12 February 14 | Chad W. Post

Following on last month’s announcement of the longlist for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, the six-title short list was revealed yesterday.

This year’s six novels are wide-ranging in both subject matter and style. They include: a prison novel from Morocco; a story about one family’s dispersal around the globe, from 1950s Iraq to the modern day; a police hunt for an Iraqi Frankenstein terrorising Baghdad; one man’s search for knowledge as he travels around North Africa and the Middle East; the grim reality of one family’s struggle to survive in present day Aleppo and a psychological thriller played out in a psychiatric hospital in Cairo. [. . .]

Saad Albazei [chair of the judging committee] comments: ‘This year’s longlist was full of excellent books – a reflection of the overall quality of Arabic fiction published this year – so it was a real challenge to whittle the list down to just six. The shortlisted novels are varied in their narrative styles and language: from discovering virtual reality to the mingling of fantasy and reality, they also include classical language and multiple narrative voices and demonstrate the Arabic novel’s ability to flower despite the harsh realities of daily life.’

And here are the six shortlisted titles with short descriptions:

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 . . .

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.

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.

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.

YES! I’m so glad Frankenstein made it. I really hope this book wins . . .

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