Jordanian author wins International Prize for Arabic Fiction

Jalal Barjas
Jordanian author Jalal Barjas, who recently won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. (Photo: Handout from Jalal Barjas)
AMMAN — “The essence of my life is wrapped around reading and writing. I cannot shape any hues of existence without these two aspects of life,” Jalal Barjas, Jordanian author and winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), told Jordan News in an interview. اضافة اعلان

The local writer was awarded the prize for his latest novel “Notebooks of the Bookseller” last week during an online ceremony, which includes $50,000 as well as funds to help him pursue an English translation of his novel.

The award is considered the most prestigious literary prize in the Arab world and is currently sponsored by the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre.

Barjas, a Jordanian poet and novelist born in 1970, is currently the director of the Jordanian Narrative Laboratory and hosts the House of the Novel radio show. He has also written for Jordanian media and led a number of other cultural organizations.

His latest novel was written as a collection of notebooks, with numerous narrators, whose fates occasionally meet. It is also a heartbreaking, disjointed story about those who are forgotten and cast aside by society. His work shows a harsh reality that not only takes place in Jordan, but throughout the Arab world as a whole. 

“I wrote the novel during the pandemic and was hesitant to publish it since people were living in complete solitude and under incredibly difficult circumstances,” he said. “However, much to my astonishment, the novel spread like wildfire, particularly in Beirut, and ended up in the hands of numerous readers in Jordan and around the Middle East as well.”

“I feel that staying at home all the time pushed people to seek refuge from their solitude in reading,” the author added.

The novel takes place in Amman, Madaba, and Moscow between 1947 and 2019. It depicts the narrative of Ibrahim, a bookstore owner and voracious reader, who loses his shop, becomes homeless, and is diagnosed with schizophrenia. He begins to assume the identities of the characters of the novels and commits a series of crimes, including burglary, theft, and murder. 

According to the author, the novel is intended to assist the reader in exploring the meaning of a “home” in all of its forms, whether it is a house, a country, or even a heart that makes us experience the feeling of a “home.” It intends to reflect how this term of many shapes and forms is “at risk of becoming extinct.”

“I got my inspiration for the idea as I was wandering around downtown Amman and admiring the old houses in every corner. In the novel, I expressed these thoughts through the character of ‘the bookseller.’ His agony mirrored the world’s bitterness, which leads him to turn into an entity that translates all of the suffering through evil actions,” Barjas explained. “Many additional stories are also explored throughout the novel.”

Throughout his career, Barjas has amassed a number of prizes, including for his 2013 novel Guillotine of the Dreamer, which won the Jordanian Rifqa Doudin Prize for Narrative Creativity in 2014. His novel Snakes of Hell won the 2015 Katara Prize for the Arabic Book in the category of unpublished novel, and it was published by Katara in 2016. Women of the Five Senses, his third novel, was long listed for the IPAF in 2019.

The writer believes that his ideas are “seeds of reality” that grow into the bigger picture in the reader’s imagination. “I feel that my imagination is a form of fighting. It is a method of battling the acceptance of what reality truly is,” he said.

“My relationship with writing is analogous to the relationship between plants and water. Reading and writing are what shape me as a person, for reading is my vision of the world, and writing is how I convey that vision in my own words,” he added.

According to Barjas, his journey in discovering his passion began in his early childhood years, when he began reading, and continued until he was conscious enough about what he was reading. He began pursuing a writing profession after he felt he had gained sufficient writing skills.

“I found myself in a world full of different stages where each stage was distinct from the one preceding it. In the first stage, I had to be the writer, editor, and even critic of my own work all at the same time, and working in the eastern Jordanian desert for 18 years didn’t make it any easier because I didn’t have any means of communication or transportation to help me,” he recalled.

“But even back then, I knew it was just a matter of time before I got to the stage where I could finally publish my first book. Looking back on how far I’ve come, I still believe I have a lot more to learn. A writer, in my opinion, never ceases to learn.”

Barjas also believes that success is a process that requires “time and consideration”; he hopes that all future writers around the world understand this.

“You can never climb a ladder by jumping. You must take it one step at a time, graciously, while absorbing what each step has to teach you. Then, and only then, will you be able to reach the top,” he said.

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