MAY 22, 2022 — At a ceremony that took place in Abu Dhabi on the eve of that city’s book fair — and was also streamed online — 2022 chair of judges Shukri Mabkhout announced that this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) went to debut novelist Mohamed Alnaas for his examination of masculinity, Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table.
At 31, Alnaas is the youngest writer to win the IPAF and the first Libyan. He earned his BA in Electrical Engineering from the University of Tripoli in 2014, and his short-story collection Blue Blood was published in 2020. Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table (2021) was his first novel. It was published with support from the Libyan Arete Foundation.
Although the event took place live in Abu Dhabi, there were also vibrant comments on the Facebook and YouTube livestreams. Nearly 500 were watching on Facebook and another several hundred on YouTube, with many partisans of various writers.
After a series of introductions, the ceremony began with five exceptional short films produced by Khérédine Mabrouk, each combining an interview with the novelist, a reading, and a visual dramatization of some aspect of the novel. Most of the shortlisted novels, as host Yassin Adnan pointed out during the event, focus deeply on place, from Tareq Imam’s Cairo Maquette to Bushra Khalfan’s Dilshad, a novel of Muscat, to Alnaas’s Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table, set in a Libyan village. However, at the press conference following the announcement, judge Iman Humaydan emphasized how different the novels were, while Mabkhout added that the common traits found by the judges were not place, but identity and freedom.
The full shortlist was made up of: Egyptian novelist Tareq Imam’s Cairo Maquette; Emirati author Reem al-Kamali’s Rose’s Diary; Omani novelist Bushra Khalfan’s Dilshad; Moroccan author Mohsine Loukili’s The Prisoner of the Portuguese; Kuwaiti author Khaled Nasrallah’s The White Line of Night; and the winning novel by Libyan author Mohamed Alnaas: Bread on the Table of Uncle Milad.
At the press conference following the event, Humaydan added that “the theme of gender identity is a novel one when it comes to Arabic fiction.” She added that what interested her most about the book was not only the theme, but “the way the theme was approached.” Milad is a man who was happy with his life of housework and cooking and supporting his wife, Humaydan said, until the comments of others forced him to re-assess his feelings about his life.
At the end of the press conference, Humaydan circled back to the theme of the novel, adding that, she loved “the way in which it was approached; in a simple manner, without ideology,” while Mabkhout said he also appreciated the fluid way in which the novel was written.
In a prepared statement, Professor Yasir Suleiman, Chair of the Board of Trustees, said of the novel’s language that it is “never affected,” adding that it is an “excellent testimony to the malleability of the high register of the Arabic language and its ability to deal with intimate matters of the body and soul with naturalness and ease.”
The two judges at the press conference also addressed the perennial issue of the role of editors. Mabkhout said that the editing process has improved, while adding, “There were novels that could have made it to the shortlist if they were edited in a better way.”
He also stressed that the judging panel was independent, and “I would like to reaffirm that we have not received any instructions from IPAF.”
In a previous interview about the novel, Alnaas said that he wrote the novel “to save Milad from his alienation.” He added:
Despite the many Libyan proverbs we have, there is only one that shows the anti-man: a family and their uncle Milad. Apart from that, all oral tradition celebrates in its proverbs the ideal man. Sometimes it is the one who died in historical battles such as El-Hany and Chad. Sometimes it is the one who personally trains his wife. Another time it is the rooster who controls his hens, or the knight who reins in his mare or wife. And on and on until you can draw a clear picture of that man. As for the saying: a family and their uncle Milad, it is as alone as Milad himself. It does not portray a real image of this person for those who exist outside the Libyan context. What would a Tunisian, Egyptian or Emirati reader understand from this proverb if I don’t tell the whole story? Nothing. That’s why there is one man’s story (Milad’s), aiming to question and interrogate this proverb as much as possible.
The novel opens with Milad watching his father. In an excerpt translated by Sawad Hussain, it begins: “The bakery is where I was raised to be patient, gentle, focused, observant, and respectful of time. I still remember the first loaf I ever baked. As usual, I had been watching my father, my chin balanced on the squeegee handle, observing him from a distance, swept up in his love affair with bread.” (Read more of the translated excerpt at the IPAF website; publishers interested in a longer sample can get one from translator Sawad Hussain.)
This year’s judging committee was chaired by Tunisian novelist and previous IPAF winner Mabkhout, who was joined by Libyan doctor, poet and translator Ashur Etwebi; Lebanese writer and PEN International board member Iman Humaydan; Kuwaiti poet and critic Saadiah Mufarreh; and Bulgarian academic and translator Baian Rayhanova.
The winner is awarded USD $50,000, and all shortlistees also take $10,000.