Tunisian Mabkhout wins ‘Arab Booker’ for first novel

Mabkhout’s book was selected from a shortlist of six

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Tunisian university administrator Shukri Mabkhout’s first novel “The Italian,” which its author says was inspired by the events of the Arab Spring, was named the winner on Wednesday of the eighth annual ‘Arab Booker’ prize for fiction.

The International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), announced in Abu Dhabi, comes with a $50,000 cash award and a guarantee the book will be translated into English. The prize is supported by the Booker Prize Foundation in London and is funded by the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority.

“‘The Italian’ is an accomplished novel. It never lets go of the reader who willingly follows its intriguing characters on their converging and diverging journeys through a world full of incremental surprises,” Professor Yasir Suleiman, chair of the board of IPAF trustees, said in a statement.

Mabkhout’s book was selected from a shortlist of six finalists by a jury headed by Palestinian poet and writer Mourid Barghouti.

Mabkhout, 53, is a native of Tunis and is President of Manouba University. A well-known academic and intellectual, he has written several works of literary criticism, but the novel is his first.

The main character, Abdel Nasser, is nicknamed ‘the Italian’ because of his good looks.

In a recent interview, Mabkhout said he had been inspired by the events of the Arab Spring: “Two years into the revolution ... I remembered a recent period of Tunisia’s history that is similar in its fears, changes and conflicts to what I was witnessing and living: it was the period of transition from the reign of Bourguiba to that of Ben Ali following the 1987 coup.”

Habib Bourguiba, the architect of modern Tunisia, ruled for three decades until doctors declared him unfit. He was replaced by his then-prime minister Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in 1987.

Ali fled the country during widespread anti-government protests in 2010-2011 that are seen as the one of the main triggers of the wider Arab Spring uprisings in the region.

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