Award-winning book narrates migration in five letters

Hoda Barakat's "The Night Post," which tells the story of five Arab migrants, won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction amid controversy.

al-monitor Lebanese writer Hoda Barakat, whose new book, "The Night Post," has won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Posted April 17, 2019. Photo by Facebook/InternationalPrizeArabicFiction.

May 22, 2019

Five Arabs pour out their suffering in their letters in Lebanese author Hoda Barakat’s poignant “The Night Post,” reflecting the plight of people displaced by war, political strife and economic conditions in the Middle East.

The novel, which has won the 2019 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), known as the "Arab Booker," is atypical. Merely 126 pages, it uses familiar, everyday language to tell compelling stories — two of the letters are between lovers; a young man writes to his mother; a sister to her brother; and a gay man to his father. The sixth letter — the final one — is written by the mailman who has delivered them all. Then the mailman dies and the letters stop — a thinly veiled reference to the silence of the world to the suffering of the displaced.

“The letters document the difficult situation the displaced find themselves in. They recount the stories of migrants in [transition], striving to reach a safe haven. All these letters are handed to the mailman," Barakat told Al-Monitor.

Born in Beirut in 1952, Hoda Barakat moved to Paris in the midst of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). She said that the move shaped her literary path. "Each of us has a starting point but at a different time and space. Everything we experience affects us,” she said.

Her first novel, “The Stone of Laughter,” published in 1990, narrated the life and dilemmas of a gay man during the civil war. It received the Al-Nagid Award. “To get an award for a first novel is unusual. This achieves fame. It could have benefited my next works, or probably harmed them. I don't know,” she said.

Barakat won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature for her novel “The Tiller of Waters” in 2000, which was also translated into English. 

She noted that “The Night Post” was a challenge because she wrote, for the first time, about events outside Lebanon.

Charafdine Majdouline, the chair of the jury, said in his speech at the award ceremony in Abu Dhabi, “The novel represents an experience with very specific details, enriching linguistics, narrative construction and ability to portray the human depth. … The great challenge is that the novelist used popular fiction and succeeded in convincing the reader.”

Barakat herself has brushed aside claims that the novel was too short compared to usual Arabic literary works. “The number of pages does not matter. What matters is the style, meaning, aesthetics and the potential,” she said.

The author will receive $50,000, and IPAF will finance the English translation of the book from the Arabic-language original. The book already exists in French.

"We are always amazed when we get rewarded for something in which others see things we don’t see,” Barakat said when she was asked about the prize.

At the award ceremony, the Lebanese author admitted that the award was unexpected. “When Dar-al Adab [the publishing house that published the book in Arabic] proposed to nominate my book, I said 'No, I am angry at [IPAF].'” This was because the author had been disappointed that her book “The Kingdom of This Earth” had been nominated for the award in 2013, but had not made it onto the shortlist.

“I thank the jury because it encouraged us to run. This time we had hopes that this novel will make its way,” she said in her acceptance speech.

Her speech fed into the controversy that surfaced in the award ceremony, because hours before the announcement the news of Barakat's victory was leaked. This angered the other shortlisted candidates including Inaam Kachachi, who boycotted the ceremony. On her Facebook page, she wrote, “I found it appropriate to refrain from attending the ceremony because of leaks that preceded it and prejudiced this award.”

But the board of trustees of the prize was quick to respond to the controversy, expressing regret after the disclosure of the name of the winning novel in an inappropriate way, pledging to investigate the situation

Barakat said, “IPAF reserves the right to take legal action — whether by complaint or lawsuit — to preserve its credibility and to deter those who violate the rules and regulations.”

Al-Monitor spoke to Sayed Mahmoud, a former jury member of the prize, who said, “The early disclosure of the name of the winner has stirred great controversy this year, although Barakat deserves the award for her literary production. But her speech at the award ceremony made things worse. She put the jury and the board of trustees in a very embarrassing situation.”

He said the fact that Barakat mentioned that the jury had encouraged her to enter the competition was strange, particularly as she had won the award. “This raised questions about the credibility of the competition,” he said.

Despite the controversy, Barakat said she was happy that she won the prize after all. “Prizes are for truly creative artists. People sometimes criticize these awards or find them awkward, but they are eventually a way to recognize creativity and show appreciation for the [author]," she concluded.

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