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An imprisoned Palestinian author has won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.


April 30, 2024, 3:54pm

Basim Khandaqji, a Palestinian writer who has been confined to an Israeli prison cell for the past 20 years, has won this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his forth novel, A Mask, the Colour of the Sky.

The novel follow Nur, an archaeologist residing in a refugee camp in Ramallah who discovers a blue ID card belonging to an Israeli citizen tucked inside the pocket of an old coat. Intrigued, Nur assumes the persona of the card’s owner to gain access to excavation sites in the West Bank, and insight into his oppressor.

A Mask, the Colour of the Sky was named the winner of the prestigious prize, often referred to as “the Arabic Booker,” at a ceremony in Abu Dhabi on Sunday night. It was accepted by the owner of Khandaqji’s Lebanon-based publishing house, Dar al-Adab.

Nabil Suleiman, chair of the 2024 panel of judges, said in a prepared statement:

A Mask, the Colour of the Sky fuses the personal with the political in innovative ways. It ventures into experimenting with new narrative forms to explore three types of consciousness: that of the self, the Other, and the world. It dissects a complex, bitter reality of family fragmentation, displacement, genocide, and racism. The strands of history, myth, and the present day are delicately woven together in a narrative that pulses with compassion in the face of dehumanisation, and is stirred by a desire for freedom from oppression, both at an individual and societal level. A Mask, the Colour of the Sky declares love and friendship as central to human identity above all other affiliations.

Yousef Khandaqji, Basim’s brother, who was also present at the ceremony, told reporters: “Speaking on behalf of my dear brother, he dedicates this victory to all the Palestinian people . . . I miss him every day and he is in our hearts every day.”

In addition to the $50,000 prize money, funding will now be made available for an English translation of the novel. As we reported in February, however, Khandaqji himself is unlikely to receive the $50,000 purse. The Israel Prison Service told Israeli media that “if it decided that a terrorist should be rewarded with a prize, it would be impossible to receive it.”

Khandaqji, born in Nablus in 1983, was arrested in 2004 at the age of 21 by Israeli authorities on terrorism charges and convicted of three life sentences for his participation in the planning of a suicide bombing that killed three people in Tel Aviv.

Khandaqji finished his education in prison and has since written at least six books, including four novels and two collections of poems.

In February, in an interview with the IPAF organizers, Yousef gave a insight into his brother’s writing routine:

He writes before the prison administration counts the prisoners, and before the prison guard starts making a racket, which he is adept at finding new ways of doing. In these two hours, Basim writes approximately two pages, and very often the papers are taken from him and destroyed by the guard. Here of course I don’t mean that this happens only to Basim. It happens to all the prisoners who are writing while in detention.

 

At the unveiling of the shortlist in February, Professor Yasir Suleiman, Chair of the Board of Trustees for the IPAF, said of A Mask, the Colour of the Sky: “This is the first time in the history of the Prize that a novel from (literally) behind the walls of an Israeli jail reaches out to readers on the other side.”



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