivia Snaije, in 2003

With Brian Whitaker, in 2004

With Finnegan’s List, in 2012 

With Suneela Mubayi, in 2012 


Barakat on receiving the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature