As he awaited the publication of his first novel — Kafka in Tangiers — Tangiers-based author Mohammed Said Hjiouij got the news that the manuscript of his second novel, Tangiers by Night, had won the first-ever Ismail Fahd Ismail Prize for the Novella:
It was Wednesday evening, at the 2019 Kuwait International Book Fair, when organizers announced the winner of the debut Ismail Fahd Ismail Prize.
The award — named for Kuwaiti writer Ismail Fahd Ismail (1940-2018) — was the brainchild of Egyptian publisher Fatima Al-Boudi, founder of Al Ain Publishing House. Forty manuscripts were considered for this year’s prize, which was judged by five authors, all with some connection to Kuwait: Egyptian novelist Ibrahim Farghali, Moroccan short-story writer Anis Arafai, Saudi novelist Yousef Al-Mohaimeed, Egyptian critic Ayman Bakr, and Kuwaiti scholar Iqbal Othaimeen.
A novella by Bahraini Taqwa Mohammed Jawad (Face Phobia) took second prize, and one by Palestinian writer Abla Ghassan Jaber (Peace in a Time of War) came in third. According to Dar Al-Ain, all three writers will be invited to accept their prize at the 2020 Cairo International Book Fair.
Mohammed Said Hjiouij has published two previous short-story collections and also is co-founder of the Tangier Literary Magazine. His first novel, Kafka in Tangiers, follows the teacher Jawad Idrissi, who has sacrificed his literary dreams to support his family, and who wakes up after reading The Metamorphosis to find himself also transformed — although not into an insect.
Tangiers by Night is set around the 1921 Battle of Annual, which was fought during the Rif War, and Spain’s use of internationally banned chemical weapons on civilians in its colonies in northern Morocco. It opens, “My mother died, Hamida left, and in vain I try to escape the rushing waterfall of hallucinations. Hamida left before my mother’s death. Hamida left while my mother was dying. Hamida left after she killed me and killed the woman who was my mother.”
And from short section near the mid-point, which was published in the press release:
“My grandfather, or rather my mother’s grandfather, left with al-Khattabi’s army after leaving the seed of my grandmother in her mother’s womb. My mother’s grandmother. This fetus stagnated in my grandmother’s mother’s womb, sleeping for two years before my mother’s mother came. My grandmother’s mother was playing with her tail, it seems. My mother’s mother believes these myths about stagnant children. Her mother told her she conceived on the night her father went off to join the battle against Spain. The men returned, and the dead returned, but my mother’s grandfather didn’t come back. They didn’t know whether he was alive or dead. My grandmother says that her mother went to a faqih, determined to slow down the fetus. Then, two years later, news arrived about the husband of my mother’s grandmother, and it was certain: He’d been enchanted by a Spanish woman, and he’d gone with her to Tetouan, and from there they’d traveled to Madrid. The shock shattered the magic the faqih had placed on the womb of my mother’s mother’s mother, and the fetus went back to growing, and my grandmother was born, two years after her father disappeared. The other tale, which is whispered only by distant branches of the family, is that my grandmother’s mother loved the faqih of the village mosque, and that this house of worship was the house of their worshiping one another. For my grandmother, her father was a martyr in the glorious battle of Annual. She convinced herself of this, and she believed it. My illiterate grandmother could neither read nor write. But she preserved a lot about Annual. As kids, we were told about this battle in which Abd al-Karim al-Khattabi defeated the Spanish army. My grandmother was proud to say that this defeat was like a thunderbolt to the Spaniards, such that they called it the Disaster of Annual. The battle that began on July 22, 1921 was between the heavily armed and well-staffed Spanish Colonial Army and a group of locals under the leadership of Muhammad bin Abd al-Karim al-Khattabi. It annihilated the Spanish colonial nationalists. I don’t know where my grandmother heard this word, annihilated. The locals plundered 200 cannon, 20,000 rifles, and millions of cartridges, as well as cars, trucks, medicine, and canned food. The patriots captured 700 Spaniards, and they fought back 15,000 enemy soldiers. I’ve always been amazed by my grandmother’s capacity to retain these numbers. My weak point has always been the retention of numbers and dates. I’m surprised by how these details have come to mind, now, without any attempt on my part to recall them. When I was growing up, my grandmother’s Annual came to resemble the Battle of Badr, which she only knew about from the Quran programs on the Mohammed VI channel. My mother died before she was 60, and her mother is still alive at nearly 100. My heart is beating faster, and my lungs struggle to draw in air.”
A publication date hasn’t yet been announced for Tangiers at Night, but Hjiouij said he expects to see it at next year’s Kuwait International Book Fair.
Hjiouij said over email that Kafka in Tangier was, naturally, in conversation with Metamorphosis. The novella Tangier by Night is in conversation with Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile, to some extent Albert Camus’ The Stranger, and Ibrahim Abdel Meguid’s The House of Jasmine. He said that his writing has also been touched by that of Salman Rushdie. The books he enjoyed most this year were Salim Barakat’s The Sages of Darkness, Ibrahim al-Koni’s Gold Dust, and Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, although noting that he read less this year, occupied by the production of two novels and a first-born child.
You can find more about Hjiouij’s writing at https://hjiouij.com/.