Lebanese novelist Rabee Jaber won the 2012 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF, or “Arabic Booker”) for his novel Druze of Belgrade. (Story in Egypt Independent.) Although the judges seemed satisfied with their decision, judging chair Georges Tarabichi said it was a “tough decision” and judge Maudie Bitar said, “There was a tough moment when we couldn’t agree on a certain one.” Judge Gonzalo Fernandez Parrilla said that the judges spent considerable time discussing the various novels’ strengths and weaknesses. I asked about what was particularly special about Druze of Belgrade, the winning book:
Judge Gonzalo Fernández Parrilla: “I think Rabee Jaber is a great narrator, a great storyteller. He is able to get a reader, from the very beginning, into his stories, no matter what he writes about. He is one of the greatest narrators on the Arabic scene. Then, [as to] this particular story, I think it’s a very interesting historical novel, and being part of the historical novel genre it’s a very lively novel also. Especially the way he narrates, the way he tells the story.”
Judge Maudie Bitar: “What we found different and special about Mr. Jaber’s novel is his insight into the geography and history of Lebanon…his way of describing the environment of that time.”
Gonzalo Fernández Parrilla: “That’s a wonderful novel also because it’s one of the best novels about the war of Lebanon. It’s very symbolic to the main character, and very poetic. Both [Douaihy's and Jaber's books] have a very special relationship with nature and…seasons and the way that the weather is changing and the psychological aspects of the characters are changing. [Both Douaihy's book and Jaber's] have a very good relation with the atmosphere, and also…they are connected: [Jaber's] is the story of the Christian becoming a Muslim and Jabbour’s is just the opposite: A Muslim boy is raised up as a Christian. … So they are similar to some extent in the way they play with identities.”
Maudie Bitar: “I love Jabbour Douaihey’s book. … I thought the novel was a metaphor for Lebanon…whose confused identity and conflict is repeatedly dealt with by writers in Lebanon. … And the characters. The characters are dark, but they look for love, and they look for their own space. And they look for answers, but they do not find them, because of the war.”
Gonzalo Fernández Parrilla: ”What I liked a lot in this book is the dialogues. Probably the dialogues of this book are the best of all the novels, especially with the small child. I mean, the whole picture of a country written in such a way, in Tunis, with what happened a few months later, I think [there] is a very acute feeling of what the society feels. It’s a portrait of Tunis before the revolution. This anguish that the atmosphere gives the reader the idea that something has to happen. As he says in the novel, he doesn’t want to go back to Tunis, because nothing changes, and if it changes, it’s to worse.”
Maudie Bitar: “That’s what’s fascinating about it. I mean, he went away from his country, but when he came back, and he sort of rejects all the excesses of religious fanaticism … he doesn’t behave in a moral way. …. The protagonist in particular” is very special. “He traces his journey back to his origins.”
Gonzalo Fernández Parrilla: ”Ezzedine’s book is also wonderful. He is also a very good narrator. [He sets a scene] through various small details…like the book falling down from the bookshelves. Then he goes into other stories. He uses the classical narration of boxes within boxes, and then coming back to the frame story.
“… The reactions of the readers to the book were so different. It’s a book that allows many different interpretations. And of course the way he deals with an Arab or Muslim in the United States … he plays around very cleverly about those issues.
“Usually he does not close [things off], like at the end of the novel. It’s very open.”
Maudie Bitar: “Ezzedine’s book is very interesting. Although he doesn’t like people saying it, it is again about the religious tension between West and East, and it’s about the lives of immigrants in America, whether they can make it or not, the way they carry themselves there. But again, one of the characters is a Palestinian shaykh who says he masterminded the 9/11 attacks and he shows no pity, no remorse at all about the victims and says, ‘We should have killed more of them.’ On the other hand, this same person is says, ‘No, you cannot go on a bus without paying.’”
Note: The authors, with the exception of Jaber, who heads home to Beirut today to be with his family, will be speaking at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, which opens this morning. More from the ceremony and about translation rights that have been picked up for the shortlisted and winning books on yesterday’s report.