‘Arabic Booker’: Should It Stay Or Should It Go Now?

It’s Friday, so let’s run down some of the major criticisms of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF):

*Where the award money comes from, and what the prize ultimately attempts to accomplish.

*That judges focus too much on “geographical distribution”; making sure all the shortlisted novels, for instance, don’t come from Egypt.

*That judges focus on books that will be interesting and accessible to a Western/international audience, selecting books that explore the cross-cultural (Brooklyn Heights, Oriental Dance) and the Westerners’ favorite: “taboo-breaking” (The Doves’ Necklace).

*That these sorts of literary prizes create a horse-race atmosphere, which encourages authors to “write to the prize” instead of following an artistic or socio-artistic vision.

*That there’s no clear judging criteria or judging process, and mediocre books get in ahead of the good (or great, or fantastic). For instance, how Cairo Swan Song made the 2007 shortlist ahead of Elias Khoury’s As Though She Were Sleeping. How Amina Zaydan’s Red Wine wasn’t there at all. (Yes, I imagine that Sonallah Ibrahim didn’t sign up to have his Stealth in competition.)

Further hobbling the award, a number of prominent authors—Radwa Ashour, whose Tantoureya surely should’ve been on a 2011 shortlist; and Gamal al-Ghitani—have publicly refused to be nominated for the prize.

On the positive side:

*The prize has managed to respond to some criticisms, such as the extreme gender disbalance of the first couple years. (Organizers, somehow or another, managed to get publishers to submit books written by women.)

*The judges don’t seem to be fighting with one another this year, and no one has resigned in protest.

*Shortlisted Raja Alem, in an interview this week with Arab News, said: “I am against competing as a rule, but when my publisher suggested putting my book forward, I was motivated to achieve two goals, one of which is to support Booker’s cause and ensure its continuity, as achievements in the literary field are rarely recognized.”

*Alem also said: “Focusing on 16, then six novels, in the Arab world, is like igniting a spark in a dead scene.”

*Speaking to Youm7, Egyptian critic Dr. Gaber Asfour said that this year’s committee had rectified previous problems, and added that this year’s shortlist is “logical and the choices are balanced between young and older novelists, indicating that there is conscious and knowledgeable thought behind the list.” (Although who said the list should be balanced? Shouldn’t it just be…good?)

*The award brings international attention to Arabic literature and is certainly a boon for the shortlisted authors.

What do you think? Is the IPAF is irredeemably flawed? Can we work to improve it? Is it just right the way it is?


Ahram Online reviews Khaled Al-Berry’s A Middle Eastern Dance, shortlisted for the 2011 prize, although it’s perhaps more of a summary than a critical review.

From ArabNews, a discussion with Raja Alem: Saudi woman writer nominated for coveted Arabic Booker prize

Note what a contrast this award makes with the new Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature, which is a bigger award (1 million dirhams). Perhaps the relative lack of international attention is a good thing. Plus, who can argue with Al Noqta al-Sooda (The Black Dot) as being worthy of a million dirhams?