A cheer went up in the conference hall when the winner to the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction was announced: It was Iraqi novelist Ahmed Saadawi for his novel, Frankenstein in Baghdad. The cheers were echoed across social media.
Photo credit: Chip Rossetti.
Iraqi poet, novelist, and scholar Sinan Antoon wrote: “Congrats! Ahmad Saadawi wins the 2014 Arabic Booker. It’s about time. Baghdad writes!”
Other Iraqi poets, novelists, and short-story writers echoed Antoon’s excitement, and indeed Saadawi has said that he hopes this award will have a positive impact on the development of the Iraqi novel. On Tuesday night, after receiving the award, he said, “I would like to say that this prize provides very important momentum for the Arabic novel and for the Iraqi novel.”
Iraqi literacy and publishing have suffered massive setbacks since the blockade years in the 1980s, although recently, as Iraqi novelist Inaam Kachachi said, “We are experiencing a true upsurge in Iraqi fiction, as if we, the writers, are striving to capture the shocking events taking place in Iraq and monitor their reverberations from our own perspective. This is taking into consideration that the publishing conditions [in the Arab world] are not favorable and that there are no cultural bodies that support young novelists.”
Kachachi was also shortlisted this year for her latest novel, Tashari.
Saadawi was up against five other novels for the prize: Kachachi’s Tashari, Syrian novelist Khaled Khalifa’s No Knives in the Kitchens of This City, Moroccan novelist Youssef Fadel’s A Rare Blue Bird That Flies with Me, fellow Moroccan Abdelrahim Lahbibi’s The Journeys of ‘Abdi, and popular Egyptian author Ahmed Mourad’s The Blue Elephant.
Saadawi’s novel tells the story of Hadi Al-Attag, “a rag-and-bone man” who haunts the streets of war-torn Baghdad in the winter of 2005, searching for fresh human body parts to stitch together a human corpse. Once completed, the patchwork “what’s-its-name” embarks on a journey of revenge on behalf of all those whose organs constitute its body.
In the press conference after the announcement, judging chair Saad Albazei asked Saadawi why he thought his novels –which tell a specifically Iraqi story—were being read outside Iraq.
“It seems that the roots of the problems from which the Iraqis are suffering are common to a number of countries within the Arab region,” Saadawi said. “This is what resonates with the readers in the wider region.” Moreover, “the novel talks about humanity,” as “what the Iraqis are suffering are human problems.”
Both Albazei and judge Zhor Ghourram talked about the judges’ “objective” decision-making. Albazei pointed to the stylistic shifts in Frankenstein in Baghdad, which created a multivocalism that was “capable of expressing the state of Iraq,” he said.
Ghourram added that an “average reader would enjoy the story, but it can also be read by the sophisticated reader. It pushes the reader to think further.”
“The novel is not just a beautiful story, it’s its own space for thinking,” Saadawi said. “And if the novel doesn’t push the reader to think further, I don’t think it can have a real impact on the reader. It should help the reader to access his own emotions.”
Part of the appeal of Saadawi’s “what’s-its-name” is its ambiguity, its graying of black-and-white moral judgments. His Frankenstein-like creature “cannot recognize or distinguish between victim or criminal,” Saadawi said.
Although his novel is named after Mary Shelley’s creation, Saadawi said that he wasn’t specifically influenced by her novel, but by “the vast cultural space that is called ‘Frankenstein,’” which includes movies, comics, and more.
Saadawi is the first Iraqi to win the IPAF, which is now in its seventh year. In the press conference, Saadawi was asked about what he’ll do next.
“I don’t know what I will do tomorrow,” he said. “I have a project, I have things to do — but I’m not sure if I’ll complete this or not. As Iraqis, we have no trust in the long run. We’re confident in the next few hours or the next few days, but not in the long run.”
Saadawi, who was born in Baghdad in 1973, was won a number of awards, including a place among the “Beirut39,” a 2010 list of top 39 Arab novelists under 40. He has published a volume of poetry, Anniversary of Bad Songs (2000), and two previous novels: The Beautiful Country, in 2004, and Indeed He Dreams or Plays or Dies (2008).
The IPAF award will bring Saadawi $50,000 in addition to global exposure. Translation rights to his novel are currently being negotiated by the publisher.