Jailed Palestinian Basim Khandaqji Wins the 2024 Arabic Fiction Prize

In News by Porter Anderson

Imprisoned in Israel when he was 21, the Palestinian writer Basim Khandaqji wins the US$50,000 International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

At the 2024 International Prize for Arabic Fiction ceremony on April 28. Those onstage are, from left, former trustee Margaret Obank; winner Basim Khandaqji’s brother Yousef; Basim Khandaqji’s publisher Rana Isriss; Arabic Prize for Fiction administrator Fleur Montanaro; Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Center chief Dr. Ali Bin Tamim; and chair of the prize’s trustees,Yasir Suleiman. Image: IPAF, Khéridine Mabrouk

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

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‘An Archaeology  of Victimhood’
As if the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre weren’t busy enough today (April 28) here in the United Arab Emirates with its 2024 International Congress of Arabic Publishing and Creative Industries, the closely watched International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) has this evening named the imprisoned Palestinian author Basim Khandaqji its 2024 winner for his novel, A Mask, the Color of the Sky from Dar al-Adab.

The award program supported by Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre and takes place on the eve of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, which opens on Monday (April 29) to run through May 5.

Khandaqji is the third Palestinian writer to win this prestigious annual honor in Arabic fiction (past winners are listed below, the Palestinians being Ibrahim Nasrallah and Rabai al-Madhoun).

He’s one of two Palestinians on this year’s shortlist, the other being Osama Al Eissa for The Seventh Heaven of Jerusalem from the publisher Al Mutawassit.

The owner of Khandaqji’s publishing house, Rana Idriss, accepted the award at the ceremony tonight here in a clear but humid Abu Dhabi on behalf of the author, who was incarcerated at age 21 in an Israeli prison in 2004.

Basim Khandaqji

While a prisoner, Khandaqji has taken a degree in political science from Al-Quds University, writing his thesis on Israeli studies. He has also continued writing work that includes articles  about literature, politics, women Palestinian activists, and inmates of Israeli prisons. He has published  several poetry collections, including Rituals of the First Time (2010) and The Breath of a Nocturnal Poem (2013).

Our colleague Saeed Saeed reports for the regional news medium The National that Khandaqji—who is a native of Nablus, born there in 1983—”arrested on terrorism charges by Israeli authorities in 2004 and convicted of planning and participating in a bombing at Tel Aviv’s Camel Market that killed three people and injured dozens more.

“He is serving three life sentences in an Israeli prison.”

A Mask, the Color of the Sky, published last year, is his fourth novel. The previous three:

  • The Narcissus of Isolation (2017)
  • The Eclipse of Badr al-Din (2019)
  • The  Breath of a Woman Let Down (2020)

The “mask” referred to in Khandaqji’s title has to do with the blue identity card belonging to an Israeli found by the  protagonist Nur—an archaeologist living in a refugee camp in Ramallah—in the pocket of an old coat, as the prize’s organizers relay it.

“He adopts this mask,” they write, “and what follows is an experimental and multi-layered narrative which sets out  to reclaim elements of history and place with vivid and memorable characterization.”

‘An Archeology of Victimhood’

Nabil Suleiman, chair of the jury in 2024, tonight said, “A Mask, the Color of the Sky fuses the personal with the political in innovative ways.

“It ventures into experimenting with new narrative forms to explore three types of consciousness:  that of the self, the ‘other,’ and the world. It dissects a complex, bitter reality of family  fragmentation, displacement, genocide, and racism.

“The strands of history, myth, and the  present day are delicately woven together in a narrative that pulses with compassion in the face of dehumanization, and is stirred by a desire for freedom from oppression, both at an individual and societal level.

A Mask, the Color of the Sky declares love and friendship as central to human identity above all other affiliations.”

Yasir Suleiman

And Yasir Suleiman, chair of the contest’s board of trustees, tonight said, “The protagonist in A Mask, the Color of the Sky embarks on a journey in which the self, under the guise of the other, faces that same other in cleverly woven encounters, while on a mission to rescue Mary Magdalene from the narrative of The Da Vinci Code.

“An archaeology of victimhood emerges, and the trauma of modern Palestine unravels.

“A Palestinian woman from Haifa in Israel, who tenaciously holds to her own national narrative, helps the protagonist to revert to his unmasked self. After careful scene setting, the novel gathers pace quickly, ensnaring the reader in its galloping storylines and unexpected subtle humor.”

The jury for the prize this year comprises:

  • Syrian writer Nabil Suleiman, serving as chair
  • Palestinian writer, researcher, and academic Sonia Nimr
  • Czech academic František Ondráš
  • Egyptian critic and journalist Mohamed Shoair
  • Sudanese writer and journalist Hammour Ziada

And an update (29 April) note for our international rights readers: Publishing Perspectives has received word from Europa Editions that earlier this year it acquired world English rights to Khandaqji’s book, with a scheduled 2026 publication. Please refer to our next Rights Roundup, currently set for May 10, for more information.

The 2024 International Prize for Arabic Fiction Shortlist

Reviewing for you here this year’s shortlist, the original field comprised 133 titles submitted in this, the 17th edition of the contest.

Author Title Country of Origin Publisher
Raja Alem Bahbel: Makkah Multiverse, 1945-2009 Saudi Arabia Dar Tanweer
Rima Bali Suleima’s Ring Syria Tanmia Publishing
Osama Al Eissa The Seventh Heaven of Jerusalem Palestine Al Mutawassit
Basim Khandaqji A Mask, the Color of the Sky Palestine Dar al-Adab
Ahmed Al Morsi Gambling on the Honor of Lady Mitsy Egypt Dar Dawen
Eissa Nasiri The Mosaicist Morocco Masciliana
Previous Winners of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction
  • 2008: Sunset Oasis by Bahaa Taher (Egypt)
  • 2009: Azazeel by Youssef Ziedan (Egypt)
  • 2010: Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles by Abdo Khal (Saudi Arabia)
  • 2011: The Arch and the Butterfly by Mohammed Achaari (Morocco) and The Dove’s Necklace by Raja  Alem (Saudi Arabia)
  • 2012: The Druze of Belgrade by Rabee Jaber (Lebanon)
  • 2013: The Bamboo Stalk by Saud Alsanousi (Kuwait)
  • 2014: Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (Iraq)
  • 2015: The Italian by Shukri Mabkhout (Tunisia)
  • 2016: Destinies: Concerto of the Holocaust and the Nakba by Rabai al-Madhoun (Palestine) 2017: A Small Death by Mohammed Hasan Alwan (Saudi Arabia)
  • 2018: The Second War of the Dog by Ibrahim Nasrallah (Palestine)
  • 2019: The Night Mail by Hoda Barakat (Lebanon)
  • 2020: The Spartan Court by Abdelouahab Aissaoui (Algeria)
  • 2021: Notebooks of the Bookseller by Jalal Barjas (Jordan)
  • 2022: Bread on the Table of Uncle Milad by Mohamed Alnaas (Libya)
  • 2023: The Water Diviner by Zahran Alqasmi (Iraq)

It’s important to note that the International Prize for Arabic Fiction is based in England, and operated from London. It is not connected with the Booker Prizes, a common misconception. The Arabic award’s organizers write, “Although the prize is often referred to as the ‘Arabic Booker,’ this is not instigated nor endorsed at all by the International Prize for Arabic fiction or the Booker Prize Foundation, two completely separate, independent organizations.” There’s no connection between IPAF and the Booker program.

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 on the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair is here, and more on the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre is here.

Publishing Perspectives is the world media partner of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award and the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson 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 an arts critic (Fellow, 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.