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The Italian by Shukri Mabkhout wins 2015 International Prize for Arabic Fiction

6 May 2015

The Italian by Shukri Mabkhout was tonight, Wednesday 6 May 2015, announced as the winner of the eighth International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF).

The Italian, published by Dar Tanweer Tunis,was named winner by this year’s Chair of Judges, award-winning Palestinian poet and writer Mourid Barghouti, at a ceremony in Abu Dhabi. In addition to winning $50,000, Shukri Mabkhout is guaranteed an English translation of his novel, as well as an expected increase in book sales and international recognition.

Set in Tunis, The Italian tells the story of Abdel Nasser, nicknamed ‘the Italian’ due to his good looks. Against the backdrop of the protagonist’s political and amatory exploits, the book sheds light on Tunisia’s recent complex history, in particular the troubled transition from the Bourguiba era to the government of Ben Ali in the late 1980s. In a recent interview, Mabkhout told how he was inspired to write the novel by the events of the Arab Spring: ‘Two years into the revolution... I remembered a recent period of Tunisia’s history that is similar in its fears, changes and conflicts to what I was witnessing and living: it was the period of transition from the reign of Bourguiba to that of Ben Ali following the 1987 coup.’ 

Mabkhout, who has just turned 53, was born in Tunis in 1962 and currently resides there, where he is President of Manouba University. A well-known academic and intellectual, he has written several works of literary criticism, but this is his first novel.

The Italian was selected as the best work of fiction published within the last 12 months, selected from 180 entries from 15 countries across the Arab World. On behalf of the 2015 judging panel, Mourid Barghouti comments: 

‘The whole of Shukri Mabkhout's debut novel is as astonishing as its first chapter: piquing the reader’s interest through a mysterious event in the opening scene, the book gradually reveals the troubled history of its characters and a particular period in Tunisia’s history. The hero, Abdel Nasser, is complex and multi-faceted and even the minor characters are convincing and we believe the logic of their actions. However, his most striking creation is that of Zina, Abdel Nasser’s wife: skilfully rendered as a blend of confidence and diffidence; harshness and love; strength and fragility. She is a highly individual character who, rather than being pre-conceived, clearly developed during the act of writing.

‘The novel brilliantly depicts the unrest both of the small world of its characters and the larger one of the nation, as well as exploring themes of personal desire, the establishment, violation and opportunism. Whilst it lifts the lid on Tunisian society, the book may also surprise many of its Arab readers who may recognise aspects of their societies in its pages too. Gripping the read from the first line to the last, The Italian is a work of art and an important contribution to Tunisian, and Arab, literary fiction.’

The five other shortlisted finalists were also honoured at the ceremony alongside the winner; each of the finalists, including the winner, receives $10,000.

The six names on the shortlist were announced in February 2015, at a press conference at the Royal Mansour Hotel, Casablanca, in partnership with the Ministry of Culture of Morocco and the Casablanca International Book Fair, by the judging panel. The judges are: Mourid Barghouti (Chair), an award-winning Palestinian poet and writer; Ayman A. El-Desouky, an Egyptian academic, lecturer on Modern Arabic and Comparative Literature at SOAS; Parween Habib, a poet, critic, and media expert; Najim A. Kadhim, an Iraqi critic and academic, Professor of Comparative Literature at Baghdad University; and Kaoru Yamamoto, a Japanese academic, translator and researcher.

The Prize is supported by the Booker Prize Foundation in London and funded by Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi) in the UAE.

Professor Yasir Suleiman, Chair of the Board of IPAF Trustees, comments:

The Italian is an accomplished novel. It never lets go of the reader who willingly follows its intriguing characters on their converging and diverging journeys through a world full of incremental surprises. Set in Tunis in the second half of the twentieth century, the novel meanders in multiple directions to create a complex picture of a world that resonates in the present. Mabkhout is a master of suspense. He does so in standard Arabic that is full of vitality and pathos, thereby defying the unfair criticism that the Arabic language is a bookish and fossilised mode of expression at odds with the modern world. Mabkhout is not only a great narrator; he is also a master of an elevated language that breathes life into every word he pens.’

Delivering on its aim to increase the international reach of Arabic fiction, the Prize has guaranteed English translations for all of its winners: Bahaa Taher (2008), Youssef Ziedan (2009), Abdo Khal (2010), joint winners Mohammed Achaari and Raja Alem (2011), Rabee Jaber (2012), Saud Alsanousi (2013) and Ahmed Saadawi (2014).

Since 2008, the winning and shortlisted IPAF books have been translated into over 20 languages.

The 2014 winner, Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, has secured English publication with Oneworld in the UK and Penguin Books in the US. It is set to be published in Autumn 2016. Saud Alsanousi’s 2013 winning entry The Bamboo Stalk (Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing) was published in the UK in April 2015.

For further information about the Prize, please follow the Prize on Facebook.

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