Time Out looks at the health of Arab literature and investigates the contenders for the 'Arab Booker Prize'
It’s not called the Arab Booker Prize – don’t call it the Arab Booker, although everyone does (even the jurors). It’s not surprising: the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (or IPAF) is the combined effort of the Emirates Foundation and the Booker Foundation, those behind the UK’s prestigious Man Booker Prize for literature, and the kudos by association is both desirable and unavoidable.
It was launched last year amid a hail of literary ambition and it added something that the Middle East’s novelists sorely needed: attention. Book sales in the Arab world are not that healthy; nor are its writers being translated as regularly as they should be into more profitable Western markets, as Professor Rasheed El-Enany, a member of this year’s IPAF jury explains. ‘I think, if one is to be honest, the answer is that book sales are not high at all,’ he says, ‘and even the best and most famous of Arab authors don’t see huge print runs. Rumour has it that, at the best of times, Naguib Mahfouz’s [former Nobel Laureate] novels were printed 10,000 copies at a time. This is the kind of amount you would sell in a few hours in London or New York when a new book is published by an author as famous as that.’
But this is changing, according to Professor El-Enany, who is honest about the ‘double objective’ of Prizes like the IPAF. ‘There is no doubt that the titles on the shortlist and the eventual winner will enjoy a tremendous amount of publicity, and that increases circulation and encourages literary reviews and encourages translation,’ he enthuses. But, just as importantly, it opens up new markets. ‘There has already been competition among mainstream publishers to find translation contracts with the shortlisted novels,’ claims El-Enany. ‘These are all new factors in the life of the Arabic novel.’
Like any awards ceremony, the prize brings with it a certain glamour, and the prestige of its Booker association (no matter how obscured) creates a buzz in the two places where it matters: in bookstores, where the contenders can be lined up in catching displays, and, just as importantly, among international publishers, who realise that a little sticker with the words ‘prize winner’ on it can do wonders for foreign book sales.
In the UAE, recent projects such as Abu Dhabi’s Kalima, translating western works into Arabic, and Qalam, which aims to publish and support the Emirates’ literati are the tail end of a rising Arab literary trend across the Middle East. But those behind the prize must be patient. The IPAF still awaits its first break-out hit after last year’s inaugural winner, Egyptian author Baha Tahar, failed to set the world alight with his existential drama, Sunset Oasis.
‘The more the prize is looked up to, the more attention it brings,’ says El-Enani. True, but the book industry relies on quality; the Prize first needs to build up its reputation with a genuine hit, both at home and abroad. Certainly, much is expected from this year’s line-up, and fingers are crossed that this could be the year.
The winner of the International Prize for Arabic Literature will be announced at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair on March 16
IPAF jury member Professor El-Enany introduces this year’s shortlist Muhammad Al-Bisatie, Hunger ‘A contemporary Egyptian novelist, who became known from the late ’60s onwards. He is very much a socially committed author who writes about real people and the downtrodden classes in particular, and his nominated novel, Hunger, is a good specimen of this.’
Fawwaz Haddad, The Unfaithful Translator ’Haddad is not extremely well-known, but his novel, The Unfaithful Translator, deals with some of the most sensitive political and social issues in Syrian society in a highly artistic manner and complex fictional structure.’
Inaam Kachachi, The American Granddaughter ‘An Iraqi woman writer – pretty new on the scene. She works in journalism and wrote a compelling novel about a very live issue: the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, told through the eyes of an Iraqi-American woman, who arrives of Iraq with the US forces.’
Ibrahim Nasrallah, Time of White Horses ‘A well-established Palestinian novelist known as much for his work as a poet. His poetry often infiltrates the prose of his fiction and his book is a saga novel of the Palestinian tragedy tracing the lives of three generations of the same family in a small village, which also stands for the whole nation.’
Habib Salmi, The Scents of Marie-Claire ‘A Tunisian writer, fairly well-established, his nominated novel belongs to a well-established theme in Arabic fiction, the east-west encounter, as told through a love story between a European woman and an Arab man. Salmi makes his own contribution and it actually brings a breath of fresh air to this well-trodden theme.’ Yusuf Zaydan, Beelzebub ‘Zaydan is an Egyptian who works in the Alexandria Library. He is an historian and a published researcher. These qualities have served him well in this historical novel set in the 6th century during the early days of Christianity, after the Roman Empire had adopted the religion.’