Eyes on the Prize

The Arab world's most prestigious literary award is thriving; whether anyone's actually reading the shortlisted books is another matter.


A Frankensteinian monster stalks the streets of Baghdad, looking for vengeance; a family’s dreams are stifled across generations in Aleppo; a tormented psychiatrist investigates a murder in Mubarak-era Cairo; three Iraqi siblings, striving for stability, find new lives abroad; a Moroccan woman searches for her Air Force pilot husband, who disappeared decades ago. These stories, which have been selected as contenders for the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) are a diverse cross-section of contemporary Arabic literature. The shortlist was announced on Feb. 10 to a packed news conference in Amman, Jordan, and the winner will be declared on April 29, on the eve of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

The issues of the rights of women, political freedoms, and corruption are playing out in Arabic literature, just as they are in cities across the Middle East. Awards such as the IPAF bring together literature from Morocco to Lebanon to Saudi Arabia that speaks to these debates, grappling with many of the same questions raised by the "Arab Spring." In the IPAF, authors around the region now have a shared platform to debate the qualities of the "Great Arabic Novel" and vie for a prize that’s new to the region.

The IPAF — popularly known as the "Arabic Booker" (after Britain’s prestigious Man Booker prize) and funded by the United Arab Emirates — is only in its seventh year, but has already exerted wide influence over the production, publication, and distribution of Arabic novels. It is not the first pan-Arab prize, nor does it offer the largest purse: The Sheikh Zayed Book Award, also sponsored by the UAE, offers a total of nearly $2 million to winners in various categories. This sort of soft power has not gone unnoticed, and neighboring Qatar has decided to get in on the lit-prize action: Doha’s Katara Cultural Village announced last month that the organization was set to launch a $200,000 award for Arabic novels. The Katara prize also promises to offer both translation into English and to film or stage, although logistical details are still thin.

Why has the IPAF had such an effect on Arabic literature? It’s been seven years since the organization handed out its first prize, to Bahaa Taher’s Sunset Oasis. When it was unveiled in 2008, the prize was strongly allied with the English Booker award and touted as very different from previous pan-Arab literary prizes. Although it is sponsored by Abu Dhabi’s Tourism and Culture Authority, the IPAF is not explicitly allied with the government, and prize organizers regularly underscore the judges’ independence. The award, organizers say, does not exist to promote Emirati or government-approved literature.

Each year, the IPAF has been a different experience. In 2013, the shortlist was a surprise: A number of internationally acclaimed authors, such as Lebanese novelists Elias Khoury, Hoda Barakat, and Rabee Jaber were on the longlist, but didn’t make the shortlist of six. Instead, the judges chose several emerging authors, creating an exceptionally young list. Last year’s prize also had two "celebrity" judges, the Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat and the economist and memoirist Galal Amin. This year’s judging panel, perhaps in reaction to criticism, was much more orthodox: It included Saad Albazei, an academic and member of Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council, and Abdullah Ibrahim, who won the 2014 King Faisal Prize for his work on Arabic literature and is also a cultural advisor at the Qatari emir’s court.

The prize also makes a thrust at transparency, though it sometimes falls short. Some aspects of the selection process remain a mystery: As with the English Booker, we don’t know which 156 novels were submitted for the 2014 prize. Thus, we can’t say whether Salim Barakat’s most recent novel, The Mermaid and her Daughters, was not on the longlist because it’s too controversial (the novel is banned in Jordan), because it’s too experimental, because the judges found it wanting, or because the publisher didn’t submit it for the prize. The same is true of Nael al-Toukhy’s Women of Karantina and Sawsan Jamil Hassan’s Nabbashun.

But reporters are able to grill the judges about their decisions, which some years seem stranger than others. In 2010, for example, the names of the judges were leaked before the shortlist announcement, and rumors of judge-tampering were rampant. Rumors that the UAE directs judging decisions from behind the curtain also have been persistent, but have become more muted.

This year’s shortlist comprises a broad range of novels, from historical fictions to magical realism to a psychological thriller. As expected, it includes the acclaimed Syrian novelist Khaled Khalifa’s No Knives in the Kitchens of This City, a novel that already won the 2013 Naguib Mahfouz medal. The novel follows an ordinary Syrian family as they try to survive the aftermath of their country’s Baathist coup, exploring the deep roots of Syria’s current despair and depicting a devastated and deteriorating Aleppo. (Khalifa, the favorite for the prize, was shortlisted for the inaugural IPAF for his dense, gripping In Praise of Hatred, a novel of Marquezian scope that was published in English in 2012.)

Egyptian crime novelist Ahmed Mourad’s third novel, The Blue Elephant, also made the list, to the delight of his fans and consternation of literary purists. Mourad burst onto the novel-writing scene in 2007 with Vertigo, which appeared in English in 2011. The former official photographer to Hosni Mubarak grabbed fans’ attention with his page-turning plot twists, but also with his wit and daring portraits of a corrupt Egyptian elite. In Blue Elephant, a novel full of sex, drugs, and earthy language, Mourad explores the line between fantasy and reality.

Although Mourad’s inclusion in a prize for "high literature" was a surprise to some, the prize’s seventh year has brought comparatively little drama. The remaining four shortlisted novels included submissions by two Moroccans, Youssef Fadel and Abdelrahim Lahbibi, and two Iraqis, Inaam Kachachi and Ahmed Saadawi. Despite the novels’ variety, judging chair Saad Albazei noted that "fragmentation" was a theme that resonated through all six. This can be seen in the familial destruction of Kachachi’s Tashari, the crumbling of Syrian society in Khalifa’s No Knives, and the literal fragmentation in Saadawi’s compelling Frankenstein in Baghdad, where the monster is built from a variety of Iraqi corpses.

Prize judge Zhor Gourram said that, much like last year, the judges saw a number of "Arab Spring novels," as well as those where authors attempted to reconcile their characters with their nations’ pasts. But while the turmoil in the Middle East may have been an inspiration for writers, it has also dealt a blow to the region’s publishing business — the industry has recently been struggling with low sales and increased production costs. Even publishers in countries that have not seen major political turmoil rely on book-buyers in Egypt and Syria. One Lebanese publisher told the industry publication Book Brunch that his sales to Egypt had dropped 40 percent, and sales to Syria had dropped by 90 percent.

The IPAF, however, has retained its status as the premier literary prize in the Arab world. Sherif Bakr, director of Egypt’s al-Arabi publishing house, said that many publishers now build part of their catalog around the prize. Since each publishing house is allowed just three submissions to the IPAF and a "get-in free" card for any previously shortlisted author, Bakr said that the prize has also shifted the literary landscape to the benefit of smaller publishers. Some Arab authors will now sign on with a smaller house on the condition that their book is submitted for the prize.

Indeed, despite the continued difficulties in the publishing industry, the IPAF continues to thrive. There were a record 156 submissions for the award this year, a marked increase from 133 submissions last year and 101 submissions in 2012. While there were just 68 separate publishers submitting in 2013, this year saw 86.

Still, Bakr said, the publishers aren’t altogether sure what to submit. Because the criteria aren’t stated, and seem to shift from year to year based on the judges, the standards for recognition remain hard to decipher. "We don’t understand," said Bakr. "What type of a prize is it?"

For this reason, publishers have become keen IPAF-watchers. After prize organizers encouraged more submissions from female authors in 2010, there was near gender equity on the longlist and shortlist in 2011. However, female authors’ presence on the longlist quickly shrank back to just one or two each year after that. Libyan novelist Ahmed al-Faitouri, one of the judges, said that in 2014 there were many submissions by young women writers, but only two were found worthy of the 16-strong longlist and just one made the shortlist, Inaam Kachachi.

Gender imbalance has been a recurring criticism of the award. This year, the chair of the IPAF’s board of trustees said at the news conference that gender representation was a factor in choosing judges. As 7iber magazine’s editor-in-chief Lina Ejeilat commented on Twitter, this wasn’t exactly in evidence: "Result: one token woman and four men."

However, the award also offers numerous upsides for readers and writers. Beyond the obvious financial benefits, it also helps Arab authors expand their audience beyond their national borders. This is particularly important in a book industry that has become atomized because of problems with censorship and distribution, which make it difficult to move books across national borders.

The IPAF also has had an effect beyond Arabic literature, as it deserves at least some credit for an uptick in novels translated from Arabic into other languages. Certainly, award organizers can take credit for bringing shortlisted authors to a number of global literary festivals. A number of the books have also gone on to win awards in translation, such as Youssef Ziedan’s Azazeel, Khaled Khalifa’s In Praise of Hatred, and Jabbour Douaihy’s Vagrant. Azazeel, which was a best-seller in Arabic, has been translated into 14 languages.

In most Arab cities, however, you won’t find anyone cracking open Khalifa’s No Knives or Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad on the subway. For the time being, Arabic literature and its prizes remains a sport for a select few. But the IPAF is turning Arabic literature, at a moment when it needs a helping hand, into a sport — with large prizes, authors to watch, and benefits for the fans.

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