‘Arabic Booker’ Shortlist: The Coverage, the Controversy, the Predictions

The Coverage

Al Masry Al Youm: Two Egyptians on ‘Arabic Booker’ Shortlist

Over at Al Masry Al Youm, I have a very “hometown, Egypt” take on the six-long shortlist for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), announced yesterday in Doha.

For those of you just tuning in, the six are: Khaled al-Berry (for Middle Eastern Dance) and Miral al-Tahawy (for Brooklyn Heights); Raja Alem (for The Doves’ Necklace) Amir Taj al-Sir (for The Hunter of the Chrysalises) Bensalem Himmich (for My Tormentor) and Mohammed Achaari (for The Arch and the Butterfly).

I briefly focus on the work of the two Egyptians on the list—al-Berry and al-Tahawy—and how their works explore the lives of Egyptians abroad.

Al-Berry said that being shortlisted for the IPAF (popularly known as the “Arabic Booker”) makes a big difference for him as a novelist:

[It means] that I can say that I’m a novelist, write with more confidence, feel that my work has a chance of recognition. It’s also put my name on the map, which is really important for unknown name like myself.

Youm 7 also has had heavy coverage of the prize, and a particular focus on its various controversies.

The paper notes that shortlister Miral al-Tahawy expressed regret that Khairy Shalaby’s Istasia had not made the list, and Gamal al-Ghitani—although praising those who did make the shortlist—also regretted the absence of Istasia. The critics asked byYoum7 for their pre-announcement predictions mentioned, among others, the novels by Himmich, Al-Tahawy, Alem, and…Khairy Shalaby.

Youm7 also has followed who refused to be nominated for the prize (Radwa Ashour, Gamal al-Ghitani).

Most of the rest of the coverage I’ve seen largely regurgitates the press release (Reuters wins for the most creative headline, “Torture and tragedy top Arabic Fiction award list”.) But of course, there’s also:

The Controversy

Al Ahram Online: Receiving the Shortlist for Arabic Booker prize

Sayed Mahmoud has a good roundup of all the criticisms and conspiracies surrounding this year’s prize, with a focus on which Egyptians weren’t on the shortlist and why.

Al Jazeera: ‘Arabic Booker’ Shortlist Announced at News Conference in Doha

This year, journalists (and the public) had a chance to question several of the IPAF judges—including chair Fadhil al-Azzawi—at an afternoon press conference in Doha.

Al Jazeera reports that judges were pressed to clarify their criteria, which Iraqi novelist and poet al-Azzawi apparently said were language, depth, and significance (فقال العزاوي في استدراكه إن المعايير عامة كاللغة الجيدة والعمق وأهمية العالم الذي تتعامل معه الرواية). Journalists, according to Al Jazeera, expressed “surprise” that the shortlist contained both a former Moroccan Minister of Culture (Mohammad Achaari) and the current one (Bensalem Himmich).

While I am not familiar with Achaari’s work, I must say that—regardless of his current job—Himmich is a world-class writer.

Also, having two Egyptians and two Moroccans were on the list of six apparently seemed like over-representation to some. Jordanian judge Amjad Nasser told attendees of the press conference that a large proportion of the candidates had come from Egypt and Morocco. (And, in any case, if the six best books had come from Bahrain…well, what matters are the books!)

The Predictions

Over on Facebook (is Facebook public domain?), translator Richard Jacquemond was undaunted by Amina Zaydan’s pronouncement that a woman couldn’t win the 2011 IPAF. He declared, “I’ve already read Miral’s, I bet on her!”

And since I did say “predictions,” plural, I’d be delighted to hear yours. Although it needn’t be today: After all, we have plenty of time before the award is announced March 14 in Abu Dhabi.


  1. Hello there, no problem with quoting my “prediction” on FB – but that was probably more wishful thinking than anything else. Many considerations other than literary interfere in the final choice of literary prizes in general and this one is no exception – much more than any judge will ever admit! And choosing a woman might be one of those consideration. As regards the two Moroccan novels, I think that is almost as important as having two women on the shortlist, since Arabic literature from the Maghrib has been (and is still to some extent) consistently marginalized by the dominant Mashriqi literary scene. That their authors be former and current ministers of Culture just shows that the political authorities down there are more prone than most of their Arab peers to entrust first rank writers and intellectuals with top political functions. Which is not necessarily a guarantee of success (ask the Moroccans their opinion of Himmich as Culture minister…)

    1. Yes, I suppose I’m always trying to shield myself from the extent that literary awards (across the world) are full of horse-trading.

      And indeed, when my husband raised his eyebrows after I told him that two Moroccan culture ministers (current and former) were on the list, I had to tell him: No, no, it’s not at all like Farouk Hosni winning a major art prize…

      Have just started Brooklyn Heights, and am quite enjoying it. But I would make a terrible book-maker; I throw up my hands and give them all equal odds.

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