Tunisian novel wins ‘Arabic Booker’ in Abu Dhabi despite UAE ban
The Italian by Shukri al-Mabkhout takes International prize for Arabic fiction for story written in the aftermath of the Arab spring
M Lynx Qualey
Wednesday 6 May 2015 17.29 BST
A Tunisian university administrator has won the International prize for Arabic fiction (IPAF) for his debut novel, The Italian, at a ceremony in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates’ capital city. Shukri al-Mabkhout’s award comes just a week after his publishers learned from an Abu Dhabi bookshop that the novel was banned from bookshops across the Emirates.
The Italian is the eighth winner of the $50,000 (£33,000) prize known as the “Arabic Booker”. While the award is funded by the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, its longlist, shortlist and winner are decided by a panel of independent judges, this year chaired by Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti.
Even before the announcement, there was wide interest in al-Mabkhout’s historical novel, whose protagonist is nicknamed “the Italian” for his slick good looks. The novel is set in Tunisia during the tumultuous crossover between Habib Bourguiba’s 30-year rule (1957-1987) and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s 24 years in power (1987-2011) and follows the central character’s political and romantic adventures while also critically examining Tunisia under two dictatorships.
When it was released last year, 53-year-old al-Mabkhout’s novel came as something of a shock to the Tunisian literary community. Al-Mabkhout is current president of the country’s University of Manouba and a well-known cultural figure, respected for his translations, literary criticism, and a weekly newspaper column, but his arrival as a novelist had not been expected. After the initial surprise, his debut received an enthusiastic reception, last month winning Tunisia’s top literary prize.
Al-Mabkhout said in an email interview with IPAF organisers that he was inspired by the backlash that came after the 2010-2011 Tunisian uprising that ousted Ben Ali.
“In a short period of time, we experienced what is equivalent to many years’ worth of unbelievable confusion and changes,” the novelist wrote. He could have addressed his feelings in a newspaper column, he said, but instead it was the novel form, “with its ability to grasp the contradictions, conflicts, changes, and hesitations,” that drew him in. This year he plans to publish a second novel as well as a collection of poems.
IPAF judging chair Mourid Barghouti said The Italian “brilliantly depicts the unrest both of the small world of its characters and the larger one of the nation”. Although it’s about Tunisian society, he said, “the book may also surprise many of its Arab readers who may recognise aspects of their societies in its pages”.
This recognition is perhaps what led to its banning in the Emirates, although no official reason has been given. Last week, al-Mabkhout’s publisher found out from Maktabet al Jamea (University Bookshop) in Abu Dhabi that the “authorities informed him it’s banned and that he therefore can’t stock it,” according to Sherif Joseph Rizk, the Cairo manager of Dar al-Tanweer, the book’s publisher.
Rizk said that Dar al-Tanweer did bring copies to the Abu Dhabi international book fair, which opens on Thursday, saying that “the fairs always get more lenient procedures”. IPAF organisers also issued a statement that copies would be available at the fair and that, “As a prize, we promote literature across borders but cannot influence the availability of our titles.”
Rizk wasn’t sure why the book was being singled out. Other books on the shortlist also cross traditional red lines, particularly Syrian novelist Lina Hawyan Elhassan’s Diamonds and Women, which has a number of sex scenes.
Thus far, Rizk said, al-Mabkhout’s novel remained available elsewhere. “We sold it in Riyadh. Now of course that’s threatened.”
An ebook version isn’t yet out, but Rizk said one should be available soon through Diwan Bookstores.
An eventual English translation is more or less guaranteed by the IPAF, the highest-profile Arabic novel prize. Six of the previous seven winners are already available in English. The most recent is Saud al-Sanoussi’s The Bamboo Stalk, published at the end of last month. English rights to last year’s winner, Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, have been picked up by Oneworld, and it is tentatively scheduled for a 2016 release.