Founded in Abu Dhabi in 2007, the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) is entering its sixth round this year. In 2009, the IPAF extended the activities of their remit and created a workshop, entitled “nadwa,” to recognize and support younger writers toward developing the future generation of authors, while highlighting the importance of translation of Arabic literature into other languages. The 2009 inaugural edition of “nadwa” produced a bilingual book, entitled “Emerging Arab Voices.”
The book includes eight short stories and excerpts from novels-in-development. The aim of “nadwa” was to have a balanced representation of men and women from across the Arabic speaking world for a literary workshop. The result brought: Tunisian translator, writer and critic Kamel Riahi; Lebanese culture journalist and novelist Lana Abdel Rahman; Sudanese journalist and writer Mansour el-Sowaim; Egyptian journalist and novelist Mansoura Ez-Eldin from the Delta in Egypt; Saudi columnist Mohammed Hassan Alwan; Cairo-born, award-winning writer Mohammad Salah Al-Azab; Yemeni writer and professor of architecture Nadiah Al-Kokabany; and Emirati editor of Al-Ittihad newspaper Nasser al-Dhaheri.
The group spent 10 days on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi where they partook in writing, reading, critiquing and reviewing each other’s work. By 2011, “Emerging Arab Voices” was published, bringing together the stories that were produced in the workshop in Arabic, along with their English translation.
There is a thread that goes through all of the stories. On the most part, they similarly deal with ideas of nostalgia and the passing of time and generations. The stories are each filled with dimensions of personality and intrigue, both good and bad. While some of the stories eloquently express ideas that are clearly inspired by the authors’ hometowns, others do not reach expectations.
Tunisian writer, Kamel Riahi’s story, “The Gorilla” is so deeply allegorical that it is difficult to really capture a narrative, as it is poeticized to the point of incoherence. Unfortunately, the words seem to be haphazardly put together, like a collage of sentences and images that don’t allow the reader to constitute a coherent idea.
Award-winning Egyptian novelist Mohammad Salah Al-Azab’s inclusion is a chapter from a forthcoming novel. Entitled “Temporary Death,” the story conjures rather unsettling imagery. While some referred to his story as “daring” in the surreal mixture of an ageless child, a source of eternal youth and sexual desire, it is a peculiar story that is told in plain and uncomplicated terms. The end result is more strange than interesting.
Mansoura Ez-Eldin’s “Déjà Vu” attempts to capture an elusive moment of memory replay but doesn’t quite capture the reader’s imagination. The bewilderment expressed over this banal instant drowns it in disinterest.
On the other hand, Lana Abdel Rahman’s “Letters to Yann Andrea” is inspirational by the author’s demonstrated love for literature. Set in Beirut during the summer of 2006, the narrator writes letters to Yann, demonstrating a therapeutic thought process between her situation in war, ravaged surroundings and her curiosity about the loneliness of French writer, Marguerite Duras.
Nadia Al Kokabany writes about her city in “My Own Sana’a.” It is a beautifully written, soft and eloquent piece bringing together the romance of love and dreams to the personal nostalgia and separation from a historical home city.
Saudi columnist Mohammed Hassan Alwan’s extract for a forthcoming novel is entitled “The Beaver.” An internal relay of his own memories of his childhood is warm, heartfelt and smoothly written. He thinks of his sister and their fragile, cold relationship with their mother, giving it the tangible description of “paper affection.” The excerpt explores the gender roles of people within his family, particularly the women, contemplating them in his decision to move to the bigger city, Riyadh.
Among the intentions of the book is to encourage translations of Arabic literature into English. At present, only two to three percent of the English book market is made up of translations, so the shortage of Arabic books into English is something both ends of the process need to support. “Nadwa” and the IPAF’s initiative is a timely and necessary one that will hopefully serve as an influencing push for more people to look at this gap in cultural exchange between the Arabic and English speaking world.
Since the publishing of the 2009 “nadwa” stories in “Emerging Arab Voices,” two more workshops have taken place in Abu Dhabi. The results of the 2010 and 2011 “nadwa” workshops are currently under discussion and in development.