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Short synopsis of the six Arabic Booker shortlisted novels

The Arabic Booker shortlist includes Ibrahim Issa, the only Egyptian, and excludes big names like Lebanon's Elias Khoury, who was on the longlist for his novel Sinalcol

Ahram Online , Thursday 10 Jan 2013
A collage of the covers of the Six novels included on the Shortlist.
A collage of the covers of the Six novels included on the Shortlist.
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Here is a synopsis of the six novels shortlisted for the Arabic Booker, which were revealed at a press conference in Tunis on 9 January.

There is also a short biography of the six authors as it was published on the prize's website.

The six shortlisted authors are Iraqi Sinan Antoon, Lebanese Jana Elhassan, Saudi Mohammed Hassan Alwan, Egyptian Ibrahim Issa, Kuwaiti Saud Alsanousi and Tunisian Hussein Al-Wad.

1- Mouwlana (Our Master) by: Ibrahim Issa

The novel relates the career of Sheikh Hatim Al-Shanawi (‘our master’), the permanent guest of a television programme presented by Anwar Outhman. The charming sheikh answers viewers' questions and becomes one of the richest people in the country through exploiting visual media for his own ends. By using his natural cunning, he gives replies to please everyone, including the security services, though they bear no relation to his personal convictions. The hero has varied adventures such as his relationship with Nashwa, veiled from head to toe, who he later discovers is an actress working for the secret services. The hero plunges into the depths of Egyptian society and uncovers its secrets in a witty and satirical style. The characters appear to live in a corrupt environment dominated by fear, spying and bribery, where people lie to each other and are only concerned with outward appearances and the surface of reality.

Ibrahim Issa is an Egyptian journalist, born in 1965. He began working on the Rose Al-Youssef magazine when he was still in his first year of studies at the College of Media, Cairo. He was editor of the Al-Dustur daily newspaper from 1995-1998 and from 2004 until October 2010, when he was sacked by the paper's owner Sayyed Al-Bedawi. Ibrahim Issa has been among the most active of Egyptian journalists in protesting against political practices in Egypt, and as a result the authorities closed down three newspapers edited by him and confiscated his novel Assassination of the Big Man. He has been awarded several prizes including the Gebran Tueni Prize (2008), the Journalist of the Year Award in 2010, from the British Society of Editors, and the Index on Censorship Award's 2010 Freedom of Expression Award. His novels include: Hussein's Blood (1992), The Last Manifestation of Mary (1993), Blood on a Breast (1996), Assassination of the Big Man (1999) and National Ghosts (2008). Although he has left his post at Al-Dustur newspaper, Ibrahim Issa continues to edit the electronic publication The Original Dustur which is separate from the newspaper, and he has been editor of Al-Tahrir newspaper since July 2011.


2 - Ya Mariam (Ave Maria) by: Sinan Antoon

The novel takes place on a single day, with contradictory visions of life from two characters in an Iraqi Christian family, drawn together by the situation in the country. Youssef is an elderly man who is alone. He refuses to emigrate and leave the house he built in Baghdad, where he has lived for half a century. He still clings to hope and memories of a happy past. Maha is a young woman whose life has been torn apart by the sectarian violence. Her family has been made homeless and become separated from her, resulting in her living as a refugee in her own country, lodging in Youssef's house. With her husband, she waits to emigrate from a country she feels does not want her.

Hope collides with destiny when an event occurs which changes the life of the two characters forever. The novel raises bold and difficult questions about the situation of minorities in Iraq, with one character searching for an Iraq which was, while the other attempts to escape from the Iraq of today.        

Sinan Antoon is a poet, novelist and translator who was born in Iraq in 1967. He has published two novels, I`jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody (City Lights, 2007) and The Pomegranate Alone (Arab Insitute for Research and Publishing, 2010) as well as a volume of poetry entitled The Baghdad Blues (Harbor Mountain Press, 2007) and a number of articles in Arabic and English. His writings have been translated into English, German, Italian, Norwegian and Portuguese. In 2003, he returned to Iraq to direct a documentary film called About Baghdad (2004), about Baghdad after dictatorship and occupation. He has translated the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, Sargon Boulos, Saadi Youssef and others into English and his English version of Mahmoud Darwish's In the Presence of Absence (Archipelago) appeared in 2011. He has taught Arabic literature at the University of New York since 2005

3 - Ana W heyya w Aloukhrayat (I, She and Other Women) by: Jana Elhassan

The heroine of the novel, Sahar, feels a sense of loss and loneliness within her family, following her marriage. She had hoped to be a different kind of woman from her mother but finds herself falling into the same trap after her marriage to Sami. In constructing another self in her imagination, she finds an outlet which brings intellectual and existential fulfilment. The novel has an innovative structure, psychological and philosophical depth and a profound humanity.

Jana Elhassan was born in northern Lebanon in 1985 and lives in Beirut. In 2006, she obtained a bachelor’s degree and teaching diploma in English literature and is currently working on her masters. She has published investigative pieces and general articles in several newspapers and also literary texts and short stories in the cultural supplements of Al-Nahar and the Bahraini Cultural Magazine. Her first novel, Forbidden Desires was published in 2009 and won the Simon Hayek Prize in Batroun, northern Lebanon. She recently translated a publication by the University of Oxford entitled The Future of Technology in 2030. She currently works as a reporter for The Daily Star

4 - Al-Qandas (The Beaver) by: Mohammed Hassan Alwan

The hero of the novel, Ghalib Al-Wajzi, goes from Riyadh in Saudi Arabia to Portland in the USA. He travels back in time, through the story of three generations of his troubled family: separated parents, and brothers with nothing to connect them except the house where they live. Ghalib leaves Riyadh at the age of 40. He heads to a distant city to try to restore his memory with fragmented stories, with the help of a beaver that accompanies him on his fishing journeys to the Willamette River. Throughout the novel, he contemplates his relationship with his girlfriend who visits him over many years in different towns when she can get away from her husband.   

Mohammed Hassan Alwan was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He has an MBA from the University of Portland, Oregon. He has published four novels as well as short stories and writes a weekly column for a Saudi newspaper.


5 - Saq Al Bamboo (The Bamboo Stick) by: Saud Alsanousi

Josephine comes to Kuwait from the Philippines to work as a household servant, leaving behind her studies and family, who are pinning their hopes for a better future on her. In the house where she works, she meets Rashid, the spoiled only son of his mother Ghanima and father Issa. After a brief love affair, he decides to marry Josephine, on condition that the marriage remains a secret. But things do not go according to plan. Josephine becomes pregnant with José and Rashid abandons them when the child is less than two months old, sending his son away to the Philippines. There he struggles with poverty and clings to the hope of returning to his father's country when he is eighteen. It is at this point that the novel begins. 

The Bamboo Stickis a daring work which looks objectively at the phenomenon of foreign workers in Arab countries and deals with the problem of identity through the life of a young man of mixed race who returns to Kuwait, the ‘dream’ or ‘heaven’ which his mother had described to him since he was a child.

Saud Alsanousi is a Kuwaiti novelist and journalist, born in 1981. His work has appeared in a number of Kuwaiti publications, including Al-Watan newspaper and Al-ArabiAl-Kuwait and Al-Abwab magazines. He currently writes for Al-Qabas newspaper. His first novel The Prisoner of Mirrors was published in 2010 and in the same year won the fourth Leila Outhman Prize, awarded for novels and short stories by young writers. In the Stories on the Air competition, organised in July 2011 by the Al-Arabi magazine with BBC Arabic, he won first place for his story The Bonsai and the Old Man


6 - Saadtouh AlSayyed AlWazeer (His Excellency the Minister) by: Hussein al-Wad

The novel tells the story of a Tunisian teacher who unexpectedly becomes a minister. He witnesses firsthand the widespread corruption in the country, eventually becoming embroiled in it himself. It is a richly humorous novel which successfully describes many aspects of human weakness.

Hussein al-Wad is a university professor and researcher, born in 1948 in Moknine, Tunisia. He is the author of several books on classical and modern Arabic literature, notably his studies on Al-Ma'arri's The Epistle of Forgiveness, on Mutanabbi and aesthetic experience among the Arabs and on the poetic language of Abu Tamam. His previous novel, Scents of the City was published in 2010.

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