After a good deal of debate, the judges of the 2019 ArabLit Story Prize settled on a four-story shortlist, with works by Mahmoud Hosny, Najwa Bin Shatwan, Mohamed Al-Ashry, and Samar Nour:
The 2019 shortlist:
“The Charcoal Garden,” by Mohamed Al-Ashry, translated by Roger Allen
“The Sharp Bend at Al-Bakur,” by Najwa Bin Shatwan, translated by Sawad Hussain
“The Illusion of Sea,” written and translated by Mahmoud Hosny
“The Sarcophagus Maker’s Daughter,” by Samar Nour, translated by Enas El-Torky
The ArabLit Story Prize is currently in its second year, with its first-ever prize going to Muhammad Abdelnabi’s “Our Story,” as translated by Robin Moger. This year’s four stories, which come entirely from North Africa, were selected blindly by judges Nariman Youssef, Adam Talib, and Jana Elhassan.
Shortlisted writer Mohamed Al-Ashry works as an expert in the field of petrophysics in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in addition to being a columnist and a novelist. He has published five novels and won several prizes. Some of his stories and novel chapters have been translated into French, Spanish, and English.
Shortlisted translator Roger Allen retired in 2011 from the University of Pennsylvania, where he served for forty-three years as Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature. He is the author and translator of numerous publications on Arabic literature, modern fiction and drama, and language pedagogy. His most recent translation was Naguib Mahfouz’s The Quarter.
Adam Talib said of “The Charcoal Garden,” written by Al-Ashry and translated by Allen:
A lovely and tense story that uses nature not as an allegorical metaphor, but as a setting so unfamiliar and unpredictable that it is almost a character in the story. Climate change is a theme that lurks in the background of this story but nothing about it is didactic. The translation is flowing and sweet and it occasionally borrows Arabic diction to express an idea in a novel way.
Najwa Bin Shatwan is a Libyan academic and novelist. She is the author of three novels: The Horses‘ Hair (2005), Orange Content (2008), and The Slave Pens (2016), which was the first novel by a Libyan to be shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. She was also chosen as one of the Beirut 39, a list of 39 great Arab authors under 40, and won the Banipal Visiting Writer Fellowship in 2018. Several of her short stories have been included in anthologies in English.
Sawad Hussain is an Arabic translator and litterateur who holds an MA in Modern Arabic Literature from the School of Oriental and African Studies. Her most recent translation is of Saud Alsanousi’s Mama Hissa’s Mice, and she is currently at work on Sahar Khalifeh’s Bab al-Saha.
Jana Elhassan said of “The Sharp Bend at Al-Bakur,” written by Bin Shatwan and translated by Hussain:
It’s a story about how much life you miss during a war, and a woman trying to stop time, only to find herself caught up in more losses. The story, in its depths, highlights the futile attempts of humans to fight what sometimes turns out to be an inevitable fate, imposed by external conditions rather than personal desires and expectations.
Shortlisted author-translator Mahmoud Hosny is an Egyptian writer and translator who is currently in his first year of a PhD in comparative literature at the University of Southern California. He translated Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and The Sea (2016) and John Steinbeck’s The Pearl (2016) into Arabic, and published his debut novel, Maps of Yunus, in 2018, which was supported by a grant from the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture. He also has a translation of John Berger’s To The Wedding forthcoming.
Nariman Youssef said of “The Illusion of Sea,” both written and translated by Hosny:
An arresting story that teeters between the dreamy aimlessness of an idyllic childhood and the harsh landscape (or seascape) of petro-economy. The poignancy of this texts lies more in its images than its plot, and the real-life tragedies they subtly allude to. I especially like that the translator makes the brave choice not to flatten the prose, opting instead for unusually – but gracefully – structured sentences that mirror the poetics and the waves-like rhythm of the original.
Shortlisted translator Enas El-Torky chose “The Sarcophagus Maker’s Daughter” from Samar Nour’s Sawiris Prize-winning short story collection, In the House of the Vampire. The collection took the prize in the “senior writers” category in 2017. Enas El-Torky studied English language and literature at Ain Shams University, where she earned her Ph.D in 2003. She has published two short story collections; Altalita Ah (Triple Woes, 2014), Min Hona Tamor AlAhlam (Dreams Pass by Here, 2016), and translated Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger to Arabic (2018).
Samar Nour is an Egyptian journalist, novelist, and short story writer who has published two novels; Alsett (The Lady, 2017) and Mahallak Serr (Walking Still, 2013). She’s also published several short story collections; Fi Bait Massas Aldemaa (In the House of the Vampire, 2016), Bareeq la Yohtamal (Unbearable Shining, 2008), Meerage (Rising Passage, 2004). In addition to her 2017 Sawiris Prize, Nour has also won the Naguib Mahfouz Prize for short stories from the Egyptian story club, for her short story “The Sorrows of Farah.” Her stories have been published in various Egyptian and Arab magazines and newspapers, and she is currently head of the culture section of Al Akhbar daily newspaper.
Nariman Youssef said of “The Sarcophagus Maker’s Daughter, written by Nour and translated by El-Torky:
Cryptic and profound, this story touches on themes of injustice, religion, power, hope and stagnation. What I especially like about it is the economy of the details provided as it builds an allegorical fable-like world. In a way, it’s the most classically structured on this shortlist: there’s a decision to be made. As a reader, I found myself rooting for the outcome that doesn’t happen but thinking it’s a better story for disappointing me. The translation is refreshingly elegant and assured.
The winner is set to be announced October 15, 2019. The winning author and translator will split the $500 prize.