By Alison Flood
At 42, the winner of the ‘Arabic Booker’ is its youngest recipient, for his novel set in Beirut, Belgrade and the Balkans in the 1860s
Lebanese writer Rabee Jaber has won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, an award worth $50,000 (£31,400) which has become known as the “Arabic Booker”.
Jaber, a novelist and journalist, took the prize for his historical novel The Druze of Belgrade. Set in the 1860s, the novel moves from Beirut just after the civil war in Mount Lebanon to Belgrade and the Balkans, following the misadventures of a Christian egg seller who is forced into exile with a group of Druze fighters. The Christian, Hanna Yacoub, is imprisoned for 12 years, experiencing vast suffering. Judges praised the novel “for its powerful portrayal of the fragility of the human condition through the evocation of a past historical period in highly sensitive prose”.
Jaber said he spent years researching the period in the basement library of the American University in Beirut. “I spent hours scanning the archives of ottoman papers,” he said. “This gave me an idea about what life was like back then. This is not the first time I [have written] about the 19th century Beirut, many of my novels were set [then].”
Jaber, the youngest recipient of the prize at the age of 42, beat authors from Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria and Lebanon to win the award. “Had the rules of the prize allowed there to be more than one winner, we would have nominated all six novels on the shortlist as prize winners,” said chair of the judges Georges Tarabichi, a Syrian writer and critic. Jaber’s win follows the decision by Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Book awards to withhold their literature prize because no suitable winner could be found.
Although Jaber has yet to be published in English, he is well-known in his native Lebanon, where he has published 17 novels, won the Critics Choice prize and edited the weekly cultural supplement of Al-Hayat newspaper. Previous winners of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction have all gone on to secure publishing deals, with books from winners Youssef Ziedan, Abdo Khal and Mohammed Achaari all due out this year. Chair of the prize’s trustees, Jonathan Taylor, said he was proud that over the five years the prize has been running, it had “brought recognition and reward to outstanding Arabic literary fiction”. The award is supported by the Booker Prize Foundation and funded by the Emirates Foundation for Philanthropy.