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Palestinian jailed for 20 years shortlisted for Arab Booker

Who is the Palestinian novelist nominated for the 'Arab Booker Prize' while serving 20 years behind Israeli bars?
3 min read
28 February, 2024
Basim Khandaqji has written six books over the past 14 years, all of which had to be smuggled from behind Israeli bars.
Several books were shortlisted for the prestigious literary prize, including two by Palestinian authors.[Photo by publisher: Dar al-Adab]

A book written inside an Israeli prison by a Palestinian detainee was nominated on Tuesday for a major Arabic literary prize.

Palestinian author Basim Khandaqji was shortlisted on February 14 for the prestigious International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), which is often referred to as the "Arabic Booker Prize", for his novel 'A Mask, the Colour of the Sky'.

Khandaqji, born in Nablus in 1983, was arrested in 2004 at the age of 21 by Israeli authorities on terrorism charges and convicted of three life sentences. Khandaqji finished his education in prison and has since written at least six books, including four novels and two collections of poems.

All his literary works had to be smuggled out of Israeli prisons.  

“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.

Khandaqji’s shortlisted novel 'A Mask, the Colour of the Sky' tells the story of a Palestinian archaeologist who pretends to be Israeli to access excavations in the West Bank, which is occupied by Israel.

The novel digs into 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.

"When I receive [Basim's] manuscript, I see it as an infant coming to the world after the pangs of childbirth. I spend many days admiring these papers that are smuggled out of the prison through an elaborate process," Basim’s brother, Yousef Khandaqji, told the Anadolu Agency after the IPAF shortlist was announced.

But Khandaqji is unlikely to receive the $50,000 prize if he is selected as this year’s winner. The Israel Prison Service told Israeli media that "if it decided that a terrorist should be rewarded with a prize, it would be impossible to receive it".

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In fact, the author may not even be aware of his nomination. Khandaqji's family said in January that they haven't been able to contact him in recent months.

As of 7 October 2023, Israel was holding 5,200 Palestinian prisoners in conditions long described by Palestinian human rights organisations as brutal and violent and in which torture has long been systematically practised.

The IPAF is a prestigious literary prize rewarding literature from the Arab world. Despite its well-known moniker as the Arabic Booker Prize in reference to the prestigious Booker prize, the leading literary award in the English-speaking world, the institutions running the two prizes are unrelated.

IPAF's aim is "to reward excellence in contemporary Arabic creative writing and to encourage the readership of high quality Arabic literature internationally through the translation and publication of winning and shortlisted novels in other major languages", according to the organisation’s website.

A second Palestinian novel, 'The Seventh Heaven of Jerusalem' by Osama Al-Eissa, was also shortlisted by IPAF. 

Sixteen books in total were shortlisted, with the winner to be announced on 28 April at a ceremony in Abu Dhabi.