The anthology “Emerging Arab Voices, Nadwa 1: A Bilingual Reader” showcases the work of eight Arab writers who participated in November 2009 in the inaugural Nadwa, organized by the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF). The anthology is newly published as a bilingual Arabic-English text by Saqi Books of London and Beirut, in collaboration with IPAF. IPAF, worth a total of $60,000 to the winner, was founded in 2007 with funding from the Abu Dhabi-based Emirates Foundation and is managed in association with the Booker Prize Foundation of London. In addition to its annual cash prize, IPAF is helping nurture young Arab writers. Designed as a mix of writer’s retreat and workshop, the Nadwa was held on the island of Sir Bani Yas off the coast of Abu Dhabi, famed for its abundant wildlife and tree plantations. The sponsor and host was the UAE Ruler’s Representative in the Western Region, Sheikh Hamdan Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan. The writers, aged between 27 and 41, were from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Yemen, Sudan, Lebanon, Egypt and Tunisia. For ten days they wrote and discussed their work under the guidance of two novelist mentors – Iraqi Inaam Kachachi and Lebanese Jabbour Douaihy. Both are IPAF shortlistees: Kachachi’s novel “The American Granddaughter” was shortlisted in 2009 and Douaihy’s novel “June Rain” was shortlisted in 2008. The coordinator of the Nadwa was Peter Clark, a translator of Arabic to English, former cultural attaché at the British Council, and an IPAF trustee. The selections in the anthology are translated by Clark and five other translators. In their preface, Kachachi and Douaihy convey the flavor of the event: “When our friend the Sudanese novelist, Mansour El-Sowaim, disembarked from the small Cessna seaplane that landed or rather came to rest on the sea of the island of Sir Bani Yas, the trees planted in the salty terrain waved to celebrate the first man from Darfur to arrive on this isolated island in the Gulf.” Kamel Riahi was an “untameable Tunisian volcano”, Egyptians Mansoura Ez-Eldin and Mohammed Salah Al-Azab “brought with them the charm of Cairo and that city’s finest narrative dress”, and Mohammed Hassan Alwan was “the exceptionally amiable and sardonic Saudi.” Lana Abdel Rahman from Lebanon was in love with writing, and Emirati Nasser Al-Dhaheri was “confident in his style and his aesthetic choices.” Nadiah Alkokabany “came with diffidence and determination from the Yemen.” There is plenty to engage and intrigue the reader in the samples of the writers’ work. Kamel Riahi’s novel “The Gorilla” takes its title from the nickname of a black Tunisian young man who feels himself to be an outsider. At the beginning of the extract in the anthology, the “gorilla” ascends an enormous clock-tower in Tunis and is surrounded by security forces and crowds of onlookers. Riahi writes with much verve and vitality. The chapter from Sudanese Mansour El-Sowaim’s novel “The Ghosts of Fransawi” is compelling and poetic, with its evocations of Darfur – but as with some of the other extracts from novels, one would have liked some context and background information about the work. The extract from Mohammed Hassan Alwan’s confidently-written novel “The Beaver” centers on a Riyadh family dubbed “the beavers” by the first-person narrator son. The narrator dissects the dynamics between family members, and his mother’s desertion and remarriage. In the story “letters of Yann Andrea ” by Lana Abdel Rahman, the female central character escapes from war-torn Beirut into fantasies of the relationship between the elderly French writer and film director Marguerite Duras and the much younger man Yann Andrea. Abdel Rahman is a writer of marked delicacy. The central protagonist in Mansoura Ez-Eldin’s macabre story “Déjà Vu” is a middle-aged Egyptian woman Samiha who has fallen prey to partners more than 20 years her junior, who have taken much of her wealth. Egyptian Mohammed Salah Al-Azab writes in his novel “Temporary Death” about a mysterious little boy with the physical maturity of a man, and his impact on a village, particularly its women. Two of the writers have artists as main characters. One of the first-person narrators of Nadiah Alkokabany’s “My Own Sana’a” is a painter who has returned to Yemen from Cairo with her mother after her father’s death. In the story “The Stone of Desire” Nasser Al-Dhaheri skillfully depicts an ageing sculptress and her relationship with a blind beggar, whom she sculpts, and his 11-year-old son. While the writers’ material is generally strong, and their voices distinctive, the translations vary in quality and could have done with some tweaking. And it is a pity that a number of proofreading errors have crept in. The Nadwa is to be an annual event: the second took place this October at Abu Dhabi’s desert retreat of Qasr Al-Sarab. Jabbour Douaihy was again a mentor; his co-mentor was Mansoura Ez-Eldin. We look forward to the fruits of this second Nadwa being published as a follow up to “Emerging Arab Voices, Nadwa 1”.
– Saudi Gazette
CAPTIONS: 2. Youth perspective Saudi novelist Mohammed Hassan Alwan is ’amiable’ and ’sardonic’. 3. Passing on wisdom Inaam Kachachi was one of Nadwa’s novelist mentors.