Two international awards were announced this week: Kapka Kassabova has won the British Academy’s Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding 2018 and Shahad Al Rawi has won the 2018 Edinburgh International Book Festival First Book Award.
Iraqi writer Al Rawi wins for her debut novel, The Baghdad Clock, the story of two girls who meet in a Baghdad air raid shelter in 1991 and become friends as the Gulf War and subsequent international sanctions come to define the course of their lives. The novel, which was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2018 and topped the bestseller lists in Iraq, Dubai and UAE, was translated by Luke Leafgren and published by Oneworld.
The award celebrates new fiction from any country featured in the Edinburgh International Book Festival public programme and is voted for by readers and visitors to the Festival. Forty-nine debut novels and short story collections were eligible this year.
Al Rawi was born in Baghdad in 1986. She attended secondary school in Baghdad before moving with her family to Syria. She now lives in Dubai where she is currently studying for a PhD in Anthropology.
Kapka Kassabova’s Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe (Granta), an exploration of the border zone between Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece, continues to garner accolades. In his review of Border, which brims with the stories of the region’s people, Neal Ascherson called Kassabova “a modern Scheherazade, a dazzling writer who tells stories as if her life depended on it. And these tales are not her own fiction.”
Professor Ash Amin, chair of the £25,000 Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding, said on behalf of the jury, “Kapka Kassabova has written an extraordinary book, an important contribution to the urgent debate about global cultural understanding. Border has an original, compelling narrative which explores the notion of the border, not just as a frontier but as a psychological and cultural dynamic. The book is a description of a meeting place between past and present, peoples, culture and nature, written in a mesmerising style, peopled with vivid characters and full of sharply drawn encounters. Border invests the theme of cultural understanding with a magical quality, mixing observation, biography and lyricism.”
Professor Amin was joined on the jury by historian and political scientist Rana Mitter; social anthropologist Dame Henrietta Moore; writer and broadcaster Professor Patrick Wright and writer Madeleine Bunting. The five other books on the shortlist were: The Islamic Enlightenment: The Modern Struggle Between Faith and Reason by Christopher de Bellaigue, (The Bodley Head); Al-Britannia: A Journey Through Muslim Britain by James Fergusson, (Bantam Press); Black Tudors: The Untold Story by Miranda Kaufmann, (Oneworld); I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad by Souad Mekhennet, (Virago) and Tears of Rangi: Experiments Across Worlds by Dame Anne Salmond (Auckland University Press).
Kassabova was born in Sofia, Bulgaria in 1973. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, she emigrated with her family to New Zealand in 1992, where she studied French and Russian Literature at university. In 2005 she moved to Edinburgh and now lives in the Scottish Highlands. She is a writer of poetry, fiction and narrative non-fiction and introduced Muriel Spark’s Territorial Rights, a novel set on the edge of Europe, for the Polygon Centenary Edition in 2018.
In a 2017 interview with the Scottish Review of Books, she said, “I had such a sense of urgency when writing Border. There were so many voices and truths that are untold and unrecorded. I wanted to let those voices speak. But, also, because I see where things are heading politically in the Balkans. For the first time since the 1930s a far-right government is in power in Bulgaria, which is – again – censoring the media, censoring public discourse. The border has become a taboo subject again. Some of the places I visited in the book are now out of reach.”