Chair of Judges for the Arabic Booker Discusses the Shortlist

In Arabic Publishing by Olivia Snaije

By Olivia Snaije

The shortlist for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) — better known as the Arabic Booker — was released last week; the winner — who receives $50,000 (shortlisted authors receive $10,000 — will be announced March 14, 2011 during the Abu Dhabi Book Fair.

The six writers on the shortlist are from Egypt, Morocco, Sudan and Saudi Arabia. Iraqi writer and the chair of judges for the prize, Fadhil Al Azzawi, spoke to Publishing Perspectives from his home in Berlin.

“The writers are all very courageous and for the most part tackle themes that deal with the political situation in the Arab world,” he said. “There’s fundamentalism, Islam, the situation between East and West.”

Al Azzawi notes that for the first time this year there were seven women on the long list and two women on the shortlist who “write about emancipation and women’s struggle for rights.”

US-based university professor and writer Miral al-Tahawy’s Brooklyn Heights (published by Dar Merit) tells the story of Arab immigrants in the US over the past decade.

Of Saudi writer Raja al Alem’s novel, The Doves’ Necklace (published Al-Markaz al-Thaqafi al-Arabi), Al Azzawi says mildly “she writes about underground Mecca, it’s very interesting and really a new way of looking at the city.”

Al Alem’s staggering novel reveals a completely unknown side of the holy city of Mecca that includes prostitution, religious extremists and a mafia of building contractors who exploit foreign workers.

The Moroccan writers are both current and former Ministers of Culture. Bensalem Himmich, in My Tormentor (published by Dar El Shorouk) writes about an innocent man’s experience in a US prison. Mohammed Achaari tackles Islamic extremism and terrorism and its effects on family life in The Arch and the Butterfly (published by Al-Markaz al-Thaqafi al-Arabi).

In An Oriental Dance, (El-Ain Publishing) Khalid Al-Berry’s recounts a young Egyptian’s experience living as an expatriate in the UK.

The Sudanese writer, Amir Taj al-Sir writes about a former secret service agent in The Hunter of the Chrysalises (published by Thaqafa I-al-Nashr).

Margaret Obank, co-founder of Banipal magazine and on the board of trustees for the prize wrote earlier this year “Arab publishers love the Prize: it has led to greatly increased sales and many more readers. The responsibility of the judging panel to arrive at independent and transparent decisions based solely on the literary merit of the works is something new in the Arab world, prompting many articles in the Arab press and myriad opinions, and is driving the success of the Prize.”

The Web site Arabic Literature (in English) has done a good job handicapping the prize and covering the inevitable controversy surrounding the shortlist.

Editor’s Note: One of the criticisms levied at the prize over the years is that it caters to novels that heavily favor Western tastes, largely in the hope that the books will get picked up for translation consideration. As criticism, this may be valid or not, but the fact is that writers absorb what is in the cultural zeitgeist. Considering the popularity of Western culture, even in the Middle East — anyone who’s walked around a mall in Dubai or Doha or Kuwait City will have a hard time disputing that fact — it’s no surprise that novels reflect some degree of Western values. A novelists job, in part, is to chronicle cultural change through the subject and style of their writing. The criticism strikes me as naive at best. It’s the changes in the culture people are objecting to, not necessarily to the books themselves. — Edward Nawotka
About the Author

Olivia Snaije

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about translation, literature, graphic novels, the Middle East, and multiculturalism. She is the author of three books and has contributed to newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, The Global Post, and The New York Times.