Organizers today announced the winner of the 2021 International Prize for Arabic Fiction in an online ceremony. It was Jalal Bargas’s Notebooks of the Booksellers, a novel centering on a troubled bookseller:
In his speech at the digital ceremony, judging chair Chawki Bazih said they had chosen the novel — after considerable work — because of its “impressive ability to strip the masks from the face of tragic reality,” traveling to “the lowest reaches of the abyss” to deliver “the darkest portraits of the world.”
In his talk, Bazih also railed against the increasing popularity of the novel, saying that some had written novels and entered them for the prize ”not because they have the talent or ability” but because their goal was to “jump on the bandwagon” with the idea of obtaining prizes. He also complained of an “abundance of grammatical and spelling errors,” which he said was “glaringly apparent” in some of the submitted works, blaming this on writers bent on fame and publishers on profits.
However, Bazih praised the books listed for the prize, saying that the judges’ selection of the shortlist and winner was far from easy, and that their deep examinations had led them to read the novels more than once. There was not only arguments amongst the judges, but also a “fierce struggle within oneself.”
The digital ceremony also included a viewing of the shortlist videos, directed by Kheridine Mabrouk, that offer insight into each of the six shortlisted novels and novelists.
Translated excerpts of the six shortlisted novels are also available online, along with a foreword by Bazih. In it, organizers write of Notebooks of the Booksellers:
In intensely poetic language, Jordanian writer Jalal Barjas throws light on a totally schizophrenic reality in his country, which lies on a fault line prone to frequent tremors. His hero, Ibrahim al-Warraq, is a newspaper seller who has been forced out of the city centre but decides against suicide after meeting a mysterious woman who shares his desperation. However, he continues to seek death in other ways.After losing his job and refuge, Ibrahim decides to live with the homeless people in his city and, assuming the identities of the heroes of the novels he has read, he becomes a professional thief who robs banks and the very wealthy, in order to help the abject poor and impose his own form of justice like Robin Hood. As events unfold, Barjas opens up many surprises for his reader, illustrating through his flawed characters the ruined state and complete emptiness of the world. He uses all the tools of emotional stress and engagement and of psychological exploration of human behaviour that narration necessitates.
The other judges on this year’s panel are Moroccan writer Mohammed Ait Hanna, Brazilian academic Safa Jubran, Yemeni writer Ali Al-Muqri, and Emirati writer and publisher Ayesha Sultan.
Each of the six shortlisted authors receives $10,000, with the winner receiving an additional $50,000.