Basim Khandaqji wins top Arabic literary award from behind prison bars

The jailed Palestinian author won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his book, 'A Mask, the Colour of the Sky', which tells the story of a Palestinian man who finds and uses an Israeli ID

The novel's publisher, Rana Idris, received the award on behalf of Bassem Khandakji, alongside his brother Yousef.
The novel's publisher, Rana Idris, received the award on behalf of Bassem Khandakji, alongside his brother Yousef.

Basim Khandaqji wins top Arabic literary award from behind prison bars

A Palestinian prisoner in his early 40s has just won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his book about a Palestinian who takes on an Israeli’s identity.

Basim Khandaqji wrote A Mask, the Colour of the Sky in prison, where he is serving three life sentences for alleged involvement in a terrorist incident. Born in 1983, he has been in prison since 2004.

In the book, a Palestinian archaeologist (Nur) working near Ramallah finds an Israeli identity card in an old coat and decides to use it, becoming ‘Ur’ and trying to see things through Israeli eyes.

Khandaqji’s novel adds a fresh and distinct voice to Palestinian and Arab literature. It both expresses the Palestinian cause and raises the issue of identity dispersion suffered by Palestinians inside and outside the occupied territories.

Writing as a form of resistance

Writing has been a longstanding form of resistance employed by Palestinians, and A Mask, the Colour of the Sky now enters the pantheon.

More than six months after Israel launched its assault on the Gaza Strip and with no end in sight, judging panel chair Nabil Sulaiman—a Syrian novelist—said the decision to award Khandaqji the $50,000 winner’s cheque was unanimous.

Israel’s prison authorities denied all knowledge of the book or the author but said financial awards to “terrorists” would not be allowed.

That the judges chose a Palestinian prisoner to win the Arab world’s most prestigious literary award in April 2024 speaks volumes, but this is not the only reason he won.

The novel possesses all the artistic qualities to have crowned it as the winner, regardless of the author’s nationality and status. Still, this is the first time the prize has been won by an imprisoned author.

The book is the first part of the Trilogy of Mirrors, announced by his brother Yusuf, with The Holocaust Custodian and Demons of Mary Magdalene making up the trio. This is Khandaqji's fifth novel, alongside a collection of poetry.

His historical novel Misk al-Kifaya is set in the Abbasid era, retelling Lady al-Khayzuran's quest for freedom, while Eclipse of Badr al-Din follows a Sufi polemicist rebelling against corruption and the sultans' preachers.

A Palestinian prisoner winning the Arab world's most prestigious literary award in 2024 speaks volumes, but the book deserved to win on merit.

A defence of heritage and truth

From the first lines, A Mask, the Colour of the Sky is a serious attempt to defend heritage, history, and truth.

The protagonist, Nur, who faces daily checks and harassment from Israeli occupation soldiers, finds the ID card and uses it to get an Israeli residency permit, transforming him into Ur Shapira, through which he explores and understands the Israeli world.

The novel explores contentious themes for Palestinians, such as forms of resistance and confronting the Israeli enemy.

Yet it also manages to float above Palestinian specifics to encompass the universal idea of resisting an occupier through literature and art. For his part, Nur resists Israeli occupation through historical research and documentation.

The novel has three sections. In the first, Nur corresponds with fellow prisoner Murad about his desire to write about Mary Magdalene and the challenges he has in collecting historical material.

This leads him to join the archaeological excavation in occupied Jerusalem, where he finds the ID and adopts the identity of 'Ur' using documents and language, attempting to adopt Jewish ideas and perspectives.

With every piece of news he hears, he struggles with his desire to return to his Palestinian roots.

This included after the infamous events of the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in 2021 when Palestinian families were forcibly evicted from East Jerusalem to make way for Jewish settlers.

In the resulting protests, thousands of Palestinians and Palestinian citizens of Israel were injured, arrested, and detained. It led Amnesty International to declare: "This is apartheid."

In the book's third section, Sky, the confrontation between his Palestinian and adopted Israeli identity deepens during his work on the kibbutz Mashmar HaEmek.

Between two identities

The novel oscillates between Nur, the Palestinian, and his suffering and Ur, a Jew who seeks the truth.

Positioned between them, the author tries to see things from all perspectives. For instance, before transforming into Ur, Nur addresses a group of tourists:

"Here, ladies and gentlemen, where you stand, lies the ruins and remnants of the Arab Palestinian village of Sar'a." 

"It was plundered, and its people, numbering 400 souls, were expelled in July 1948. Yes, expelled. Now, they languish as refugees in camps. Zionist gangs destroyed the village, erecting in its place Kibbutz Sar'a.

"There is no Samson here to lament. No superheroes. No tombs for superhuman heroes. For Samson, like Superman, did not die here. Where you stand, there is only catastrophe and a people expelled from their land."

The novel explores contentious themes for Palestinians, such as forms of resistance and confronting the Israeli enemy.

While he is 'Ur', he meets Iyala, a proud Jewish woman from the East, who is uncomfortable with Israel's Ashkenazi (European heritage) Jews.

He also meets Sama, a Palestinian woman from Haifa who is proud of her identity and refuses even to acknowledge Israel despite holding Israeli citizenship. She aims to centre her Palestinian identity in every discussion she has.

Throughout the book, the protagonist struggles between his two identities—his original and the mask—engaging in numerous debates about origins and identity, making him reconsider his future.

As he immerses himself in the excavation, the land becomes a central character, showcasing the years of research Khandaqji undertook.

In the end, Ur tells his friend: "I am not a traitor, a normaliser, or a Shin Bet officer. Perhaps I am a confused, lost, and bewildered madman!"

In the book, Nur conducts his own historical research to learn the story of Mary Magdalene, trying to understand every detail of the era and of those in her life.

He then connects her story with the ongoing conflict in Jerusalem and the occupied land of Palestine, where Israeli is actively attempting to erase any trace of Christian and Islamic heritage and history.

At times, it can seem as though Khandaqji wants to say that Palestine is a land for all, not just those who want to monopolise it or claim sole ownership of it.

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