Rabee Jaber receives the IPAF award from Sheikh Sultan Bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan MD of Emirates Foundation. On left of picture, Dr Khaled Hroub
Rabee Jaber’s IPAF win widens the Lebanese novelist’s translation and publishing horizons
by Susannah Tarbush
The announcement in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday night that Lebanese writer Rabee Jaber had won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) for his novel The Druze of Belgrade is bound to intensify interest in his work among translators and publishers of Arabic literary fiction.
Laure Pécher, co-founder of the Paris-based literary agency Pierre Astier & Associés, which represents Jaber, says first offers for translation and publication of The Druze of Belgrade have come from publishers in three Balkan countries that were part of former Yugoslavia - Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia. She adds: “We are now focusing on the UK, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands and Brazil”.
The New York publisher New Directions has already signed up two of Jaber's other novels for publication in English translation. It may now seek to also acquire rights to The Druze of Belgrade. Editor-in-chief and publisher of New Directions Barbara Epler says she has asked Pierre Astier to see the IPAF-winning novel. “I hope to have a chance to consider that one as well, and perhaps we’ll be able to add that to our plans," she says.
The prize is worth a total of $60,000 to the winner – the $50,000 prize itself, plus the $10,000 that goes to each of the six shortlisted books. It is the Arab world’s most prestigious literary prize, and is often referred to as the Arabic Booker because while funded by the Emirates Foundation of Abu Dhabi it is run with support from the Booker Prize Foundation in London.
The Druze of Belgrade begins in the 1860s, following the war between Christians and Druze in Mount Lebanon. A Christian egg seller, Hanna Yaqoub, has the identity of a Druze fighter forced on him and is exiled with a group of Druze fighters. The book tells of his 12 years of imprisonment and his ordeals in Belgrade and elsewhere in the Balkans.
Jaber told the BBC World Service radio programme The Strand that although the novel is set in an Ottoman world that no longer exists, “at the same time it is this world that we are living in right now.” He cites the example of Ahmed Pasha al-Jazzar, “the Butcher” who ruled Akka and then Beirut in the late 19th century. He kept prisoners in underground jails, anchoring them to the ground with iron fetters. He changed the chains only when new prisoners arrived, at which point he told guards to throw the old prisoners into the sea so the new ones could take their place. “Now this is the third world – it’s still going on one way or another,” Jaber said.
German was the first foreign language in which Jaber (under the name Rabi Jabir) was published when his 2002 novel Rahlat al-Gharnati (Journey of the Granadian) was published in 2005 by Verlag Hans Schiler under the title Die Reise des Granadiners translated by Nirmin Sharkawi and Claudia Ott.
Gallimard published Berytus Underground City in French translation by Simon Corthay and Charlotte Woillez as Berytus, Une Ville Sous Terre in 2009. Feltrinelli published America in Italian translation by E. Bartuli and H. Bahri last September, under the title Come fili di seta.
Jaber’s IIPAF win will encourage translators and publishers to assess the potential not only of The Druze of Belgrade, but also of other works in the (so far, and counting) 18-novel oeuvre of this amazingly prolific author whose first book appeared in 1992, the year he turned 20.
This was the second time Jaber had been shortlisted for the IPAF: his novel America was shortlisted in 2010. He has also received the accolade of being a Beirut39 author, one of the 39 authors aged 39 or less who were in 2009 selected by a jury as being particularly important. Beirut39 was a flagship project of Beirut UNESCO Book Capital 2009. An excerpt from America, translated by Marilyn Booth, appeared in Beirut 39: New Writing from the Arab World edited by Samuel Shimon (Bloomsbury 2010).
In addition to the IPAF cash prize, the IPAF award includes a guarantee that the winning novel will be translated and published in English. Although translations of some novels by Jaber (but not The Druze of Belgrade) have been published by French, Italian and German publishers, his work has yet to appear in English. No British publisher has yet reached a deal to publish any of Jaber’s work in translation.
New Directions of New York reached the first and only agreements so far to publish Jaber’s work in English with the signing up of two novels with translation by Kareem James Abu-Zeid. “We plan to publish The Mehlis Report this coming spring 2013 and then Berytus Underground City probably a year after that, allowing time for Kareem to translate that one for us as well,” says Barbara Epler. Berytus Underground City was first published in Arabic in 2005, and The Mehlis Report in 2006.
Jaber’s IPAF win is excellent news for his US publisher. “We are thrilled Rabee Jaber won the prize,” Epler says. “We think he richly deserves it but we also think this will be a great help here in bring his books with New Directions to the attention of reviewers, booksellers and readers.”
When it signed up its two Jaber novels, New Directions had “had an eye on Jaber for a while and had received a sample and summary of America from his distinguished agent Pierre Astier, whom we’ve known since he ran the terrific French publishing house Le Serpent a Plumes.”
Epler says: “We admired the writing very much, but New Directions tends to focus on what used to be called avant-garde or experimental fiction. While America has many excellent qualities, it seemed to us in many ways to be a strong traditional narrative. One of our editors, Jeffrey Yang, knows a young translator, Kareem James Abu-Zeid, and it somehow came up that we were interested in Jaber but hadn’t felt America was quite right for our somewhat narrow bailiwick. Kareem started raving about The Mehlis Report, and sent us in a very good sample and a convincing reader’s report describing the novel as a whole.” Friends of New Horizon at French publisher Gallimard had also spoken very highly of Jaber.
The central character of The Mehlis Report is a middle-aged architect Saman Yarid; the time is the period around the publication in October 2005 of the report by UN-appointed Detlev Mehlis into the car bombing that had killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri the previous February. Jaber weaves a complex narrative around his characters and Beirut itself that lends itself to multiple readings. Epler says: “The Mehlis Report is more than a realist novel, though tackling very real themes; it ventures into the land of the dead, where almost everyone is writing their memoirs.”
Epler adds: “Pierre has explained to me that in a broad sense Jaber works in two veins: one is the more experimental approach of The Mehlis Report and Berytus Underground City and the other is somewhat more traditional (and in that case historical) path of America. We decided, being very impressed with Jaber's writing, to acquire both The Mehlis Report and Berytus. Those are the two we now have under contract.”
Jaber, who studied physics at the American University of Beirut, combines his career as a novelist with that of a journalist and has been editor of leading pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat’s Afaq (meaning Horizons) section since 2001. He is an extraordinarily productive fiction writer. His novels have been published at the rate of almost one a year since his first novel Sayyid al-Atmah (Master of Darkness) was published in 1992. His most recent novel, Birds of the Holiday Inn, appeared last year.
Given Jabir’s rapidly growing and acclaimed oeuvre over the past two decade, it is surprising that his work has not so far been published in English translation apart from excerpts published in for example Banipal magazine. The extract from The Druze of Belgrade published in the most recent issue of Banipal, along with extracts from the other five novels shortlisted for IPAF, was translated by Nancy Roberts.
One wonders whether Jabir may prove to be like the famous Libyan novelist Ibrahim al-Koni in the sense of being an “under-translated” Arab author whose work suddenly catches on with English-language translators and publishers. Al-Koni is one of Libya's most celebrated authors, and has written more than 60 books but little of his work was translated before 2000. Since then a slew of his titles has appeared in English translation.
Kareem James Abu-Zeid has championed Jaber's writing for some time. In his reader's report to New Directions arguing that it should sign up The Mehlis Report he said: "As someone who has read many of the best Arabic novels of the past few years (and been offered the opportunity to translate some of them by various presses), I can say that Jaber is certainly one of the most talented...He is the single Arab author I am, personally, most excited about translating."
Egytpian-American Abu Zeid has emerged as one of the most talented of young Arabic-English literary translators in recent years. His translation of Sudanese novelist Tarek Eltayeb's Cities without Palms (American University in Cairo Press) was joint runner up for the Banipal Translation Prize in 2010. His translation of Eltayeb's The Palm House appeared was published this month by AUC Press and next month by Oxford University Press. He is now translating Moroccan writer Mohammed Achaari's IPAF 2011 co-winning novel The Arch and the Butterfly for Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP) with publication due in September.