The ‘Arabic Booker’: Not Enough Women, Marginalized Groups? What’s a Prize To Do?

In a somewhat rambling but very informative piece on the Saudi Gazette, Susannah Tarbush asks “where are the women?” on the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, or “Arabic Booker,” shortlist.

Indeed, we knew that this question was coming, or implied, as any number of articles noted “Mansoura ez-Eldin is the only woman” on the shortlist. Ez-Eldin also seems to be the face of this year’s shortlist: I saw several articles that featured her cute thirty-two-year-old mug. I saw exactly none with a photo of her countryman Muhammad Al-Mansi Qindeel, now in his mid-sixties.

Tarbush’s piece further quotes a PhD student as saying “the judging panel should have more women, ‘and of course more representatives of other marginalised groups – in the wider sense of the word.’”

Welcome, I suppose, to lit-prize politics.

Goodness knows I have nothing against women, marginalized groups, or the wider sense of words. Tarbush points out there are a number of women on the Beirut39 list (39 up-and-coming Arab writers under 40), but doesn’t note how many of those came out with books last year. More to the point, how many came out with good books last year?

I don’t feel the need to defend the IPAF: I know nothing about its inner, tiny, secret workings, and moreover I find myself at odds with the judges over the inaguaral winner, Bahaa Taher’s Sunset Oasis. I might add that one could call the book’s treatment of its female characters wooden, or even—if you like the word—sexist. (My choice for the 2007-2008 prize would’ve been Sonallah Ibrahim’s Stealth, which was not even on the shortlist. Of course, my revision does not address the women/marginalized people/non-Egyptians issue.)

It’s true that the solitary female judge resigned from the panel the day the shortlist was announced, citing a lack of dialogue and openness.  But I accept her word on why: Let’s grant the judging process needs more dialogue and openness. I imagine there are flaws in the process—why not? Still, let’s not forget that the prize is administered by Joumana Haddad, who I’m fairly sure is aware of gender issues.

So, yes, the IPAF website is horrible. Yes, the judging process might need more dialogue and democracy. Yes, Sonallah Ibrahim should’ve won for Stealth. But, on the plus side, the IPAF is bringing Arabic-language literature to a higher profile than it’s had in the West, perhaps, you know, ever.