Ahmed Saadawi Wins International Prize for Arabic Fiction for ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad’)
On Tuesday night, International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) judging chair Saad Albazei announced that Iraqi author Ahmed Saadawi had won the 2014 award for his novel Frankenstein in Baghdad.
“I would like to say that this prize provides very important momentum for the Arabic novel and the Iraqi novel,” Saadawi said upon receiving the award.
Frankenstein in Baghdad was chosen from a shortlist of six by this year’s judging panel, which was chaired by Saudi academic Saad Albazei. The other novels in contention were Khaled Khalifa’s No Knives in the Kitchens of This City, Youssef Fadel’s A Rare Blue Bird That Flies with Me, Abdelrahim Lahbibi’s The Journeys of ‘Abdi, Inaam Kachachi’s Tashari, and 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 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 those whose organs constitute its body.
The young Iraqi novelist previously drew IPAF judges’ attention with his 2008 novel Indeed He Dreams or Plays or Dies, which lead to his invitation to the 2012 IPAF nadwa, or writing workshop. There, he worked on Frankenstein in Baghdad.
Saadawi is the first Iraqi to win the IPAF, which is now in its seventh year. Despite ongoing political and economic turmoil, the prize continues to grow, and this year saw a marked uptick in submissions. To make their initial shortlist of 16, judges read through a record 156 novels.
In a short film about his book, aired before the announcement, Saadawi spoke about the conception of his “strange creature,” which came into being during the winter of 2005, “at the beginning of a period of increased violence in Baghdad.”
His Frankenstein, or “‘what’s-its-name’ cannot recognize or distinguish between victim or criminal,” Saadawi said. “His noble, idealized quest enters the realm of uncertainty. He is uncertain of the motivations that fuel his quest.”
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).
Success for 'what’s-its-name' … Ahmad Saadawi accepting the IPAFIraqi novelist Ahmed Saadawi has won the Arab world's most prestigious prize, the International prize for Arabic fiction, beating five other writers from around the Arab world.
Thousands, or perhaps tens of thousands, waited on the IPAF announcement, which was a highlight of the Abu Dhabi festival this week. Some thought Syrian novelist Khaled Khalifa's grim No Knives in the Kitchens of This City would take the prize, and many were rooting for popular Egyptian novelist Ahmed Mourad's Blue Elephant.
But when judging chair Saad Albazei finally read off Saadawi's name, a cheer went up, followed by echoing zaghrutas of joy from Iraqis on Facebook and Twitter and, according to prize administrator Fleur Montanaro, some dancing on the streets in Baghdad. A few Iraqi politicians, she said, have already contacted the novelist, interested in attaching themselves to his credibility and fame.
Although the IPAF is not the biggest-money prize in the region, it captures attention in a way other pan-Arab prizes don't. Part of the prize's appeal is its association with the Man Booker – despite chiding from organisers, most continue to refer to the IPAF as the "Arabic Booker". It is also popular for publishing a longlist and shortlist, which hasn't been de rigueur for Arabic literary awards.
There has been widespread agreement about the strength of Saadawi's novel, Frankenstein in Baghdad, which tells the story of a booze-smelling rag-and-bone man who haunts the streets of Baghdad in 2005. This professional scavenger is on a "noble" crusade to find fresh human body parts to stitch together into a human corpse. Once completed, the patchwork "what's-its-name" heads out to avenge those whose organs make up its body.
Although apparently well-intentioned, the man who created this creature develops increasingly conflicted feelings about his monster. Indeed, part of what appealed to the judges, they said, was the moral ambiguity surrounding the "what's-its-name".
However, despite the celebrations surrounding Saadawi's win, the prize remains controversial. Some of the judges' decisions in previous years have been unpopular, particularly in 2010, the year Saudi author Abdo Khal won the prize. That year, the judges' names were leaked early, and there was rampant speculation about tampering. In 2013, many big-name writers on the shortlist, such as Elias Khoury and Hoda Barakat, didn't make the longlist, which instead favoured books by younger and lesser-known authors.
Questions about the poor representation of female authors also remain. This year, only two women writers made the 16-strong longlist. The judges said, as they have in the past, that an author's gender doesn't matter. But, as Jordanian writer Siwar Masannat writes, "who is to say that works by women do not exhibit 'artistic elements' that intentionally deviate from the 'male, masculine, heteronormative' criteria[?]"
Nonetheless, Saadawi, the first Iraqi to win the prize, is widely recognised as a strong and thoughtful writer.
Fans of speculative fiction also rejoiced at his win, as realism has dominated much of contemporary Arabic fiction. It's difficult to say how the IPAF has affected Arab authors over its seven years, yet it is very clear that the award is affecting publishers, who are struggling to decide what sort of novel to send.