Jordan’s Jalal Barjas Wins the 2021 International Prize for Arabic Fiction

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On the IPAF 2019 longlist for ‘Women of the Five Senses,’ Jordanian aeronautical engineer and author Jalal Barjas wins this year for his novel ‘Notebooks of the Bookseller.’

Jalal Barjas in the digital announcement of his win of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction

Jalal Barjas in the digital announcement of his win of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Image: IPAF

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘Rich, Refined Language’
In its announcement this afternoon Gulf time (May 25), the United Arab Emirates’ 14th International Prize for Arabic Fiction has named the Jordanian novelist and aeronautical engineer Jalal Barjas the winner of its US$50,000 honor for his novel Notebooks of the Bookseller, published by the Arabic Institute for Research and Publishing.

Barjas was longlisted for this award in 2019 for Women of the Five Senses, and is being hailed by the program’s jury for his “impressive ability to strip the masks from the face of tragic reality”—surely an interesting choice of accolades in a time when masks have been so critical, and so criticized, during the world health emergency.

The digital announcement—part statement and part video book trailer—has been made on the third day of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair‘s run as a physical event with extensive streaming of programming. (The taped program is in Arabic with English subtitles.)

The International Prize for Arabic Literature each year presents its award in association with the Abu Dhabi fair, but it’s a nonprofit program incorporated in the United Kingdom and sponsored by Abu Dhabi’s culture and tourism department and its Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre–which produces the Sheikh Zayed Book Award.

As Publishing Perspectives readers know, the Zayed Prize already has named its eight category winners for this year. It held its ceremony on Monday (May 24). Our interview with the Zayed literature category award winner, Iman Mersal, is here.

In a news conference following the International Prize for Arabic Literature’s announcement this morning, Barjas has said that while the prize is important, being attracted to the “emotional charge” of awards can hamper a writer’s access to his or her best creativity.

“I hope to stay as an ’emerging writer,’ he said. “I feel some fear from the readers’ authority, the supreme authority to me.

“I would say the best advice for younger writers is not to be too hasty in publishing what they write.”

In addition to Barjas’ award, each of the authors who were shortlisted on March 29—a field aged between 31 and 70—gets US$10,000.

Chawki Bazih

In announcing Barjas’ selection, jury chair Chawki Bazih is quoted, saying, “Apart from its rich, refined language and tight, thrilling plot, this bold winning novel is distinguished  by Jalal Barjas’ impressive ability to strip the masks from the face of tragic reality.

“The author  presents us with the darkest portraits of homelessness and poverty, where meaning has been lost and  hope torn up the roots, turning life into a realm of nightmares.

“Despite this, the novel does not call  for despair. Rather, through it, the author is saying that reaching the depths of pain is a necessary  condition for finding new dreams and standing up once more with hope on firmer ground.”

Yasir Suleiman

And Yasir Suleiman, chair of the board, says, “Evoking times of unprecedented change, incipient corruption, and simmering turmoil hissing away in  the background, Notebooks of the Bookseller reflects on the lives of those who have been left behind in an alienating and expanding city landscape, mercilessly displacing the intimacy of olden times and  the obligations of time-honored norms.

“The crisscrossing tales in the novel mark multiple descents  into unforgiving despair.

“Sometimes pacy, but often slow and rich in detail, the novel paints a gripping  picture of social and psychological fracture writ large.”

The book is described as sharing settings in Amman and Moscow between 1947 and 2019. Ibrahim, the titular bookseller, suffers schizophrenia and assumes the identities of various novels’ protagonists to commit burglary, theft, and murder.

International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2021 Shortlist
Author Title Country of Origin Publisher
Abdulatif Ould Abdullah The Eye of Hammurabi Algeria Dar Mim
Jalal Barjas Notebooks of the Bookseller Jordan The Arabic Institute for Research and Publishing
Amira Ghenim Calamity of the Nobility Tunisia Dar Mesaa
Dunya Mikhail The Bird Tattoo Iraq Dar al-Rafidain
Abdelmeguid Sabata File 42 Morocco Al-Markez al-Thaqafi al-Arabi
Habib Selmi Longing for the Woman Next Door Tunisia Dar al-Adab

The jury for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction is chaired by Lebanese poet and author Chawki Bazih. Also on the jury panel:

  • Mohammed Ait Hanna, a Moroccan writer, translator, and professor of philosophy at the Regional Centre for Teaching Careers and Training in Casablanca
  • Safa Jubran, a lecturer of Arabic language and modern literature at the University of São Paolo in Brazil
  • Ali Al-Muqri, a Yemeni writer twice longlisted for the award in 2009 and 2011
  • Ayesha Sultan, an Emirati author, journalist, founding director of Warrak Publishing House and vice-president of the Emirates Writers Union
Rights Notes on the Prize’s Winners

The prize provides funding for the English translation of its winners.

‘Notebooks of the Bookseller’

Winning novels published in English include:

  • Hoda Barakat’s The Night Mail (translated as Voices of the Lost, Oneworld)—our interview with Barakat is here
  • Rabai al-Madhoun’s Fractured Destinies: Concerto of the Holocaust and the Nakba (Hoopoe)
  • Shukri Mabkhout’s The Italian (Europa Editions)
  • Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad (Oneworld, UK, and Penguin Books, USA)
  • Saud Alsanousi’s The Bamboo Stalk
  • Mohammed Achaari’s The Arch and the Butterfly
  • Raja Alem’s The Dove’s Necklace (Duckworth, UK, and Overlook Press, US)
  • Abdo Khal’s Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles
  • Youssef Ziedan’s Azazeel (Atlantic Books)
  • Bahaa Taher’s Sunset Oasis (Sceptre)

Organizers of the award report that 2020 saw the publication in English of several novels recognized by the prize, including The Slave Yards by Najwa Bin Shatwan (shortlisted in 2017), translated by Nancy Roberts and published by Syracuse University Press; The Frightened Ones by Dima Wannous (shortlisted in 2018), translated by Elisabeth Jaquette and published by Knopf; and The Girl with the Braided Hair by Rasha Adley (longlisted as Passion in 2018), translated by Sarah Enany and published by Hoopoe.

In addition, Summer with the Enemy by Shahla Ujayli (shortlisted in 2019), translated by Michelle Hartman, has been published by Interlink Books (USA), as have All the Women Inside Me by Jana Elhassan (shortlisted in 2013 as Me, She and the Other Women), translated by Michelle Hartman, and The King of India by Jabbour Douaihy (shortlisted in 2020), translated by Paula Haydar.

The novel that has secured the most translations reportedly is 2014 winner Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi which has been translated into 23 languages including Bosnian, Chinese (Mandarin), Chinese (Simplified Chinese), Croatian, Dutch, English (UK and USA), French, German, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Portuguese (Brazil), Romanian, Russian, Spanish, Swedish and Taiwanese.

Overall, International Prize for Arabic Fiction novels have been translated into 30 different languages as tracked by the program: Bosnian, Bulgarian, Chinese, Croatian, Czech, Dutch, English, Farsi, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Icelandic, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Kurdish, Macedonian, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Spanish, Swedish, Taiwanese and Turkish.

Below is the announcement video released today:


More on the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair is here in our special landing page for all our coverage.

For your free copy of our specially produced 2021 Abu Dhabi International Book Fair Show Magazine, click here

More from Publishing Perspectives on the International Prize for Arabic Fiction is here, and more on publishing and book prizes in general is here. More on translation is here, and more on Arabic in the publishing world is here.

More from Publishing Perspectives on the ongoing coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is a non-resident fellow of Trends Research & Advisory, and he has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As as an arts critic (National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.

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