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Countdown to Arabic Booker Winner Announcement: ‘Identity’ the key theme

Today is the day the 2012 International Prize for Arabic Fiction winners will be announced, Ahram Online gives their insight on the favourites

Sayed Mahmoud, Tuesday 27 Mar 2012
International Prize for Arabic Fiction
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The winner of the 2012 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (Arabic Booker) will be announced Tuesday, 27 March, in a celebration that will take place during the Abu Dhabi Book Fair events. Six novels were shortlisted in January, including two works from Lebanon, two from Egypt, one from Tunisia and one from Algeria. No women authors are competing for this year's prize.

Each of the shortlisted authors receives $10,000 in addition to having their books translated. The winner is awarded an additional $ 50,000. The annual award is managed  by the British Booker Prize Foundation and is funded by the Emirates Foundation in Abu Dhabi.

From 2012's six writers, four had been nominated in previous years including Jabbour Douaihy and Rabee Jaber from Lebanon, Ezzedine Choukri Fishere from Egypt and Habib Selmi from Tunisia.  It is Egyptian author Nasser Iraq’s and Algerian author, Bachir Mefti's first appearances on the Arabic Booker Prize list.

The judges committee includes Syrian writer and critic Georges Tarabichi (the chair), Lebanese journalist and literary critic, Maudie Bitar, Egyptian academic and women's rights activist Professor Hoda Elsadda, Qatari writer and academic Dr Huda al-Naimi and Spanish academic, translator and researcher Dr Gonzalo Fernández Parrilla.

According to some readers, the majority of the committee either lives in the West or works with western cultural institutions. Therefore many have predicted that the novels that will attract their attention are likely to be those raising the question of Arab identity and the rest of the world, an issue that is increasingly a focus of fiction in today’s global society.

Others expect that the award will go to the novels most capable of revealing the inner workings of communities and society as a whole.

Unifying these two themes is Jabbour Douaihy’s submission The Vagrant (Dar Al-Nhar publishing). The novel tackles the question of Lebanese identity during the civil war (1975 - 1991) from a unique perspective. The story focuses on a Lebanese youth Nizam Al-Alamy who is struggling with his religious identity, as he is bought up by a Christian family to overcome his Muslim family’s financial struggles.

Embrace on Brooklyn Bridge by Ezzedine Choukri Fishere (Al-Ain publishing), explores an Arab citizen’s struggle with estrangement and otherness as a foreigner in the USA.

The question of identity isn’t entirely missing from The Druze of Belgrade by Rabee Jaber either. The author's second historical novel is set directly after the1860 civil war. It explores Lebanese identity when a Christian egg seller is forced to take the place of an exiled Druze fighter, accused of killing Christians. The innocent seller joins the banished Druze community, which is sent to a Belgrade prison, on the borders of the then Ottoman Empire. Living in the Balkans, the Lebanese strangers struggle to stay alive in the foreign land.  

The same sense of separation can be found in The Unemployed by Nasser Iraq.  The novel relates the story of a young Egyptian living in Dubai. Enjoying and exploring a whole new world of characters, nationalities and experiences, he is imprisoned for killing a Russian prostitute just at the moment he falls in love with an Egyptian girl.

 Lookingat the birth of freedom movements following an occupation, Bachir Mefti’s Toy of Fire tells the story of an imaginary meeting between the author and a mysterious character, Ridha Shawish, who gives him a manuscript: his autobiography.  Shawish is a smalltime cop trying not to turn out like his father who was a jailer in the 1970s and who committed suicide in 1980s. However fate determines that he follows the same path when he joins an underground gang.

Finally, set against the backdrop of the last 20 years of Tunisian history and the rise of the religious Tunisian Nahda party, The Women of Al-Basatin by Habib Selmi relates the story of a Tunisian living in Paris. The protagonist explores the changing social and political landscape of his home country when he returns to his sister's house on holiday.

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