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Kay Heikkinen, a translator and academic who is currently Ibn Rushd Lecturer of Arabic at the University of Chicago, has been awarded the 2020 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation for her translation of the novel Velvet by Huzama Habayeb, published by Hoopoe Fiction, the literary fiction imprint of the American University Press in Cairo.

She will receive the £3000 prize at a virtual award ceremony hosted by the UK’s Society of Authors on 11 February.

In their report the judges said: “Kay Heikkinen deserves the highest commendation for her sensitive translation of Huzama Habayeb’s award-winning Arabic novel Mukhmal, published in 2016. The novel is an intense and vivid story of one woman’s life in a Palestinian refugee camp, told with sensitivity to the sensuous but tragic world of its heroine but above all to her disturbing and almost heroic defiance of reality….On one level, the novel is a study of the claustrophobia of poverty and oppression, of daily lives shorn of all tenderness and of the stranglehold of family and patriarchy. Throughout it all, however, there remain dreams of individual fulfilment and the possibility of love and escape, turning the novel into a celebration of the triumph of the imagination over the mundane.”

Set in a Palestinian refugee camp the novel tells the story of Hawwa who has lived there since she was a child.  Set on a single day it sees Hawwa sift back through her memories of the past – ‘the stories of her family, her childhood, and her beloved mentor, who invited her into the glamorous world of the rich women of Amman’.  The judges said: “This is a novel of enormous power and great beauty. Rich in detail, it tells of the women of the camp, and the joy and relief that can be captured amid repression and sorrow.”

Habayeb was born and raised in Kuwait where she started writing short stories.  The novel is her third, and the Arabic original, Mukhmal, received the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in 2017. It was hailed by the judges as ‘a new kind of Palestinian novel’ that wrote about the ‘everyday lives of Palestinians’.

Habayeb praised Heikkinen’s work saying:  “It is a well-deserved award to the wonderful Kay Heikkinen, who has done a great job in conveying it into English….I was more than lucky to have Kay work on the translation, as she exhibited utter dedication, approaching the work with an open heart and mind.”

Khaled Seoudi of Hoopoe Fiction said: “Kay Heikkinen is an incredibly accomplished and talented translator and it is always a pleasure and a privilege to work with her at Hoopoe. Her exquisite translation of Huzama Habayeb’s Velvet has rendered this powerful and complex novel into eloquent, flowing English, capturing the passion and pain, the nuance and the many layers of the original. We are delighted that she has been given this much-deserved recognition.”

The Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation is is an annual award of £3,000, made to the translator(s) of a published translation in English of a full-length imaginative and creative Arabic work of literary merit published after, or during, the year 1967 and first published in English translation in the year prior to the award.  The Prize aims to raise the profile of contemporary Arabic literature as well as honouring the important work of individual translators in bringing the work of established and emerging Arab writers to the attention of the wider world.

It is wholly sponsored by Omar Saif Ghobash and his family in memory of his father, the late Saif Ghobash, the United Arab Emirates’ first Minister of State for Foreign Affair who was passionate about Arabic literature and other literatures of the world.