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In The Mariner Taleb Alrefai turns a spotlight on Kuwait’s pearl-fishing history in an enthralling fictional re-telling of that fateful day, 19 February 1979, when the country’s famous dhow shipmaster Captain Al-Najdi is lost at sea in a treacherous storm. In between fishing for seabream with two friends, the retired mariner looks back on how the sea has been calling him since childhood, on the punishing work of pearl-divers, and how he became a captain at 14.
As he recalls his voyages around the Arabian Peninsula, some with renowned Australian sailor Alan Villiers, he meditates on how the sea was abandoned when pearl-fishing ended with the discovery of synthetic pearls and oil. Meanwhile, howling winds and enormous black waves suddenly erupt and threaten to engulf the small fishing boat.
Taleb Alrefai told us: "The Mariner is a novel very close to my heart as it immortalizes a national hero of my country, Kuwait. It portrays the strong relationship between Kuwaitis and the sea in the era before oil was discovered. It is an adventure between man and sea."
The original Arabic novel, Al-Najdi, published in 2016 by the Kuwaiti publisher That Al-Salasil, was longlisted for the 2018 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. It has been published in French, Turkish, and Chinese translations, and is now joined by this English edition.
The wrap-around cover of The Mariner is an original photograph of a Kuwaiti dhow taken by the intrepid Australian sailor Alan Villiers, whom Captain Al-Najdi met and worked with over a number of years. Al-Najdi's flashbacks include remembering some of his time sailing with Villiers.
Taleb Alrefai was born in Kuwait in 1958 and started writing short stories as an engineering student at the University of Kuwait in the mid-1970s, publishing in local newspapers. His first collection, Tal ‘Umrak Abu ‘Ujjaj (Live Long Abu ‘Ujjaj) was published in 1992. Between 2003 and 2008 he worked for Kuwait’s National Council for Culture, Art, and Literature, and edited their monthly arts review, Jaridat Al Funoon. He published six more collections of short stories before writing his first novel Dhil al-Shams (2000, Shadow of the Sun), centred on the lot of migrant Egyptian workers in Kuwait. In 2002, he won the State Prize for Letters for his novel, Ra’ihat al-Bahr (Scent of the Sea).
His novel Fi al-Huna (Here and There) was longlisted for the 2016 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. It has been published in French translation (Ici Même) and was reviewed in Banipal 56 (Summer 2016). In 2011 he founded Al-Multaqa (Cultural Circle), a regular literary discussion forum in Kuwait City, which led to the founding of the annual AlMultaqa Prize for the Arabic Short Story in 2016.
The Arabic original of The Mariner (Al-Najdi) was longlisted for the IPAF Prize in 2018. It also has editions in French, Turkish and Chinese translation. Taleb Alrefai lives in Kuwait City.
• The translator of The Mariner Russell Harris is a translator of literary works from French and Arabic. His translations include works by Naguib Mahfouz, Alaa al-Aswany and Tawfiq al-Hakim.
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