Alwan's A Small Death wins $50k Arabic fiction prize

Alwan's A Small Death wins $50k Arabic fiction prize

A Small Death (Dar Al Saqi) by Mohammed Hasan Alwan has won the 10th International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF).

The novel was named as this year’s chosen title by the chair of judges, Palestinian novelist Sahar Khalifeh, at a ceremony in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday evening (25th April). As well as winning $50,000, funding will be provided for the English translation of A Small Death. The original, Beirut-based publisher Dar al Saqi is the sister company of independent publisher Saqi Books and was formed in 1987. 

Khalifeh said: “A Small Death explores the life and thought of Ibn 'Arabi. With striking artistry and in captivating language it sheds light on Ibn 'Arabi's view of spiritual and temporal love in their most refined forms. The life of Ibn 'Arabi, the man, evolves and takes shape against the background of a tumultuous historical period filled with wars and conflicts.”

The title was chosen by the IPAF judges as the best work of fiction published between July 2015 and June 2016, selected from 186 novels from 19 countries. It is a fictional account of the life of Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi, from his birth in Muslim Spain in the 12th century until his death in Damascus. It follows his mystic experience and heroic travels from Andalusia to Azerbaijan, via Morocco, Egypt, the Hijaz, Syria, Iraq and Turkey.

The five shortlisted finalists, Najwa Binshatwan, Ismail Fahd Ismail, Elias Khoury, Mohammed Abdel Nabi and Saad Mohammed Raheem were also honoured at the ceremony, receiving $10,000. Ahead of the announcement, the authors also took part in a series of events in Abu Dhabi for the Writers Union and NYU Abu Dhabi Institute.

The judging panel consisted of Khalifeh, a Palestinian novelist; Saleh Almani, a Palestinian translator; Fatima al-Haji, a Libyan academic, novelist and broadcaster; Sahar ElMougy, an Egyptian novelist and academic; and Sophia Vasalou, a Greek academic and translator.

Professor Yasir Suleiman, chair of the board of IPAF trustees, said: “In well-paced steps, Mohammed Hassan Alwan's A Small Death draws the reader into the ups and downs of the life of its main character, the Andalusian Ibn ‘Arabi, in his journey of self-revelation through North Africa and the Middle East in a turbulent period of history with modern resonances. The novel captivates through the power of empathy, unadorned love and the crystal clarity of its gaze into the human soul.”

Alwan was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 1979 and now lives in Toronto, Canada. After his shortlisting, Alwan said in an film recorded for IPAF: “It might seem odd to choose to write a novel about Ibn ‘Arabi with all those extreme eastern concepts, whilst residing in this distant cold corner of the world in Canada. I often think about this. So, at first, I directly linked it to me feeling nostalgic, then I realised that being exposed to what is seemingly foreign or different is what drives me to reconnect with myself, as well as with my heritage and old culture.”

Last year’s winner Destinies: Concerto of the Holocaust and the Nakba by Rabai al-Madhoun will be published in English by the American University in Cairo Press this autumn. Also this year, AUC Press published English translations of former shortlisted titles Baghdad Eucharist by Sinan Antoon (shortlisted as Hail Mary in 2013) and Embrace on Brooklyn Bridge by Ezzedine Choukri Fishere (shortlisted in 2012). Ahmed Saadawi's Frankenstein in Baghdad, which won in 2014, will be published in 2018 by Penguin Books in the US and by Oneworld in the UK.  Thirty-three of the prize’s winning and shortlisted novels have been translated into 24 languages.

The award is an annual literary prize for prose fiction in Arabic, which is recognised as the leading prize for literary fiction in the Arab world. It is run with the support, as its mentor, of the Booker Prize Foundation in London and funded by Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi) in the UAE. It is also supported by Etihad Aviation Group (EAG), which enables the shortlisted authors and judges to travel to the winner ceremony in Abu Dhabi. For more information, visit