Afghan refugee awarded French literary prize

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An Afghan who fled his country 24 years ago carrying a few crumpled bank-notes has been awarded France's premier literary prize.

Atiq Rahimi, 46, took the 2008 Prix Goncourt - the French equivalent of the Mann-Booker prize - with his first novel in French, a stark essay on the oppression of women in Afghanistan.

M. Rahimi is the second foreign-born writer to win the Goncourt in the last three years. The American author, Jonathan Littell, won in 2006 with a novel about the Holocaust, "The Kindly Ones", which he wrote in French. Another prestigious French literary prize was awarded to an exiled foreign writer yesterday. The Guinean novelist, Tierno Monenembo, who also fled political violence in his homeland, won the Renaudot prize for his book, "Le Roi de Kahel".

M. Rahimi, who has dual French and Afghan nationality, said yesterday that he regarded his Goncourt victory as "a sign of recognition both for my work and the story of my life".

Although he has written four previous novels in Farsi, and several film and television scripts in French, "the stone of patience" was his first novel in his adopted language.

It takes the form of a poetic, and sometimes crude, monologue by a woman sitting with her dying "war hero" husband. M. Rahimi said that the book set "in Afghanistan or elsewhere", showed that, beneath their full-length veils, Afghani women were the same as "women anywhere else in the world, with the same desires, dreams and hopes, the same strengths and weaknesses".

The novelist and film-maker fled Afghanistan in 1984, walking for ten days through the mountains to Pakistan carrying a little money and the carpet which had been his mother's dowry. M. Rahimi was born into a wealthy Afghan family and was educated at the French lycee(acute on midde e) in Kabul. His father, a judge, was arrested after the Soviet invasion in 1980.

After seeking political asylum in France, he studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and had his first success in 2000 with a novel, "Terre et cendres" (Earth and Ashes). He turned the book into a film which won a prize at the Cannes festival in 2004.

The French culture minister, Christine Albanel, paid tribute to M. Rahimi's Goncourt-winning novel yesterday as an "understated, naked and overwhelming" book "which strikes directly at the heart".

The heroine of the book recounts her life-story to a "magical stone" or "stone of patience" - an ancient Afghan tradition - while sitting with her comatose husband. She speaks of their ten years of married life in which she barely saw a husband who was fighting in a "holy" civil war in an unspecified country. She begins as distraught wife, praying for his life but turns to an angry and crude condemnation of the brutalities and humiliations heaped on her as woman.

M. Rahimi was inspired to write the book as a tribute to an Afghan poetess, Nadia Anjuman, who was beaten to death by her husband in 2005. The sorrowing husband attempted to commit suicide by injecting petrol into his bloodstream. M. Rahimi, who has occasionally returned to Afghanistan since the collapse of the Taliban government, went to prison hospital and sat beside the dying man. He said earlier this year: "As I sat there, I thought, if I was a woman, I would spit out the truth at him as he lay there."