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She Throws Sparks

March 3rd, 2010 Comments off

The winner of this year’s International Prize for Arab Fiction (IPAF), also known as the Arab Booker, has been announced: it’s the Saudi writer Abdo Khal, for his novel ???? ???? (She Throws Sparks, somewhat unaccountably translated as Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles). The National recently ran excerpts of the six short-listed authors’ works (seemingly unavailable online or in Cairo) and interviews with each of them. Here’s how Khal’s excerpt–translated by Anthony Calderbank–opened:

People, shadows of themselves, crammed into a shabby quarter since long ago

The name of our quarter is The Pit, or The Salt Mine, or The Bottom of Hell, or Inferno; all are terms that reflect torment, and our lives.

The quarter awakens before the sun’s rays penetrate the windows of the huddled houses to the contented lapping of the satiated sea. It awakens to the racket of boys preparing to set off down twisting lanes on their walk to school and the raucous banter of fisherman returning with fresh catches from trips begun the previous night, and songs on the radio exuberant in the dewy morning air: He said good morning without saying a word, Morning breeze, say hi to the one with radiant cheeks, We are farmers on the land of our country.    

Songs that soothe the soul, refreshing like the drizzle of summer rain, they pierce the breast, and lungs expand to receive life’s refreshing air. The alley awakes to the rattle of padlocks on shop doors as the owners open up, and the cries of street hawkers calling after young school children, tempting them to purchase a sweetie or a poorly manufactured toy or a snack that begins with the mouth and ends up with a runny tummy for whoever’s bowels have not been previously fortified.

All things pass with quiet deliberation towards their daily demise. The sun proceeds unhurriedly across the sky above our quarter until it hangs directly overhead and sheds its vertical rays, overwhelming the faded colours of the walls, or the doors, or faces, or freshly laundered clothes hung out to dry on the roof tops. Everything dries so incredibly quickly here.

And the last task our exhausted sun undertakes each day – after it has cast off its searing heat – is to descend towards the palace in complete peace. 

My literary references in Arabic tend to be overwhelmingly Egyptian, so a passage like this–with its focus on a traditional, lower-class space; its sense of cyclical timelessness; and its universal, allegorical elements (“the quarter,” “the palace”)–puts me strongly in mind of Mahfouz’s Children of the Alley, or The Harafish

I only skimmed the excerpts (a friend in Abu Dhabi sent them to me), and found them difficult to evaluate, partly because it’s hard to get a sense of a novel from a small truncated section, and partly because some of the translations seemed stilted. None of them really grabbed me. 

The blog Arabic Literature (in English) has a bio of Khal, as well as “mini-reviews” of the excerpts, worth reading. Others have written about the (I suspect, in literary circles, unsurprisingly catty) politics of the selection process.

UPDATE:

Having read the excerpts more carefully, I’d like to add something to my earlier, much-too-dismissive remarks. A Cloudy Day on the West Side by Mohamed Mansi Qandil creates a powerful sense of foreboding in its description of a young girl’s dangerous and mysterious trip with her mother, to have a Christian tattoo applied to her arm.

The mother paid no attention to her, and continued giving her orders: “I want it to be big and clear, but it should look faded as though it has been on her skin for many years, a real one, as though she had been born it.” 

America, by Rabee Jaber, tells of Martha, a Syrian woman who emigrates to America in search of her husband. It has some beautiful images:

..the train – like a kettle on a winter fire – would emit two plumes of steam and then a third before the roar reverberated and the black iron beast pulled away.

She was totally preoccupied with Khalil. After marrying him she thought of herself as having been an empty sack before that. Then Khalil had arrived and filled her with wheat and lentils. The first time she had heard the word “America” emerge from his mouth, her heart had missed a beat.

From the window in the hideous, black hotel (which she later remembered as leaning to one side, as if it were in danger of falling) she would see the smokestacks of the steamships bursting up into the clouds – that’s how low the clouds were!

And the section from Where the Wolves Grow Old, by Jamal Naji, has a great opening:

Azmi al-Wajih has humiliated me three times. The first was in the house of his father, who had fallen in love with me and married me. The second was on the day he caught me in the inner room of the house of Sheikh Abd al-Hamid al-Jinzir. And the third was thirteen years later, when I was thirty-eight years old. 

 



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THE INTERNATIONAL PRIZE FOR ARABIC FICTION 2010

December 16th, 2009 1 comment

THE INTERNATIONAL PRIZE FOR

ARABIC FICTION 2010

Shortlist Announced

www.arabicfiction.org

MUHAMMAD AL-MANSI QINDEEL, MANSOURA EZ ELDIN, RABEE JABIR, ABDO KHAL, RABA’I MADHOUN and JAMAL NAJI are today, Tuesday 15 December, named as the six finalists shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2010 (IPAF), the prestigious literary award celebrating the very best of contemporary Arabic fiction.

The shortlist of finalists was announced by Taleb Alrefai, Chair of Judges for the 2010 prize, at a press conference at the Beirut International Book Fair in Lebanon.

The six books, selected from a longlist of 16, are (in alphabetical order):

Author Title Publisher Nationality
Al-Mansi Qindeel, Muhammad A Cloudy Day on the West Side Dar Al-Shorouk Egyptian
Ez Eldin, Mansoura Beyond Paradise Dar Al-Ain Egyptian
Jabir, Rabee America Al-Markaz al-Thaqafi al-Arabi (Arab Cultural Centre) Lebanese
Khal, Abdo She Throws Sparks Al-Jamal Publications Saudi Arabian
Madhoun, Raba’i The Lady from Tel Aviv Arab Institute for Publishing and Studies Palestinian
Naji, Jamal When the Wolves Grow Old Ministry of Culture Publications Jordanian

Chair of Judges Taleb Alrefai commented on the shortlist of finalists: “A democratic, objective discussion was held, the most important target of which was to reach a list approved by the judging panel. The selected books represent the opinion of the panel, with due respect to and appreciation of all the longlisted novels.”

The panel of five judges were also revealed today. All specialists in the field of Arabic literature, they come from Kuwait, Egypt, Tunisia, France and Oman. They are: Taleb Alrefai (Chair of Judges), Kuwaiti novelist and short story writer; Shereen Abu El Naga, Egyptian lecturer of English and comparative literature at Cairo University; Raja’ Ben Salamah, Tunisian lecturer from the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Humanities at Manouba University, Tunisia; Frédéric LaGrange, French academic, translator and Head of the Arabic and Hebraic Department at the Paris-Sorbonne (Paris IV); Saif al-Rahbi, Omani writer and poet.

The prestigious literary prize, now in its third year, aims to recognise and reward excellence in contemporary Arabic creative writing and to encourage wider readership of such Arabic literature internationally through translation. It is run with the support of the Emirates Foundation and the Booker Prize Foundation.

At today’s press conference Jonathan Taylor, Chair of the Board of Trustees, said: “IPAF is increasingly regarded as the leading prize in the Arab literary world. Its impact is indisputable, with its winners and shortlisted writers recognised as some of the most significant voices in contemporary Arabic literature – many of whom are now available to a wider world in translation thanks to the prize.”

Salwa Mikdadi, Head of the Arts and Culture Programme at the Emirates Foundation, added: “The Foundation is proud of its association with this increasingly influential prize. In three short years, the intellectual strength and operational independence of both the board of trustees and the judging panels have made it into the major fiction prize in the Arab World.

The 2010 prize received 115 eligible submissions from 17 Arab countries – Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Iraq, UAE, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Bahrain, Oman, Morocco, Libya, Sudan, Tunisia and Algeria – and the longlist of 16 titles was announced this November.

Joumana Haddad, the Prize Administrator, commented: “We are proud that the IPAF is contributing in increasing the interest in contemporary Arabic literature, whether reading or translating wise. No other Arab literary prize has ever enjoyed this much attention and influence, which proves that the IPAF came to fill an urgent need in our cultural life”.

The shortlisted finalists for the prize will each receive $10,000, with the winner receiving an additional $50,000. They can look forward to reaching wider audiences and potentially securing publishing deals – both within the Arab World and internationally. The previous two winners for the prize – Bahaa Taher (Sunset Oasis) and Youssef Ziedan (Azazel) – have not only secured English publications of their novels in the UK, through Sceptre (Hodder & Stoughton) and Atlantic Books respectively, but also a number of international deals as a result of the prize.

The winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2010 will be announced at an awards ceremony in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday 2 March 2010, the first day of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

-ends-

A Cloudy Day on the West Side Muhammad Al-Mansi Qindeel

Dar Al-Shorouk, Cairo, 2009

In his novel A Cloudy Day on the West Side, Muhammad Al-Mansi Qindeel evokes the period of great archeological discovery and nationalist struggle in Egypt. The novel tells the story of a young girl taken from home by her mother when she is forced to flee her abusive husband. After changing her name and fastening a crucifix around her tiny arm, the mother leaves her daughter at a village in Asyut. The fate of the girl, who grows up to become a translator, intersects with that of a number of historical figures from the period, including Howard Carter, Lord Cromer and Abdulrahman al-Rifa’i. This thrilling tale is brought to life by the author’s detailed and vivid descriptions of real historical events and places.

Egyptian novelist Muhammad Al-Mansi Qindeel was born in 1946 in the Egyptian delta city of al-Mahalla al-Kubra, where his father was a worker. His first novel, Breaking of the Spirit, was inspired by events surrounding workers’ unrest in the city. A medical school graduate, he worked as a doctor in the countryside before dedicating himself to writing. He currently lives in Kuwait, where he works as an editor for monthly magazine Al-Arabi. He has won two awards for his writing, the State Incentive Award in 1988 and the Sawiris Foundation Award in 2006. He has published several novels, short story collections and children’s books and his novel Moon over Samarkand has been published in English by the American University in Cairo Press.

Beyond Paradise Mansoura Ez Eldin

Al-Ain Publishing, Egypt, 2009

In Beyond Paradise, Mansoura Ez Eldin engages with Egypt’s rural middle class through the character of Salma. The editor of a literary magazine, Salma is trying to dispose of her negative self-image by liberating herself from a past loaded with painful memories. The process encourages her to write a novel in which she tells her family history: a history of love, a history of the body, a history of movement across the social classes within her village, a history of madness, and a history of writing.  Through this process Salma’s identity is split into two. On the one hand she observes and narrates in the present, whilst on the other she delves frantically into the hidden depths of her memory.

Egyptian novelist and journalist Mansoura Ez Eldin was born in Delta Egypt in 1976. She studied journalism at the Faculty of Media, Cairo University and has since published short stories in various newspapers and magazines: she published her first collection of short stories, Shaken Light, in 2001. This was followed by two novels, Maryam’s Maze in 2004 and Beyond Paradise in 2009. Her work has been translated into a number of languages, including an English translation of Maryam’s Maze by the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press. This year, she was selected for the Beirut39, as one of the 39 best Arab authors below the age of 40. She was also a participant of the inaugural nadwa (writers’ workshop) held by the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in Abu Dhabi this November.

America – Rabee Jabir

Al-Markaz al-Thaqafi al-Arabi (Arab Cultural Centre), Morocco and Lebanon, 2009

America evokes the story of the Syrians who left their homeland in the early twentieth century to try their luck in the young America.  Spurred on by a sense of adventure and the desire to escape poverty, they made the epic journey. Leaving their homeland with only a few belongings, their journey takes in everything from their travels across mountains and plains, to their gradual integration into American society, later becoming citizens of America and fighting its wars. In particular, the novel focuses on the character of Marta, who travels alone to New York in search of her husband, with whom she has lost contact. America is a tribute to those who left Syria in search of a new life from those who remained behind.

Lebanese novelist and journalist born Rabee Jabir was born in Beirut in 1972. He has been editor of Afaq, the weekly cultural supplement of Al-Hayat newspaper, since 2001. His first novel, Master of Darkness, won the Critics Choice Prize in 1992. He has since written 16 novels, including: Black Tea; The Last House; Yousif Al-Inglizi; The Journey of the Granadan (published in German in 2005) and Berytus: A City Beneath the Earth (published in French by Gallimard in 2009).

She Throws Sparks ­– Abdo Khal

Al-Jamal Publications, Baghdad/Beirut, 2009

A painfully satirical novel, She Throws Sparks depicts the destructive impact that power and limitless wealth has on life and the environment. It captures the seductive powers of the palace and tells the agonising story of those who have become enslaved by it, drawn by its promise of glamour.  She Throws Sparks exposes the inner world of the palace and of those who have chosen to become its puppets, from whom it has stolen everything.

Abdo Khal is a Saudi novelist born in al-Majanah, southern Saudi Arabia, in 1962. He studied political science at King Abdel Al Aziz University in Jeddah before starting writing in 1980. He is the author of several works, including: A dialogue at the Gates of the Earth, There’s Nothing to be Happy About, and Cities Eating the Grass. Some of his works have been translated into English, French and German. In addition to his writing, he is a member of the board of directors of the Jeddah Literary Club and the editor-in-chief of the Ukaz newspaper, for which he writes a daily column.

The Lady from Tel Aviv – Raba’i Madhoun

Arab Institute for Publishing and Studies, Beirut, 2009

In The Lady from Tel Aviv, Raba’i Madhoun tackles the Arab/Palestinian-Israeli issue, focusing on a pivotal time of anxiety and suspicion, with tensions on the point of boiling over. The novel’s protagonists are Palestinian exile Walid Dahman, who is returning home to Gaza after many years in Europe, and Israeli Dana Ahuva, who happens to be sitting next to him on their flight into Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport. Their dialogue takes the reader into the far realms of memory, history and the self. The Lady from Tel Aviv is a novel that, in its complexity, intricacy and ambiguity, avoids the dogma of ready-made ideology.

Palestinian writer Raba’i Madhoun was born in al-Majdal, Ashkelon, Israel, in 1945. Along with his parents, he was uprooted from his homeland during the 1948 Nakba exodus and as a consequence his childhood was spent in the Khan Younis Palestinian refugee camp situated in the Gaza Strip. He studied at Alexandria University, Egypt, and since 1973 has worked as a journalist. His written works include the short story collection, The Idiot of Khan Younis, an academic study (The Palestinian Intifada) and his autobiography, The Taste of Separation. He currently works as an editor for Al-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper in London.

When the Wolves Grow Old – Jamal Naji

Ministry of Culture Publications, Amman, 2009

When the Wolves Grow Old reveals the secret lives of the social climbers who have travelled from Amman’s poor quarters to positions of wealth and power, providing an insight into the world of the city’s preachers, politicians and charitable institutions. The book is told by a succession of characters who narrate incidents and scenes that repeat, conflict and develop from one character to the next. However the protagonist, ‘Azmi al-Wajih, remains silent and shrouded in mystery throughout the novel:  is he the only one of these wolves that does not grow old? When the Wolves Grow Old is a story of human frailty and the complex interaction between sex, religion and politics.

Jamal Naji is a Jordanian writer of Palestinian descent, born in the ‘Aqbat Jaber refugee camp, Jericho (Ariha) in 1954. He began writing in 1975 and his published works include: The Road to Balharith, Time, The Remnants of the Last Storms, Life on the Edge of Death, The Night of the Feathers, What Happened Thursday and The Target.  He was president of the Jordanian Writers Association from 2001-2003 and he currently works as head of the Intelligentsia Centre for Research and Survey in Amman, Jordan.