Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize Shortlist Announced

Today the Banipal Trust for Arab Literature announced the shortlist of the 2023 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation with a selection of works whose authors aim "to make sense of the ongoing horrors and atrocities, while at the same time attempting to ensure that individual voices do not get lost in the background". 


The Turban and the Hat by Sonallah Ibrahim, translated by Bruce Fudge
published by Seagull Books, 2022

Firefly by Jabbour Douaihy, translated by Paula Haydar and Nadine Sinno
published by Seagull Books, 2022

The King of India by Jabbour Douaihy, translated by Paula Haydar
published by Interlink Books, 2022

What Have you Left Behind? by Bushra al-Maqtari, translated by Sawad Hussain
Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2022

Mister N by Najwa Barakat, translated by Luke Leafgren
And Other Stories, 2022

Thunderbird, Books One & Two, by Sonia Nimr, translated by M Lynx Qualey
CMES: Emerging Voices from the Middle East Series, University of Texas Press, 2022


The judging panel of four comprised Ros Schwartz (Chair), award-winning translator from French of over 100 fiction and nonfiction titles, Tony Calderbank, translator, former teacher of Arabic and translation, and for many years British Council director in South Sudan, Bahrain and Libya, Sarah Enany, winner of the 2021 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize and Assistant Professor, Department of English Language Fand Literature, Cairo University and Barbara Schwepke, founder, publisher and CEO of Gingko Library, and founder of Haus Publishing.


This year’s crop of entries is strangely and overwhelmingly sombre, as sobering events in the region are echoed both by contemporary portrayals of hapless characters doing their best to survive various atrocities – displacement, forced conversion, loss of home, illness, rape, torture – and historical retellings that cover similar ground. In a very real way, Arab novelists appear, at least from this selection, to be seeking a kind of method in the madness of the upheavals of today, from the southernmost tip to the northernmost point of the Arabian Peninsula – “from the Levant to Yemen,” as the Arab catchphrase goes – so as to make sense of the ongoing horrors and atrocities, while at the same time attempting to ensure that individual voices do not get lost in the background. 

Their protagonists struggle against circumstances and systems that are overwhelming. Moments of kindness, joy, and serenity stand out against the grim backdrop. At once poignant, haunting and beautiful, the works reflect the current issues and events that Arab authors are addressing. The translations into English are of a high standard and show the skill and dedication of those who choose the craft of literary translation so that a wider readership can appreciate and enjoy the literature of the Arabic speaking nations.

" . . . how the lessons of history remain unlearned . . . "

he Turban and the Hat 

by Sonallah Ibrahim

translated by Bruce Fudge

published by Seagull Books, 2022



The Turban and the Hat performs the party trick, familiar to Arab audiences, of retelling a historical incident (which may or may not be presented from the point of view of a minor character) with a view to projecting onto the present, specifically how the lessons of history remain unlearned. Sonallah Ibrahim’s protagonist is a young man, the scribe of famed real-life eighteenth-century historian al-Jabarti. He speaks some French and thus is recruited as an interpreter for the French campaign in Egypt. Swept up in subsequent events in Egypt and the failed campaign on the Levant, he is forced to separate propaganda from truth, growing politically while personally remaining stuck in his own local brand of religious-patriarchal misogyny even as he conducts an affair with Napoleon’s mistress.

A sour taste remains in the mouth at the end, as war yields, predictably, not glory but disease and death, while the vaunted meeting of cultures fails to produce any genuine enlightenment. The terse diary style, archaic language and abstruse quotations from al-Jabarti’s original historical writings are handled with smoothness and aplomb by translator Bruce Fudge.

" . . . a compelling and often disturbing read. . . "


by Jabbour Douaihy

translated by Paula Haydar and Nadine Sinno

published by Seagull Books, 2022



Firefly relates the story of Nizam, a young man growing up in Lebanon in the years leading up to the civil war. The hero (whose name means system, regime, order) hails from a Muslim family but is raised by a Christian couple who have no children of their own. As a young man in Beirut, he gathers around him a group of friends and acquaintances who represent the cultural, religious, and political complexity of Lebanese society as the country heads into turmoil. Beautifully crafted in Arabic, from its bucolic beginning to the tragic end, it is a compelling and often disturbing read; a decent and sensitive person navigating the horrific banality of sectarian allegiance. Paula Haydar and Nadine Sinno have produced an excellent translation, with natural smooth flowing idiomatic English. It is a sensitive, thoughtful rendering, which perfectly captures the tone and mood of the original.



". . . an odyssey covering three continents and overe a century of history"

The King of India

by Jabbour Douaihy

translated by Paula Haydar

published by Interlink Books, 2022



Crime fiction is a genre not usually associated with writers from the Middle East, and this murder mystery set against a backdrop of sectarian and family feuds is an original and compelling novel. Much more than a whodunnit, The King of India takes the reader on an odyssey covering three continents and over a century of history. The title is a red herring, since the action takes place in Lebanon, where a newly returned prodigal son, Zakarya Mubarak, is found murdered. Did his cousins kill him to rob him of a valuable painting, or is the answer more complicated? Kamal Abu Khalid, the investigator is more interested in solving the riddle of the murdered man’s life than the mystery of his death. Though very much about Lebanon, its social and sectarian divides and the ineptitude of its institutions, the narrative also unfolds in France where Zakarya spends several years, and the USA, where, at the turn of the 20th century, Zakarya’s intrepid grandmother Filomena had sailed on her own. Through Abu Khalid’s investigation, Jabbour Douaihy explores the meaning of land ownership: sectarianism sometimes runs so deep, that it makes it impossible for anyone to enjoy the land, or even for the land to thrive. Paula Haydar’s perfectly judged translation carries the reader effortlessly through this absorbing and multi-layered novel.


". . . a searing chronicle of today, in personal testimonies"

What Have you Left Behind

by Bushra al-Maqtari

translated by Sawad Hussain

Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2022



Bushra al-Maqtari presents a searing chronicle of today in a collection of personal testimonies of the victims of the civil war in Yemen, which she has been working on collecting since 2015. Not an easy read by any means – tales of people who lost their homes and loved ones, in addition to family members, to murders, drownings, and all manner of atrocities – this book is nevertheless an achievement of giving a voice to the voiceless, to people who would otherwise disappear “unknelled, uncoffined, and unknown”. It is hard to underestimate the importance of this harrowing document, composed entirely of brief tales of woe, and translated by Sawad Hussain with uncompromising, unflinching sincerity and faithfulness to the original. Both author and translator of the eloquently titled What Have You Left Behind? rage in a very real way against the dying of the light.

". . . a dark tragi-comic novel . . . exorcising disturbing memories"

Mister N 

by Najwa Barakat

translated by Luke Leafgren

And Other Stories, 2022


Mister N is a dark tragi-comic novel which relates the tale of a former novelist who has returned to writing in order to exorcise the disturbing memories of his past. As he sits in his room in a mysterious hotel, struggling to disentangle the relationships he has had with the members of his own family and the characters he has created in his novels, his life lurches further into disorder. Time, place, and Mister N’s inner dialogue become ever more fragmented, and just like the damaged city around him, he cannot quite manage to put things back together. Luke Leafgren has produced a superb translation, beautifully executed with thought and attention to every minute detail, combined with an artful creativity which reproduces the complex, harrowing nuance of the original. This is an excellent example of the translator’s craft.


". . . a Palestinian author, telling more than just a story . . ."

Books One & Two

by Sonia Nimr

translated by M Lynx Qualey

CMES Series: Emerging Voices from the Middle East,
University of Texas Press, 2022


It is difficult to judge Thunderbird on its translation alone, while the lands the story is set in are engulfed by flames of war and the legendary phoenix rising from the ashes seems to be precisely that: an ancient legend. How can one read about an orphaned, grieving girl called Noor, who protests her innocence when fires keep breaking out around her and not think of the bloodied faces of traumatised children appearing on our screens? And how can one ignore the fact that a Palestinian author, well-known for her political activism, is telling more than just a story, when her protagonist braves an Israeli checkpoint to reach a museum in Jerusalem?

But it is precisely here where Sonia Nimr’s compellingly written time-travelling fantasy begins: Noor is transported back 500 years and lands in the middle of fighting between the Mamluks and the Ottomans. But where was “here”? Noor wonders at the beginning of Book Two. And when is “here”? For the 11-to 13-year-old readers that the Thunderbird books are aimed at it probably doesn’t matter that in Book Two it is Crusaders who are fighting the inhabitants of this historic land. They probably don’t care who is fighting whom and for what reason; all they see is grown-ups fighting and killing each other, flames of war engulfing a hill, a tree and on top of it the legendary phoenix. Is this the message that the author wants to get across? That the past mirrors the present? Young readers will be captivated by a richly atmospheric tale, beautifully translated by Marcia Lynx Qualey.

To read additional comments by the publishers and translators go to the prize webpage at

About the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation

The prize is an annual award of £3,000, made to the translator(s) of a published translation in English of a full-length imaginative and creative Arabic work of literary merit published after, or during, the year 1967 and first published in English translation in the year prior to the award. The Prize aims to raise the profile of contemporary Arabic literature as well as honouring the important work of individual translators in bringing the work of established and emerging Arab writers to the attention of the wider world. It was the first prize in the world for published Arabic literary translation into English and was established by Banipal, the magazine of modern Arab literature in English translation, and the Banipal Trust for Arab Literature. The inaugural prize was awarded on 9 October 2006.

The prize is administered by the Society of Authors in the United Kingdom, alongside the other prizes for literary translation from languages that include Dutch, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Swedish. The prizes are awarded annually at a ceremony hosted by the Society of Authors.

For information about the Shortlists of all the 2023 Translation Prizes, click on this link:

The Prize is wholly sponsored by the Saif Ghobash family in memory of their husband and father, the late Saif Ghobash (21 October 1932 – 25 October 1977), a man passionate about Arabic literature and other literatures of the world.

In 2015, to mark the tenth year of awarding prizes for contemporary Arabic literature translated into English, the sponsors Omar Ghobash and his family generously extended their sponsorship to the establishment of an annual lecture on literary translation.

The 2023 Lecture will be one part of a joint celebratory evening with the Winner of the 2023 Prize in conversation with the Chair of Judges. This free in-person and online event will take place on 8 February 2024, the day following the Society of Authors’ Award Ceremony on 7 February for all the translation prizes they administer. 

More information about the event will be available here from 5 December 2023.

The Winner of the 2023 Prize will be announced on 8 January 2024 at this link:

Published Date - 01/12/2023