Arabic Booker judges: 'Frankenstein in Baghdad' a significant addition to Arabic fiction

Ahram Online, Wednesday 30 Apr 2014

The judges' panel of the Arabic Booker celebrate Ahmed Saadawi's 'Frankenstein in Baghdad' for the originality of its narrative and the universality of its reach

Iraqi winner Ahmed Saadawi, receiving his prize from the head of the judging panel

The panel of judges of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), which named the Iraqi novelist Ahmed Saadawi the winner of this year's competition, for his novel Frankenstein in Baghdad, have said they chose the novel for "the originality of its narrative structure, as represented in the 'what's-its-name' character, who embodies the violence currently experienced in Iraq, other Arab countries and the wider world."

The head of the judges' panel, Saudi critic Saad A Albazei, gave a speech on behalf of the panel in a ceremony held in Abu Dhabi last night, saying: "The story is expertly told on several levels and from multiple viewpoints." The panel concluded that, "For these reasons and more, Frankenstein in Baghdad is a significant addition to contemporary Arabic fiction."

In addition to winning $50,000, Saadawi is guaranteed an English translation of his novel, as well as increased book sales and international recognition.

Set in the spring of 2005, Frankenstein in Baghdad tells the story of Hadi Al-Attag, a rag-and-bone man who lives in a popular district of Baghdad. He takes the body parts of those killed in explosions and sews them together to create a new body. The body is entered by a displaced soul, bringing it to life. Hadi calls the new being "the-what's-its-name," while the authorities name it "Criminal X" and others refer to it as "Frankenstein." Frankenstein begins a campaign of revenge against those who killed him, or killed those whose parts make up his body.

Saadawi is an Iraqi novelist, poet and screenwriter. Born in 1973 in Baghdad, where he works as a documentary filmmaker, he took part in the annual IPAF "Nadwa," or literary workshop, for promising young writers in 2012.

Frankenstein in Baghdad was selected as the best work of fiction published within the last 12 months, selected among 156 entries from 18 countries across the Arab world.

The five other shortlisted finalists were also honoured at the ceremony Tuesday alongside the winner. Each of the finalists receives $10,000.

The six names on the shortlist were announced in February at a press conference at the Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation in Amman, Jordan, by the judging panel. The judges were: Saudi Arabian academic and critic Saad A Albazei; Ahmed Alfaitouri, Libyan journalist, novelist and playwright; Zhor Gourram, Moroccan academic, critic and novelist; Abdullah Ibrahim, Iraqi academic and critic; and Mehmet Hakki Suçin, Turkish academic specialising in the teaching of Arabic language and the translation of Arabic literature into Turkish.

The prize is supported by the Booker Prize Foundation in London and funded by the Tourism and Culture Authority Abu Dhabi in the UAE.

Professor of Modern Arabic Studies Yasir Suleiman, chair of IPAF's Board of Trustees, commented: "Ahmed Saadawi's Frankenstein in Baghdad is an outstanding achievement, teeming with characters who are both earthy and real but also transcend reality. It raises questions about an oppressive legacy from which neither individuals nor society can escape. The novel dazzles with captivating storytelling, utilising the techniques of magical realism to reveal the depths of the human soul in its darkest hours. Although set in Baghdad, its subject matter goes beyond that city to embrace humanity everywhere."

To date, six of the seven winning IPAF novels have secured deals for publication in English. Overall, winning and shortlisted books since 2008 have been translated into over 20 languages.

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