International prize for Arabic fiction shortlist reveals 'tragedy of present-day Middle East'

Novels from Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian territories in contention for prize worth $60,000

Bringing Raqqa back to life ... Syrian writer Shahla Ujayli’s novel A Sky Close to Our House was written in part to ease the author’s separation from her home city.
Bringing Raqqa back to life ... Syrian writer Shahla Ujayli’s novel A Sky Close to Our House was written in part to ease the author’s separation from her home city. Photograph: Reuters

From a Syrian novel about Islamic State’s occupation of Raqqa to an Egyptian dystopian thriller, six books that “address the tragedy of the present-day Middle East” have been shortlisted for the International prize for Arabic fiction.

Worth $60,000 (£41,000) to the winner, the annual award for prose fiction in Arabic is intended to “increase the international reach” of Arabic fiction, with previous winners including Bahaa Taher and Abdo Khal all going on to be translated into English.

This year, Syrian writer Shahla Ujayli makes the shortlist for A Sky Close to Our House, in which a Syrian woman looks back on her country’s past from her exile in Amman in Jordan, after Isis occupies her hometown of Raqqa.

“I was inspired to write it by the difficult circumstances which my country Syria is going through at this point in its history,” Ujayli told prize organisers.

“These have had a negative effect on Arabic life in general, with the rise in violence, terrorism, poverty and deprivation, and I was affected by all that on a personal level. My house in the city of Raqqa seemed suddenly very distant, since visiting it was all but impossible because of the war, and political and ethnic conflict. I wanted to bring that place back to life, by describing what was happening in the world and the history of the Middle East through its most significant events, offering a fictional vision of the relationships between ordinary individuals.”

Two Palestinian writers are shortlisted for this year’s prize. Rabai al-Madhoun was picked for Destinies, a novel written in four parts looking at the Palestinian exodus from Israel in 1948, the holocaust, and the Palestinian right to return, and Mahmoud Shukair for Praise for the Women of the Family, a history of the Al-Abd al-Lat clan’s women, after they leave the desert and its Bedouin customs behind.

Egyptian Mohamed Rabie is shortlisted for Mercury, in which the novelist imagines an Egypt occupied by a mysterious power a decade after the police are defeated in Cairo on 28 January 2011.

The shortlist is completed with Lebanese writer George Yaraq’s The Guard of the Dead, in which a hospital undertaker dreads his past as a sniper during the Lebanese civil war coming out, and Moroccan Tareq Bakari’s debut, Numedia, about a Moroccan orphan and his relationships.

Emirati poet and academic Amina Thiban, chair of the judges, said the list “features a number of experimental works, which try out new ground as they explore the experiences of the individual and the larger concerns of the Arab world.

“The shortlisted novels are characterised by their innovative narrative forms and styles, which both question the heritage of the Arabic novel and address the tragedy of the present-day Middle East.”

The winner will be announced in Abu Dhabi on 26 April, with the six finalists all receiving $10,000, and the winner to be given a further $50,000.

The shortlist

Numedia by Tareq Bakari
Destinies by Rabai al-Madhoun
Mercury by Mohamed Rabie
Praise for the Women of the Family by Mahmoud Shukair
A Sky Close to Our House by Shahla Ujayli
The Guard of the Dead by George Yaraq