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Jailed Palestinian author wins prestigious fiction award

Jailed Palestinian author Basim Khandaqji wins prestigious Arabic fiction award
3 min read
29 April, 2024
Palestinian author Basim Khandaqji has been imprisoned by Israel since 2004, where he wrote novels that had to be smuggled from behind bars to be published.
Palestinian author Basim Khandaqji won the prestigious International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) on Sunday [Getty]

Jailed Palestinian author Basim Khandaqji won the prestigious International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) on Sunday, announced at a ceremony in Abu Dhabi.

The award was presented for his novel A Mask, the Colour of the Sky and was accepted by Rana Idriss, owner of the book’s Lebanon-based publisher Dar Al-Adab.

Khandaqji’s book is based on the story of a blue identity card that Nur, an archaeologist living in a refugee camp in Ramallah, finds in the pocket of an old coat belonging to an Israeli.

Nur then pretends to be Israeli to gain access to excavation sites in the occupied West Bank.

The novel explores the psychological challenges faced by the protagonist, torn between his dual experiences of daily life in the West Bank as an Israeli and a Palestinian.

Nabil Suleiman, who chaired the jury, said the novel "dissects a complex, bitter reality of family fragmentation, displacement, genocide, and racism".

The book was chosen from 133 other works submitted to the competition.  

The author, who was born in the occupied West Bank city of Nablus, was imprisoned by Israel 20 years ago at the age of 21, after being accused of assisting a suicide bomber who blew himself up in Tel Aviv.

In prison, he completed his university education online at Al-Quds University, obtaining a degree in political science with a thesis on Israeli studies.

While in prison, he wrote over a dozen novels that were smuggled out to the outside world where they were published.

"This is the first time in the history of the Prize that a novel from (literally) behind the walls of an Israeli jail reaches out to readers on the other side," Professor Yasir Suleiman, Chair of the Board of Trustees, said after unveiling the shortlist in February.

Earlier this year, the Israel Prison Service told Israeli media if the IPAF "decided that a terrorist should be rewarded with a prize, it would be impossible to receive it".

It is unclear if the author is even aware of his nomination and is unlikely to receive the $50,000 prize. His family said in January they haven't been able to contact him in recent months.

The IPAF is a prestigious literary prize rewarding literature from the Arab world.

Despite its well-known moniker as the 'Arabic Booker Prize' referring to the prestigious Booker Prize, the leading literary award in the English-speaking world, the institutions running the two prizes are unrelated.

Khandaqji is the third Palestinian writer to win the award, with the other two being Ibrahim Nasrallah and Rabai al-Madhoun.

Since the start of Israel’s war on Gaza on 7 October, prison conditions have deteriorated, with reports of widespread abuse of prisoners.