Arabic Booker 2011 ‘Lacks Integrity’?

Last year, the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) was lambasted for its shortage of female authors—only one woman had been on each of the first three years’ shortlists—and this year it gets grief for ballyhooing its nearly 50-50 ratio of longlisted women (7) to men (9).

Review AE blogger “Yahya” takes issue with media attention to the longlist’s nationalities and gender ratio, and even greater issue with the organizers’ own focus on gender parity.

If there was a question that IPAF was lacking integrity before, there is no question about it now. What ever happened to impartiality? Did it ever exist with this award? Hopefully the 2012 shortlist when announced next year, can concentrate on the quality of the books nominated and not so much on issues that should really be considered as irrelevant.

I won’t address whether gender parity is irrelevant, although it has never been at the top of my radar with this award. In the end, I don’t think that organizers’ PR has a long-term impact on the award’s credibility. More women, more Gulf Arabs, fewer Gulf Arabs, whatever.

On the other hand, I have found a number of books on the IPAF shortlists that have not impressed me. For instance, I can’t quite fathom how Mekkawi Said’s Cairo Swan Song made the shortlist in 2007, when Sonallah Ibrahim’s Stealth was out on the market and Elias Khoury’s As Though She Were Sleeping made the longlist, but not the short.

In the long run, what matters to an award’s credibility is the quality of the books it celebrates. An award can’t always support the best of all possible books (perhaps Stealth wasn’t sent in by دار المستقبل العربي; perhaps it got lost in the mail; perhaps no one will give Ibrahim an award any more after his brilliant 2003 turn-down), but those books it rewards should all, you know, be pretty darn good.

Among my favorite shortlisted books thus far (in English) is Habib Selmi’s Scents of Marie-Claire (AUC Press), although I don’t favor the translation.