From my commentary on The Guardian:
The International Prize for Arabic Fiction – or, as it’s popularly known, the “Arabic Booker” – has attracted a wealth of controversy in its first four years. A number of prominent authors have refused to let their books be nominated for the prize, which has been accused of, among other things, being too closely allied with governmental powers, discriminating against women and rewarding novels that cater to western interests.
One commentator suggested that the favourite to win the 2011 prize – which was awarded yesterday – was Sudanese author Amir Tag al-Sir. This wasn’t so much because of the quality of el-Sir’s novel (although this was acknowledged), but because he was neither Egyptian nor Saudi (the nationalities of previous winners), and was neither a former Moroccan minister of culture (like the shortlisted author Mohammed Achaari) nor the current one (the shortlisted Bensalem Himmich).
But the five judges didn’t opt for this “winner of least controversy”. Instead, they chose to split the prize between The Doves’ Necklace, by Saudi novelist Raja Alem, and The Arch and the Butterfly, by Moroccan politician, journalist and author Achaari. In so doing, IPAF organizers have their first female winner (well, half of one) and (half of) their first winner from the Maghreb region.