Without the swell of uprisings that sparked in Tunisia on December 17, 2010, this might well have been Adonis’s Nobel year.
The Syrian poet’s German translator, Stefan Weidner, argues in Qantara that there have been a “flood of awards for Arab writers this year” and these “can only be explained by the democratic awakening in the Arab world.” However, Weidner goes on to name just four, one of which was an award for a publisher.
There have indeed been a flood of Arab/Arabic literary events in Europe and the U.K. But awards have been relatively few. Weidner says: (1) Francophone Moroccan author Tahar Ben Jelloun won a literary peace prize. Ben Jelloun is so accomplished that awards for him shouldn’t be a surprise, although yes, “particular emphasis was placed on his latest collection of essays, Arab Spring (2011).” The Peace Prize of the German book trade (2) went to Boualem Sansal, a Francophone Algerian author whose The German Mujahid links Nazism and Islamism in perhaps a too-straightforward way. Dar Merit publisher Mohammed Hashim (3) took a long overdue Hermann Kesten Prize from the PEN club.
After (4), the Goethe Prize for Adonis, Weidner writes, “The only one that’s missing is the Nobel Prize.”
Well, no, there’s also the Man Booker International and the Neustadt and a host of other international literary awards.
But in any case, if there’s anything that glues together this rather short list of Arabs who’ve won international literary prizes in 2011 it’s that all of them are over 50, all of them are pretty strongly secular, verging on anti-religion, and—with the exception of publisher Mohammed Hashim—none live in Arab countries. If this is a way to salute the so-called “Arab spring,” it’s a rather odd one.
Indeed, if the Goethe judges intended to “salute” the Arab uprisings—considering Adonis’s strange relationship to the protests in Syria, noted both by Weidner and Sinan Antoon—then their salute is rather more of a head-pat, an insistence that we all go secular down here, you hear?
Adonis has been up for other awards this year: He was shortlisted for the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize, along with translator Khaled Mattawa, and Mattawa won a PEN translation award this year for his work on Adonis: Selected Poems. But those, I believe, were just because Adonis is good (and beautifully translated by Mattawa) and not because of his somewhat outdated politics.
In another world, without the hope that uprisings have brought us, and with a gorgeous new English-language collection under his arm, Adonis might finally have had a chance at attracting the Nobel committee’s attention. His chances now were in any case much better than they were in 1988, when the “Arabic” Nobel went to Naguib Mahfouz. Indeed, Yale University Publishers had noted, back in fall 2010, that they planned to send a whole box over to the Swedish committee.
But then other things happened at the end of 2010.
So, 2011 is the year of many (many!) things, but I doubt it’s the year of Adonis’s Nobel.
Of course, Arab writers are up for international literary prizes every year because, among other reasons, they write good books every year. Scanning through my literary-prize category from last year, I find, among others, El-Mahdi Acherchour, Fouad Laroui, Fady Joudah, Khaled Mattawa, Adania Shibli, Amin Maalouf, Bahaa Taher, Hassan Blasim, Elias Khoury, and Joumana Haddad being listed for or winning international prizes.
Categories: Nobel Prize for Literature