This year's longlist for the Man Booker prize includes two novels by authors of Arab origin - Hisham Matar of Libya, and Naeem Murr (left) whose late father was Lebanese. Matar is longlisted for his debut novel In the Country of Men published in the UK by the Penguin Books imprint Viking, and Murr for his third novel The Perfect Man whose UK publisher is William Heinemann, part of Random House.
Coincidentally, both novels will be published in the US in early 2007 by Random House (Matar's by the Dial division).
The Man Booker, worth £50,000, is Britain's most prestigious literary prize. It is tempting to see the inclusion of two Arab authors on the 19-novel longlist as a major breakthrough for Arab diaspora novelists writing in English. But while Matar's novel is set in Libya, Murr, who comes from a famous extended family in Lebanon, has not directly drawn on Arab settings in his work, although he explores themes of migration, deracination and belonging. In the Country of Men and A Perfect Man have both received highly positive reviews in the Times Literary Supplement and other UK publications.
Murr and Matar are up against stiff competition from a longlist that includes David Mitchell's Black Swan Green (the bookies' favourite to win), two-times Booker winner Peter Carey's Theft: A Love Story, Sarah Waters' The Night Watch, Jewish author Howard Jacobson's comic novel Kalooki Nights, and South African Nobel prizewinner Nadine Gordimer's Get A Life.
The best known Arab contender for the Booker to date has been the Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif (a longtime resident of London) who was shortlisted for her epic historical novel set in Egypt, The Map of Love, in 1999. The Australian novelist David Malouf, who like Murr is of Lebanese extraction, was shortlisted in 1993 for Remembering Babylon.
Murr's paternal family come from the town of B'tighreen in the Metn region north east of Beirut. Murr's father Samir met his Irish mother Eileen McGuinness while he was studying engineering in London, and Naeem was born in London in 1965. The following year his father died in a car crash in the desert in Libya where he was working as an engineer. Murr has lived in the USA since his early 20s and currently resides in Chicago. Murr's mother maintained the links with the Murr family in Lebanon, and when he was growing up Murr visited Lebanon for vacations and family weddings, and he spent several months living with his uncle in Beirut at the age of 10.
Hisham Matar was born in New York City in 1970 to Libyan parents. He grew up in Tripoli until 1979 (the year in which his first-person narrator novel is set), when the family had to flee to Cairo. He has been based in London since 1988. Matar has contributed essays and reviews to the Arab daily newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, and has had poetry published. In 2002 his poetry made him a finalist in East Anglia's Best New Talent Awards. His varied CV includes acting on stage and working as an architect, stonemason and university lecturer.
Murr’s first novel, The Boy, published in 1998, was New York Times Notable Book, won a Lambda Literary Award, and was translated into six languages. The Genius of the Sea followed in 2003. The Perfect Man was published in Britain in April.
Murr has received numerous awards and scholarships for his writing. He published a number of prize-winning stories, novellas and non-fiction pieces in literary journals. He was a Stanford University Creative Writing Fellow, and was recently awarded a Lannan Residency Fellowship. Murr has been a writer-in-residence at numerous universities, including the University of Missouri, Western Michigan University, and Northwestern University.
The chairman of this year's Man Booker judges, the Oxford Professor of English Literature Hermione Lee, said of the longlist: ""We have many regrets about some of the novels we've left off, and we could easily have had a long-list of about 30 books, but we're delighted with the variety, the originality, the drama and craft, the human interest and the strong voices in this longlist. "
She added: "It's a list in which famous novelists rub shoulders with little-known newcomers. We hope that people will leap at it for their late summer reading and make up their own short-list."
The 19 longlisted books were chosen from a list of 112, of which 95 were submitted by publishers. A further 17 were not submitted but were called in by the judges. The other judges are poet Simon Armitage, novelist and reviewer Candia McWilliam, actress Fiona Shaw and writer and reviewer Anthony Quinn.