Raja Alem was born in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. She studied English Literature at the University of King Abdulaziz, Jeddah. She first began writing in the cultural supplement of Riyadh newspaper, but became widely known after the publication of her novel »Tariq al-Harir’« (Beirut, 1995; tr. The Silk Road). Raja has written 10 novels, five plays, a biography, several short stories and children’s stories. She has collaborated with artists and photographers and often appears on the international cultural and literary scene to discuss links between East and West.
Her reputation in the world of Arabic literature has been compared to that of Vladimir Nabokov in Western culture. Her style is complex and hermetic. She writes in refined, classical Arabic, which needs to be practically ‘decoded’ as with Sufi texts and draws on the history, symbols, sagas and myths of the Hejaz, the north-western province of Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam. Her novel »My Thousand & One Nights: A Novel of Mecca« (2007) combines traditional influences with glimpses of sharp modernism, drawing attention to recent cultural developments in the Middle East. The California Literary Review praised it as »a book of great imaginative intelligence, a celebration of word and story«. Her most recent novel, »The Dove’s Necklace« (2010) was the joint winner of this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Alem recently commented on winning the prize: »I suddenly looked back – I saw this heap [of books], this curve − imagine me, a girl from Mecca where announcing your name is a shame and I’m here, it’s a big curve seen by those girls in Mecca, proving that, nothing is impossible.« »The Dove’s Necklace« reveals the secret life of Mecca through the story of Aisha, exposing it as a battlefield between those trying to maintain the historic city and those aiming to destroy it in the name of modernity. Alem has described the book as a eulogy to the Mecca of her grandmothers’ generation, commenting: »When I look at ›The Dove’s Necklace‹ I feel as if I have taken a whole generation to a therapist and allowed it to express how it felt growing up in Mecca in the 70s or 60s.« She began writing the book in English originally, to try and see Mecca with a foreigner’s eye, and to free herself of the censorship built into her native language.
Prizes include: Ibn Tufail Prize of the Spanish-Arabic Cultural Centre in Madrid (1991); Arabic Women’s Creative Writing Prize (2005); The Lebanese Literary Club Prize in Paris (2008). International Prize for Arabic Fiction (2011). Earlier this year, she and her sister, the artist Shadia Alem, represented Saudi Arabia in Venice 54 art biennale, creating an installation called the »Black Arch« for the inaugural Saudi pavilion. Raja Alem lives in Paris.
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