Novelist Ahmad Mohsen, Filmmaker Oualid Mouaness Win 2021 Khayrallah Prizes

The US-based Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies yesterday announced the 2021 co-winners of the Khayrallah Prize. They were: Ahmad Mohsen for his novel السماء ليست معنا (Heaven is Not With Us), and Oualid Mouaness for his film1982.

Each will receive a $5000 monetary award.

Now in its sixth year, the Khayrallah Prize is an annual award given by the Moise A. Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies based at North Carolina State University. The prize “identifies, awards and publicly honors those whose original artistic productions and projects focus on any aspect of life in Lebanon, or among Lebanese immigrants, whether in the past or present.”

In a pubic release that accompanied the announcement, Dr. Akram Khater, Director of the Khayrallah Center, noted that the Khayrallah Prize selection committee was “deeply impressed by the power of Mohsen’s novel Heaven is Not With Us in capturing the intertwined and painful history of Lebanon’s own civil wars, with that in Syria where some Lebanese fought, and the itinerant lives that criss-cross the histories of both. His ability to weave a narrative with multiple characters and voices in beautiful prose that found humanity amidst places and times when/where violence left a large swath of destruction, makes this novel a veritable tour de force.”

In praising the novel, prize organizers said that it “asks a central question: why have many Lebanese engaged in wars (locally and abroad) across two generations? In providing a look at the intimate lives of some of these individuals from childhood to adulthood, he refuses to reduce the answer to those who carry a rifle. Rather, his novel elucidates how the violences of class violenceinequality and patriarchy (manifested daily in social, cultural, religious, political and economic systems in Lebanon) are the root cause of wars, and are the mechanisms which produce individuals willing to kill. Without excusing their violence, he forces us to confront the larger and more historic problems that beset Lebanon. In narrating the human cost stretching across some 50 years and countless lives, the novel lays bare the infrastructure of oppression and violence, and it does so as a call for resistance and change.”

Mohsen, born in 1984, was longlisted for the Sheikh Zayed Book Award for his first novel, صانع الألعاب (The Playmaker), and made the 2016 International Prize for Arabic Fiction longlist with his second novel, وارسو قبل قليل (Warsaw A Little While Ago).

Heaven is Not With Us, published in 2020, was his third novel.

Of Mouaness’ film,1982,  Dr. Khater said the selection committee was deeply impressed by the way the film captured ” the interplay between despair and hope, youthful dreams and adult anxieties, a Lebanon destroyed and a Lebanon imagined. The visual narration of an “ordinary” day in the lives of school kids and their teachers in Beirut on the eve of the Israeli invasion presents an engrossing microcosm of a nation unravelling, even as its children weave dreams that transcend the darkness of the moment. The story of a single day where the pubescent anxieties about budding love are intermixed with the sounds of Israeli jet fighters swooping to bomb Beirut, creates a remarkable interplay of the lives of the inhabitants of Beirut who endured many such days. It is in the very poetics of the filming–imagery that captures this tension beautifully–that renders the film remarkable.”

Mouaness has won a number of awards; his short film The Rifle, The Jackal, The Wolf and the Boy (2016) was shortlisted for the Oscars in 2017. This film, 1982, has also won the Cannes Film Festival’s youth sidebar prize and the 2021 UNICEF Prize in Switzerland.