Rabee Jaber won the 2012 International Prize for Arabic Fiction on Tuesday night for his novel The Druze of Belgrade at the Rocco Forte hotel in Abu Dhabi. The event took place on the eve of the 22nd Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.
The Lebanese writer, who has been shortlisted twice before, takes home $50,000 and the guarantee of an English translation of his novel, to encourage its publication in English. The five shortlisted writers from across the Arab world--Lebanon, Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia--receive $10,000 in prize money. The prizes, supported by the Booker Prize Foundation and funded by the Emirates Foundation for Philanthropy, is in its sixth year and all previous winners have secured English publishing deals. Three previous winners--Youssef Ziedan, Mohammed Achaari, and Abdo Khal--have books coming out this year.
The plum, of course, is to get an American deal. Now, with the Arab Spring and the increased interest in the Middle East in America and the Western world, it seems evident that this is the future for Arab writers. The six writers were present at the awards and were also featured in short video clips in which they discussed their novels on their home turf. While all the books were written before the Arab Spring, all touch on the conditions and political situations in the authors' countries. Bashir Mefti in Toy of Fire, for example, tackles a generational story of the Algerian civil war. Habib Seimi writes about a humble Tunisian family and the devastation in tunisia of the last ten years in The Women of al-Basatin.
A love of the Arabic language was a focal point with Mefti ("the arab language runs in my blood") noting that older generations of Arabs often wrote in French.
At a press conference after the ceremony, the extremely shy Jabir, whose winning novel is about the misfortunes of a man who is punished for a crime he didn't commit, said he wrote about endurance, how much a human being can bear. Jabir's historical novel opens in the 1860's in Beirut, with a Christian egg seller falsely identified as a fighter from the Druze community and sent as a prisoner in exile to the Balkins. In the story is the history and geography of Jabir's native Lebanon. Jabir spoke of how the Ottomans would close the city gates of Beirut, arrest those unfortunate enough to be caught, and send them off to war. He was asked if The Odyssey was an influence on his winning work, as well as Hemmingway's The Old Man and the Sea, since both deal with struggle. Jabir, head down, answered with modest charm to both questions. "It's possible" he said.
The question about the exclusion of women (not an issue unique to the Arab world) was presented to the panel of judges, of whom three of the five were women. A female judge, Huda al-Naimi, said that the number of women judges showed that the panel was "highly objective" and these were the books deemed most worthy. She added that only 15%--there were 579 entries--of the novels submitted were written by women.
Jaber is represented by the French agency, Pierre Astier & Associés.