Palestinian writer in Israeli prison for terror attack shortlisted for top Arab literature prize

Palestinian writer Basim Khandaqji in 2004 and the cover of his book ‘A Mask, the Color of the Sky’

Nagham Zbeedat reports in Haaretz on 27 February 2024:

A Palestinian writer serving a life sentence in an Israeli prison has been shortlisted for the prestigious International Prize for Arabic Fiction, which is often referred to as the Arabic Booker Prize.

Basim Khandaqji, 40, was given three life sentences in 2005 after being convicted of participating in the planning of a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market that killed three Israelis.

While serving his sentence in Israeli prisons, Khandaqji has written six books: four novels and two poetry collections. His latest novel, “A Mask, the Color of the Sky,” published by Beirut publishing house Dar Al Adab, is one of two Palestinians books nominated for this year’s prize (the other being the novel “The Seventh Heaven of Jerusalem” by Osama Al-Eissa).

The winner will be announced on April 28 at a gala ceremony on the eve of the Abu Dhabi Book Fair.

“A Mask, the Color of the Sky” tells the story of ِa young Palestinian archaeologist named Nur (the Arabic word for light) from a refugee camp in Ramallah, who finds an Israeli identification card of a man named Orr (the Hebrew word for light). He decides to pose as Orr and joins an archaeology expedition in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank – from where he embarks on a journey into Israel he could not have undertaken as a Palestinian. He meets Palestinians who live in Israel for the first time and wrestles with his own identity.

Khandaqji was born in Nablus in 1983, in what has been described as a “typical, passionate” Palestinian household. His uncle was an active member in the Revolutionary Palestinian Communist Party and the young Khandaqji founded the first school newspaper in his high school. He later enrolled at the city’s An-Najah National University, where he studied media and journalism. He was said to be politically and socially active, participating in charity organizations, as well as forming an international protection group for Palestinians with European friends.

He was reportedly deeply affected by the killing of Palestinian teen Iman Al-Hams by Israeli soldiers in 2004, in an incident in the Gaza Strip that has since been acknowledged in an Israeli court as a violation of international law. Al-Hams, who was 14, got lost while on her way to school and was shot numerous times by the soldiers at an army post while fleeing from them.

In November 2004, a 16-year-old Palestinian blew himself up in the Carmel Market in the center of Tel Aviv. Khandaqji was arrested the following day and accused of participating in the planning of the bombing and aiding the bomber. He was convicted the following year and has been in prison ever since. He got a political science degree from Al-Quds University while behind bars, majoring in Israel Studies.

Yousef Khandaqji, Basim’s brother, explained in an interview with the Turkish Anadolu Agency that he receives the smuggled manuscripts from his brother and proofreads them prior to publication.  “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.”

When asked about his brother’s writing rituals, Yousef Khandaqji said there were none other from writing from 5 to 7 A.M. “That is what Basim told me on one of the monthly visits, which last only 45 minutes,” he explained. “Basim writes approximately two pages, and very often the papers are taken from him and destroyed by the guard.”

His brother added that the writing circumstances for his brother differ from any other novelist due to his constant transferal from one prison to another, and the loss of some of the information as a prison guard destroyed it once he found it.

‘Astonishing’ knowledge
Khandaqji’s first book, a collection of poetry called “First Time Rituals,” was published in 2010. Khandaqji’s lawyer, Hasan Abbadi, told Anadolu that when he told his client that many students from universities in North Africa and the Middle East are reading his work, he was surprised and didn’t seem to know how popular his writing had become.

The writer’s family said in January that they don’t know if he is aware of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction nomination, since they haven’t been able to contact him in recent months.

Lebanese journalist Lana Medawar, discussing the book on her Instagram account, noted that Khandaqji’s detailed descriptions of archaeological sites he has never visited and his knowledge of Christian history are “astonishing.”

Numerous reviews on the Goodreads website offer candid assessments of the novel. While many commend the writer for his perseverance in getting his work published despite the challenges he faced, others critique the lack of plot and consistency within the narrative. Some speculate that the book might win due to political factors and as a show of solidarity with the current tragic events in Gaza and within the Palestinian community.

One Goodreads reviewer opined: “The narrative of this work is quite weak, exhibiting flaws in its structure at various points. It seems as though the writer had clear ideas in mind, but struggled to convey them effectively on paper.”

The IPAF judges are literary critics, writers and academics from the Arab world, with a non-Arab judge always also selected to underline the international nature of the award. This year’s judges include Syrian writer Nabil Suleiman, Palestinian academic Sonia Nimr and Czech academic František Ondráš. Each shortlisted author receives $10,000 and the winning author receives a further $50,000. The organization also covers the cost of the winning novel being translated into English.

According to a statement by Prof. Yasir Suleiman, chairman of the group’s board of trustees, “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.” The organization’s official website does not mention why Khandaqji is imprisoned.

A statement from the Palestinian Prisoner Society, published Monday in Palestinian state-run news agency Wafa, said that the reports on Khandaqji’s nomination in the Israeli media are “part of the war on the Palestinian narrative that has shed light on the crimes of the Israeli occupation.”

The statement added that “the creativity of Palestinian detainees held in Israeli prisons was a constant target for the authorities, involving confiscating their works and imposing sanctions against detainees who left a clear impact on Palestinian literature.”

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