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Palestinian writer jailed in Israel wins top Arabic book prize

By Radina Gigova and Sarah Sirgany, CNN

(CNN) — A Palestinian writer who has been in an Israeli prison for 20 years has won a prestigious prize for Arabic fiction for his novel “A Mask, the Color of the Sky.”

Basim Khandaqji won the prize on Sunday for his book, and was awarded $50,000 and funding for an English translation.

The “mask” of the book’s title is, metaphorically, a blue identity card belonging to an Israeli found by the protagonist, Nur, in the pocket of an old coat.

Nur, an archaeologist living in a refugee camp in Ramallah, adopts this “mask,” and “what follows is an experimental and multi-layered narrative which sets out to reclaim elements of history and place with vivid and memorable characterization,” said the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), which announced the prizewinner at a ceremony Abu Dhabi.

The novel, published by Lebanon’s Dar Al-Adab, “dissects a complex, bitter reality of family fragmentation, displacement, genocide, and racism,” said Nabil Suleiman, a Syrian writer who chaired the 2024 prize.

“The strands of history, myth, and the present day are delicately woven together in a narrative that pulses with compassion in the face of dehumanization and is stirred by a desire for freedom from oppression, both at an individual and societal level,” said Suleiman.

Born in Nablus in 1983, Khandaqji is serving three life sentences in connection with a deadly suicide bombing at Tel Aviv’s Camel Market in 2004, which killed three people and injured dozens, according to UAE state media, The National.

His brother, Yousef Khandaqji, attended the award ceremony at Abu Dhabi’s Fairmont Bab Al Bahr and said: “Speaking on behalf of my dear brother, he dedicates this victory to all the Palestinian people.”

“I miss him every day and he is in our hearts every day,” he added.

Khandaqji began to write “A Mask, the Color of the Sky” in 2021. The novel took six months to complete, while the research took several years.

During his time in prison, Khandaqji has written poetry collections, as well as three earlier novels, according to IPAF.

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