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As a follow up to my earlier posting of Arabic authors in English translation, as grass-roots democracy boils across the Arab world, I ran across the Times Literary Supplement announcement of new translation prize awards.

The Saif Ghobash–Banipal Prize for translation from Arabic. Winner: Humphrey Davies for Yalo by Elias Khoury.

The Lebanese novelist and critic Elias Khoury (b.1948) was injured in the civil war that blighted his country in the years 1975–90. His novel Yalo (344pp. MacLehose Press. Paperback, £7.99. 978 1 906694 81 4) has that event as a backdrop to the story of Yalo, a former militiaman who has been brutalized by his experiences: during lengthy interrogations he is accused of ambushing lovers in parked cars and committing several acts of rape in a forest on the edge of Beirut. One of his accusers enters into an uneasy relationship with him. As its subject matter suggests, this is an unsettling novel to read, but it also throws light on interesting social history: Yalo reveals that “in the war, \[I\] got to know lots of kids, especially Assyrian boys who came from Syria and whose motive in joining the war was to get Lebanese nationality”.

In a Translator’s Note, Humphrey Davies (who wins this year’s Saif Ghobash-Banipal for translation from Arabic) explains that the “protagonists of this novel are Christians who belong to the Syriac (or Syrian) Orthodox Church, . . . and who regard themselves as . . . heirs to the culture and empire of ancient Mesopotamia (thus permitting one character to boast, or joke, that he is an ‘Ancient Assyrian’)”.

Lebanon is also the setting for most of the action in Beaufort (311pp. Vintage. Paperback, £7.99. 978 0 099 51672 9). This compelling, visceral first novel by Ron Leshem (who was born in 1976) is narrated by Erez, a twenty-one-year-old officer in the Israel Defense Forces stationed inside Lebanon in 1999 and charged with overseeing a withdrawal, under fire from Hezbollah, the unseen enemy. Erez has no time for the peace demonstrators brandishing their “Bring Our Boys Home” signs; for him Israel is a “country full of people who know fuck all about the army, but they know better than anyone what needs to be done”. Elsewhere “A ‘family terrorist attack’ is when your extended family arrives for a visit when you’ve just come back from Lebanon and you need a little peace and quiet”. Leshem gives a vivid sense of the powerful bonding that develops between young recruits in a combat zone. Evan Fallenberg is the runner-up in the triennial Risa Domb/Porjes Translation Prize for translation from Hebrew for his rendition of a book that deserves to be ranked with the finest war fiction.

Runners up for the Saif Ghobash-Banipal prize are:

Cities Without Palms by Tarek Eltayeb [Sudan] translated by Kareem James Plamer Said

Sunset Oasis by Bahaa Taher [Egypt] translated by Humphry Davies