Notebooks of the Bookseller wins 2021 International Prize for Arabic Fiction
• Jordanian poet and novelist Jalal Barjas wins 14th edition of International Prize for Arabic Fiction, having been previously longlisted for the prize in 2019
• His novel tells the story of a book lover’s experience with schizophrenia and a crime spree he commits using the names of characters from fiction
Notebooks of the Bookseller by Jalal Barjas was today announced as the winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF). The novel, published by The Arabic Institute for Research and Publishing, was named as this year’s winner by Chair of Judges Chawki Bazih during a virtual winner ceremony.
In addition to being awarded USD $50,000, funding will be provided for the English translation of Notebooks of the Bookseller, and Barjas can expect to see an increase in book sales and international recognition.
Chawki Bazih, Chair of the 2020 IPAF Judging Panel, says:
“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 by 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.”
Professor Yasir Suleiman CBE, Chair of the IPAF Board of Trustees, 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-honoured 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.”
Set in Jordan and Moscow between 1947 and 2019, Notebooks of the Bookseller tells the story of Ibrahim, a bookseller and voracious reader, who loses his shop and finds himself on the street. Experiencing schizophrenia, he assumes the identities of the protagonists of the novels he loved, to commit a series of crimes of burglary, theft and murder. He attempts suicide, before meeting the woman who will change his life. This story and others are told through a series of notebooks and multiple narrators whose paths sometimes collide. It is the painful, fragmented tale of marginalised people who are ignored or invisible to others, while a corrupt ruling class thrives. Against this background, the importance of the house is highlighted, as a symbol of the homeland. Barjas’s novel audaciously tackles a difficult reality not just in Jordan but the Arab world as a whole.
Barjas is a Jordanian poet and novelist, born in 1970. He works in the field of aeronautical engineering. For many years, he wrote articles for Jordanian newspapers and headed several cultural organisations. He is currently head of the Jordanian Narrative Laboratory and presents a radio programme called “House of the Novel”. His published work includes two poetry collections, short stories, travel literature and novels. His short story The Earthquakes (2012) was winner of the Jordanian Rukus ibn Zaʼid ʻUzayzi Prize. His novel Guillotine of the Dreamer (2013) won the Jordanian Rifqa Doudin Prize for Narrative Creativity in 2014, and Snakes of Hell won the 2015 Katara Prize for the Arabic Novel, in the unpublished novel category, and was published by Katara in 2016. His third novel Women of the Five Senses (2017) was IPAF-longlisted in 2019.
Jalal Barjas, winner of the 2021 International Prize of Arabic Fiction, said:
“Thank you to the International Prize for Arabic Fiction which has opened all these beautiful paths to readers so my words could reach them. Through these words, I endeavoured to sow joy into the field of humanity.”
Notebooks of the Bookseller was chosen by the IPAF judges as the best work of fiction published in Arabic between 1 July 2019 and 31 August 2020 from a shortlist of six novels by authors from Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia. The shortlisted finalists — Abdulatif Ould Abdullah, Amira Ghenim, Dunya Mikhail, Jalal Barjas, Habib Selmi and Abdelmajid Sebbata — will each receive USD $10,000.
Barjas will participate in media interviews on 25 and 26 May. On Thursday 27 May at 3pm BST / 6pm GST he will take part in an event at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair alongside the shortlisted authors. In the session entitled ‘IPAF: Honouring the 2021 Winner and Shortlisted Authors’, Lebanese scholar Bilal Orfali will interview the authors about their journeys, from initial idea to finished book.
The 2021 judging panel was chaired by Lebanese poet and author Bazih, and consisted of: Mohammed Ait Hanna, a Moroccan writer, translator and lecturer 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 Paulo in Brazil; Ali Al-Muqri, a Yemeni writer twice longlisted for IPAF, in 2009 and 2011; and Ayesha Sultan, an Emirati author, journalist, founding director of Warrak Publishing House and Vice President of the Emirates Writers Union.
In fulfilling its ambition to increase the international reach of Arabic fiction, the prize provides funding for the English translation of its winners. Winning novels published in English include Hoda Barakat’s The Night Mail (translated as Voices of the Lost, Oneworld); 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, US); 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); and Bahaa Taher’s Sunset Oasis (Sceptre).
Since the start of 2020 a number of novels recognised by the prize have been published in English, including All the Women Inside Me by Jana Elhassan (shortlisted in 2013 as Me, She and the Other Women), translated by Michelle Hartman and published by Interlink Books (USA); 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; The Critical Case of a Man Called K by Aziz Muhammed (shortlisted as The Critical Case of “K” in 2018), translated by Humphrey Davies and published by Hoopoe; The Girl with the Braided Hair by Rasha Adley (longlisted as Passion in 2018) and The Book Smuggler by Omaima Al-Khamis (longlisted as Voyage of the Cranes in the Cities of Agate in 2019), both translated by Sarah Enany and published by Hoopoe; Summer with the Enemy by Shahla Ujayli (shortlisted in 2019) and; The King of India by Jabbour Douaihy (shortlisted in 2020), translated by Paula Haydar and published by Interlink Books (USA).
This year will also see the translation into English of Hot Maroc by Yassin Adnan (longlisted in 2017), translated by Alex Elinson and published by Syracuse University Press; and Firewood of Sarajevo by Said Khatibi (shortlisted in 2020), translated by Paul Starkey and published by Banipal Publishing.
The International Prize for Arabic Fiction is an annual literary prize for novels in Arabic. It is currently sponsored by the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre, at the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi, and has been mentored by the Booker Prize Foundation in London.