A literary prize fight: politics and the International Prize for Arabic Fiction

13 February 2010 101 views No Comment Email This Post Email This Post Print This Post Print This Post

A fine shortlist of nominees for the third ‘Arabic Booker’ has so far been overshadowed by manufactured controversy, Youssef Rakha writes.

* By Youssef Rakha, published in The National

Image caption: Youssef Zeidan, the winner of the 2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his novel Azazeel (Beelzebub), accepts the grand prize – and a $60,000 award – at a ceremony in Abu Dhabi last March. Andrew Henderson/The National

For the third time in as many years, the discussion surrounding the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) has descended into bickering over literary politics. In the Arabic press, where the prize has received considerable attention and attracted equal amounts of controversy, the focus has rarely been on the virtues or demerits of the nominated titles – instead, in the three years since the award was introduced, debate about the politics of the prize has overshadowed discussion of the nominated books.

It seems self-evident that the entirety of any literature cannot be reflected in a single prize, however representative it aims to be – and IPAF does not aim to be representative. Yet since its launch in 2007, writers and publishers have tended to see the “Arabic Booker” as the alpha and omega of literary achievement. Disappointment and distress can hardly be unexpected.

When this year’s longlist of 16 books was released in November, the controversy began with geography: Egyptian authors won the prize in each of its first two years, and when only two Egyptian books turned up on the longlist, a spate of allegations were launched – mostly by disgruntled Egyptians – claiming that the jury had neglected Egyptian fiction to appease the rest of the Arab world.

Complainants like the Egyptian novelist Ibrahim abdul Meguid, who resented the exclusion of his novel Fi kull Usbou’ Yom Jum’ah (Each Week There is a Friday), declared that there was corruption within the IPAF and insisted “a conspiracy against Egypt” was afoot.

Soon thereafter, the conspiratorial consensus shifted to one of the longlisted books, Issmuhu al Gharam (Its Name is Love), by the Lebanese novelist Ulwiyya Subh. Her book, which had been popular and well-reviewed, was regarded by many as the likely winner of the eventual award – some of whom may have concluded that, after two male Egyptian winners, the jury might be inclined to shift its favour to a Lebanese woman.

This speculation took a more sinister turn, however, when interested parties alleged that the book was not merely likely but certain to win. The Lebanese poetry journal Al Ghawoun claimed to have “uncovered a clandestine deal” to fix the results, slinging accusations at Subh herself; at Joumana Haddad, a Lebanese writer and the administrator of the prize; at the Kuwaiti novelist Talib al Rifaie, who sits at the head of this year’s jury; and at the senior Egyptian critic Gaber Asfour, an avowed admirer of Subh.

These conspiracy theories were not dented by the fact that Subh’s book did not make the shortlist of six titles announced in December – instead the critics shifted course, insisting that the uproar over the initial accusations had led the jury, “cowing in to media intimidation”, to deliberately leave Subh off the list.

More controversy ensued with the resignation from the jury of the Egyptian critic Sherine Abu El Naga, who told this newspaper at the time that “the voting method was my main reason for resigning,” protesting that the shortlist decision was made without “dialogue or discussion”. As the gang imagined by Al Ghawoun started bickering among itself – Subh publicly insulting al Rifaie, for example – it became clear how random all the accusations had been.

The prize committee, alas, may have invited some of this speculation: though the members of the jury are supposed to remain secret until the shortlist of finalists is announced, this year the details were leaked and published in a Cairo newspaper two weeks prior to the announcement, more than enough time for speculation about hidden motives and social connections to run wild.

Each member of the jury, it turned out, was a friend or acquaintance of Subh, giving fuel to the conspiracists – and yet such circumstances are partially inevitable: Arab literary circles are small and perilously cliquish.

The public consternation – at least in those same tightly-wound literary circles – over the administration of the prize has served to obscure the grander intentions of the award, the valorisation and promotion of Arabic-language fiction. Instead, the literary community has been polarised into pro- and anti-Booker factions, ensuring that future rounds will continue to be clouded by suspicion, particularly over the nomination of younger writers whose reputations have not yet been established.

A more sensible way of evaluating the prize might be to look at the previous laureates, and to ask what each one signifies as a work of Arabic fiction – and as the book chosen by the prize committee to be sent forth into English translation, where it will represent the impossibly diverse range of literature in Arabic for western readers.

Baha Taher’s Sunset Oasis, which took the first prize in 2008, depicted Egyptian-British relations during colonial times; its translation was funded by a grant from the British philanthropist (and Granta owner) Sigrid Rausing, and published by Sceptre in 2009. Last year’s winner, Azazeel (Beelzebub), by the Egyptian novelist Youssef Zeidan, which tackled religious intolerance in the pre-Islamic Middle East, will be published in English this spring by Atlantic Books.

If there is a common thread that connects the first two winners – each of which, it should be added, was chosen by a separate jury – it is that both stand as affirmations of a pluralistic and liberal value system, one that generally looks positively at the encounters between East and West: in Sunset Oasis, the equality of the races and the right to (national and personal) freedom despite the horrors of colonialism; in Azazeel, the importance of tolerance and understanding in the face of dogma and religious extremism.

Among this year’s shortlisted titles, the London-based Palestinian writer Rabie al Madhoun’s Ass Sayyidah min Tal Abeeb (The Lady from Tel Aviv) hews closest to this East-West tune, but with a more immediate pitch than the historical fictions of Taher and Zeidan.

The novel, which has been called a work of “post-Oslo resistance literature”, tells the triple story of al Madhoun himself, his writer-protagonist Walid Dahman, and the hero of Dahman’s own fictional novel-in-progress. On a plane from London back to Gaza to see his mother for the first time in decades, Dahman meets an attractive Israeli actress. Later, back in London, she is killed in cold blood as a result of her previous amorous involvement with the son of an Arab leader.

The novel has been praised as much for its entertaining narrative as for being among the first Arabic books that deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict undogmatically, showing psychological depth on both sides while accurately portraying the Palestinian tragedy. By prioritising the human over the political, opposing the racism inherent in “nationalist” discourse and siding with human rights, it goes even further than the previous two winners in affirming liberal values.

In the young Lebanese writer Rabee Jabir’s novel America and the older Egyptian novelist Mohammad al Mansi Qindeel’s Yawm Gha’im fil Bar al Gharbi (A Cloudy Day on the West Side), themes of confessional and ethnic intermingling come to the fore in the context of long, multifaceted narratives with heavy historical components. In both cases the encounter between East and West again figures prominently. America is a fictional account of early 20th-century Lebanese immigration to the United States, told from the viewpoint of a country woman who follows her husband to New York.

Yawn Gha’im fil Bar al Gharbi opens with the story of a Muslim woman in late 19th-century Upper Egypt who abandons her young daughter, Aisha, to protect her from the brutality of a merciless stepfather – but baptises her as a Christian before doing so. This coincidence of conversion, it later turns out, leads Aisha – who grows up to become a translator – to fall in love with a fictional version of the famous British archaeologist Howard Carter, transcending the boundaries of religious, national and ethnic identity alike.

Once again, the writer speaks for the rights of the individual woman and opens up humane spaces within an otherwise unequal colonial set-up, while showing the flimsy nature of religious identity for what it is.

The remaining three novels on this year’s shortlist give less attention to the crossing of borders and the intermingling of cultures; each zeroes in on the particularities of national or local cultures, delving into local specifics – in one case, with savage satire – to reveal the tensions within changing societies.

M’Indama Tashkish adh Dhi’aab (When Wolves Grow Old), by the Palestinian-Jordanian writer Jamal Naji, employs a wide cast of characters, and a plot drawn from the world of detective genre fiction, to depict the social malaise of contemporary Amman – a panorama of the city that sets out to expose sexual and political repression, the hunger for power among intellectuals and religious leaders, and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

The young Egyptian Mansoura Ez Eldin’s Wara’ al Firdawss (Beyond Paradise) steers clear of the explicitly political to chronicle an obscure episode in the history of the Nile Delta – a period, which concluded in the late 1980s, when surging demand for red brick made from the mud in the Delta created a sudden explosion of wealth among some enterprising local landholders. As in Naji’s book, there are many characters and a complex, if hardly suspenseful, storyline, which follows the intensely personal journey of a young female literary magazine editor from a small town in the Nile Delta to Cairo.

Though the so-called “Arabic Booker” has not, for obvious reasons, attracted the same attention from gamblers as its British namesake, the smart money this year may be on the Saudi novelist Abdu Khal’s grotesque satire of power, Tarmi bi Sharar (Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles). Khal is the most established and celebrated writer on the shortlist, and one might be forgiven for expecting the jury to embrace the least contentious choice after so much public acrimony.

But Khal’s book is not without its own potential for controversy, and it has little to offer in the way of cross-cultural pieties or the tolerance afforded by such encounters. The novel is set in a destitute Jeddah neighbourhood and in the palace that has recently been built next door. The owner of the palace is a well-connected, wealthy and powerful man, about whose origins little is known. The owner, a ruthless and sadistic tycoon, seizes and tortures those who have crossed him; he enlists the narrator – a child of the neighbourhood notorious as a homosexual and a bully – to sexually abuse his victims, who are videotaped as they suffer.

But the narrator, in Khal’s account, is not just an unthinking instrument in the hands of power: he is a participant in the violence, an agent of political oppression, but also a victim of economic dispossession. Khal’s depiction of the narrator’s extended family and neighbours – particularly his bravely disapproving aunt, from whose eyes the sparks of the title emanate – reflects an entire society caught up in the horror of inequality and the absurdity of power.

Of course, this year’s shortlist does not reflect the entirety of contemporary Arabic literature, but there can be plenty of merit in six books. While the bickering will inevitably continue well beyond the announcement of the winning title on March 2, it is important to note that not one of these books is in any sense unworthy of the award. Reasonable critics can disagree whether they are the absolute best or most innovative on offer. I for one, was surprised to see that the Iraqi novelist Ali Badr, a prolific chronicler of Baghdad who combines engaging plots with a sharp and versatile intellect, failed for the third time to make it from the longlist to the shortlist, this time for Mulouk ar Rimal (Sand Kings).

It was similarly disappointing to see the exclusion of the Egyptian novelist Ibrahim Farghali’s Abnaa al Gabalawai (Children of Gabalawi), which represents the vanguard of a home-grown Egyptian magical realism that is very different from its Latin American counterpart. But it seems indisputable that these six books are in fact reasonably representative of contemporary Arabic literature. And regardless of the extent to which the “Arabic Booker” remains dogged by ungrounded accusations of favouritism, this year’s shortlist demonstrates that, while writers and publishers may not be entirely immune to such faults, the literature they produce remains a strong statement against them.

Youssef Rakha, a regular contributor to the Review, is the author of Beirut shi mahal (Beirut Some Place) and Borguiba ’ala madad (Borguiba Reluctantly). He lives in Cairo.

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