Mohammed Alnaas wins International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2022

Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table questions static ideas of gender

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Mohammed Alnaas | International Prize for Arabic Fiction
IPAF 2022 Winner Mohamed Alnaas. Photo by Khéridine Mabrouk © IPAF - SHAAMAN

Libyan debut novelist Mohammed Alnaas was announced winner of the 2022 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) at a ceremony in Abu Dhabi on 22 May. Alnaas received a sum of US $ 50,000 (approximately Rs 39 lakh) along with funding for the English translation of his winning novel Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table, originally published by Dari Rashm in Saudi Arabia and Dar Meskliani in Tunisia. Apart from an increase in book sales, Alnaas can look forward to greater international recognition.

Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table was selected by the judges as the best work of fiction published in Arabic between 1 July 2020 and 30 June 2021. The debut work was chosen from a shortlist of six novels by authors from Egypt, Kuwait, Libya, Morocco, Oman, and, for the first time, the UAE. The shortlisted finalists — The White Line of Night by Khalid Al-Nassrallah, Cairo Maquette by Tareq Imam, Rose’s Dairy by Reem al-Kamali, Dilshad by Bushra Khalfan, and The Prisoner of the Portuguese by Mohsine Loukili. Each of the shortlisted finalists was awarded US $10,000 (approximately Rs 7,76,000) at the ceremony.

Shukri Mabkhout, chair of 2022 of the panel of five judges said, “The winning novel is written in the form of confessions of personal experience. Its plethora of detail is deftly unified by a gripping narrative. This offers a deep and meticulous critique of prevailing concepts of masculinity and femininity and the division of work between men and women, and the effect of these on both a psychological and social level. It falls into the category of novels which question cultural norms about gender. However, it is embedded in its local Arab context and steers away from any ideological treatment of the issues, as such a treatment would be contrary to the way in which fiction can present multiple points of view.”

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The jacket of Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table by Mohammed Alnass. Photo International Prize for Arabic Fiction

Professor Yasir Suleiman, chair of the Board of Trustees, said, “Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table is the captivating story of one man, Milad, who ponders his life as it unfolds in an outwardly fractured but seamlessly braided continuum at the subterranean level. The language of the novel is an excellent testimony to the malleability of the high register of the Arabic language and its ability to deal with intimate matters of the body and soul with naturalness and ease. Sometimes wistful, but always lyrical the narrative succeeds in evoking a conflicted cultural fabric that fuses time with place in a Libyan milieu that speaks to and for Arabs everywhere.”

Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table is an unconventional tale based in Libya which questions the established notions of gender roles in orthodox societies such as rural Libya and, “champions the individual in the face of destructive ideas adopted by the majority.”

The 31-year-old Mohammed Alnaas Libyan writer and journalist received a BA in Electrical Engineering from the University of Tripoli in 2014. His debut short story collection Blue Blood was published in 2020. Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table (2021), his debut novel, was written in just six months during the lockdown and while Tripoli was under bombardment. The book was his “refuge from insanity” amidst the double blows of Covid-19 and war.

Alnaas says in a pre-recorded video, “The novel was inspired by the Libyan proverb ‘A family with an uncle named Milad.’ There are no definitions in Libyan oral lore that apply to a man who doesn’t look after his family members or to one who is not perceived as a real Libyan man in the context of a closed community. Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table raises questions pertaining to the definition of manhood in a closed community in the context of a closed village. Looking into the oral lore of this community the novel extracts a number of sayings that dictate the relationship between a man and a woman. However, Milad is not convinced by all the definitions he finds around him and marries his sweetheart Zeinab. They begin their life together with next to no real problems. They swap their traditional societal roles, where he takes care of the household, does the laundry, washes the dishes and cooks the meals, while Zeinab goes out to work, until his cousin Abd el-Salam tells him what his fellow villagers have been saying about his personal life. 

“My motivation to write this novel was a personal quest to search for the definition of ‘man’ in the Libyan community and Eastern society. There is no clear picture in any of these communities of how a man is portrayed. ‘Man’ is the father who protects his family from all that is bad. And sometimes, his manhood is linked to his sexual prowess and ability to breed. Nevertheless, these communities agree on one definition pertaining to the antithesis of ‘Man,’ as I call it. Milad is the representation of the antithesis of ‘Man.’

Alnaas is the youngest writer and the first Libyan to win the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table was published with support from the Arete Foundation, a Libyan NGO for arts and culture.

The panel of five judges was chaired by Tunisian novelist, academic, and previous IPAF winner (The Italian, 2015) Shukri Mabkhout. Joining him on the judging panel were Libyan doctor, poet, and translator Ashur Etwebi, Lebanese writer, and PEN International board member Iman Humaydan, Kuwaiti poet and critic Saadiah Mufarreh, and Bulgarian academic and translator Baian Rayhanova.

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