8 January 14 | Chad W. Post

From the official Arab Fiction website:

The International Prize for Arabic Fiction has today (Tuesday 7 January) announced the longlist of 16 novels in contention for the 2014 prize. Those selected were chosen from 156 entries from 18 countries, all published within the last 12 months.

The 2014 longlisted authors come from 9 different countries, with the highest numbers from Morocco, Iraq and Egypt. A Kuwaiti writer makes the list for the second time in 2014, following Saud Alsanousi’s success in 2013.

It’s great to see this diversity for this prize—a prize that has led to the English publication of a number of Arab works, including The Mehlis Report by Rabee Jaber, which came out from New Directions earlier this year.

In terms of this year’s longlist, here are all 16 books, with brief summaries found on the official site:

The events of the novel take place in the 1970s, when the cosmopolitan spirit which has characterised the city throughout history has disappeared. In place of the melting pot of ethnicities, religions and cultures comes intolerance and hatred, destroying Alexandria’s secular traditions. The city occupies a large portion of the imaginary space of the novel, in which the characters play out their parts to reveal the social and religious crisis of a city now bereft of its free spirit.

The events in Love Stories on al-Asha Street take place in the 1970s, on al-Asha Street in the populous district of Manfouha, Riyadh. Three heroines are searching for their freedom. [. . .] Their story begins in the romantic period of black and white films and lovers’ trysts on the rooftops, where people sleep outside. However, with the advent of colour television comes a wave of religious extremism, opposing the social transformations which have changed the city.

The Bearer of the Purple Rose tells the story of a writer’s arrest and imprisonment in ‘The Citadel of the Port’, a 700-year old Mamluk fortress built to guard the coast. The arrest of the writer, back from a long exile in the West, is a conundrum for all his friends, who see him as a quiet, peace-loving man. He is imprisoned in a bare cell, possessing only two high windows, impossible to reach, and a picture of the tyrant, who stares at him day and night.

  • 366 by Amir Tag Elsir (Sudan)

366 is the love letter of one man to a woman who doesn’t even know he exists. The protagonist falls in love with Asmaa the moment he sees her at a relative’s wedding. Captivated, he begins a quest to find her, searching everywhere from wedding photographs to the street, the neighbourhood and the faces of other women. He even looks for her in horoscopes, in love stories and in his own vivid imagination. In his letter, he lays out details of his life – from the job that he gives up in order to search for her – to his entanglement in certain political issues. When he fails to find her, he even announces his symbolic death, signing his letter as ‘the deceased’, as a preliminary step before completing suicide.

Aziz is a pilot at the air force base who loves flying and forgets his cares when he is up in the air. It is flying that he thinks of on his wedding night, rather his 16 year-old bride, Zina, waiting in the adjoining room. The following morning, he leaves his house at the crack of dawn, not to return for 18 years. His wife, Zina, looks for him everywhere – in prisons, offices, cities and forests – asking questions and following false leads, only to be disappointed. However, one day – in the bar where she and her sister Khatima work – a stranger presses a scrap of paper into her pocket. It takes her on one last journey in search of her husband . . .

A French saxophonist is invited by a Moroccan friend to visit the Aglmam Azgza lake in the Middle Atlas mountains, to try pike fishing. Once there, he finds himself dragged into a confusing maze, at the heart of which is the legendary place itself and the savage pike. He encounters many colourful and dubious characters including: Virginia from London; a blonde fisherman nicknamed ‘pike-tamer’ and a young hotel employee, who is investigating the tragic fates of those who have visited the lake since 1910. There is also a young girl at the lake, a scriptwriter, two actresses called Hagar and Sara, a piano player and so on . . .

The Phoenix and the Faithful Friend is the life story of Mansi Ibn Abihi (literally: ‘Forgotten One, Son of his Father’), who comes from a class of Kuwaitis called the bedun (‘without’) because they lack Kuwaiti citizenship. Released from prison after the liberation of Kuwait, he decides to write his life story, addressing it to the daughter he has never seen, Zeinab – who was born whilst Kuwait was under occupation – in the hope that she will get to know her father.

Tashari deals with the tragedy of Iraqi displacement of the past few decades, through the life story of a female doctor working in the countryside in southern Iraq in the 1950s. The narrative also follows her three children, who now live in three different continents, particularly her eldest daughter who has also become a doctor and works in a remote region of Canada. The title of the novel, ‘Tashari’, is an Iraqi word referring to a shot from a hunting rifle which is scattered in several directions.

No Knives in this City’s Kitchens is a profound exploration of the mechanics of fear and disintegration over half a century. Through the story of one Syrian family, it depicts a society living under tyranny with stifled aspirations. The family realise that all their dreams have died and turned into rubble, just as the corpse of their mother has become waste material they must dispose of in order to continue living. Written with shocking perception and exquisite language, from the very beginning this novel makes its readers ask fundamental questions and shows how regimes can destroy Arab societies, plundering lives and wrecking dreams.

God’s Land of Exile is set in ‘al-Wa’ara’, an imaginary oasis in the Egyptian desert of al-Wadi al-Jadid. The main character, Hajizi, is over 100 years old and has spent most of his life working with his father Shadid, embalming the corpses of animals. Disturbed by how the speed with which the living forget the dead, he longs for immortality and fears his own death and burial. When he hears from a passing monk that Christ rose from the dead and that righteous Christians rise from death, he decides to accompany the monk to join his brethren in the mountains. There he meets Christ, who tells him to wait for ‘The Comforter’ who will advise him how to achieve life after death.

Ashes of the East: The Wolf who Grew Up in the Wilderness sees Jazz, a young musician of Arabic origin, exploring his identity through a symphony he is composing. The different elements of the music reflect the harsh reality of his life in America, where he is regarded as a hostile Muslim Arab, as well as stories from the life of his grandfather, Baba Sheriff. Going through key moments of his family history, he reconstructs an unadorned picture of the beginning of the twentieth century: such as Baba Sheriff being carried on his mother’s back, or the death of Baba Sheriff’s father, who was incarcerated in Lebanon’s Aliah prison before being strung up on the gallows in Beirut by order of the Ottoman ruler Jamal Pasha, nicknamed ‘the Manslayer’. Jazz goes back to a time shaped by the pursuit of European, rather than Arab, interests, touching on the influence of well-known historical figures.

A researcher stumbles across a manuscript and attempts to edit it, to make it into a doctoral thesis. Entitled The Journeys of ‘Abdi, the manuscript is an account of one man’s journeys from Morocco to the Hijaz in Saudi Arabia in search of knowledge, written in the manner of Moroccan intellectuals such as Ibn Khaldun. ’Abdi’s journey turns into an examination of Arabic and Muslim society, with ’Abdi emphasising the need for Arabs to learn from Europe in order to achieve social progress.

After five years of self-imposed isolation, Doctor Yahya returns to work at the Abbasiya Psychiatric Hospital in Cairo, where there is a surprise in store for him. In ‘West 8’, the department in charge of determining the mental health of patients who have committed crimes, he meets an old friend who reminds him of a past he is desperately trying to forget.

The events in The Edge of the Abyss are told through the voices of three characters whose lives are intertwined: a former minister, known for his corrupt practices; his lawyer wife, restricted by her association with him and a professor, whose personal interests dictate that he should serve the minister, but who at the same time seeks to fulfil his dreams of love through romantic adventures and becomes entangled with the minister’s wife. Their stories intersect with the changes following the Arab Spring, which is drawing everyone to the edge of the abyss.

In The Sad Night of Ali Baba, Iraqi writer Abdel Khaliq Al Rikabi continues his imaginative retelling of the history of modern Iraq. Using the American occupation in 2003 as a starting point, he looks back at the defining social and historical events which have taken place in the country during the 20th century, from the Ottoman Empire to the British and American occupations.

Hadi al-Attag lives in the populous al-Bataween district of Baghdad. In the Spring of 2005, he takes the body parts of those killed in explosions and sews them together to create a new body. When a displaced soul enters the body, a new being comes to life. Hadi call it ‘the-what’s-its-name’; the authorities name it ‘Criminal X’ and others refer to it as ‘Frankenstein’. Frankenstein begins a campaign of revenge against those who killed it, or killed the parts constituting its body.

Frankenstein seems like a great title to end with . . . Few of them on here that sound pretty appealing. Hopefully English publishers will pick up on this. And we’ll post an update when the shortlist is announced.

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