The International Prize for Arabic Fiction’s First 5 Years: A Look Back

Contributor Amira Abd El-Khalek attended the recent fifth anniversary look at the Interational Prize for Arabic Fiction that took place at this year’s London LitFest. She very generously wrote up her observations:

By Amira Abd El-Khalek

Paul Blezard chaired the conversation between literary translator Jonathan Wright, 2012 IPAF judge Maudie Bitar, and IPAF trustee Marie-Thérèse Abdel-Messih.

The International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) celebrates its fifth anniversary this year. The London Literature Festival held at the Southbank Centre on 6th July marked this occasion with a conversation about the prize itself, the works that were written, and how they are disseminated in the Arab world and the West.

The conversation was between IPAF Trustee and Professor of English Literature Marie-Thérèse Abdel-Messih; Maudie Bitar, Lebanese journalist, literary critic and judge of IPAF 2012; and literary translator Jonathan Wright, whose English translation of 2009 winner Azazeel has recently been published. The discussion was chaired by Paul Blezard, broadcaster, writer and literary presenter. Among the audience was Andy Smart, consultant publisher at the Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation and Margaret Obank, Banipal publisher. The event was an open forum involving the audience and ended with a reading from this year’s IPAF winner, Rabee Jaber’s The Druze of Belgrade, by Professor Marie-Thérèse Abdel-Messih.

The Role of the Trustee for IPAF:

Outside, at the LitFest.

According to professor Abdel-Messih, the IPAF trustees are a mixture of writers, readers, critics, and publishers from the Arab world and the West. They meet three times a year to organize the prize. They choose the judges but do not interfere in the judging process.

The Nadwa:

The Nadwa, which is associated with IPAF and was started in 2009, is designed to encourage emerging writers. These are selected from different parts of the Arab world and go in residence in the UAE for a week, where they attend writing workshops under the guidance of two mentors. What they produce is then published and translated into English. The unique element of the Nadwa is its international aspect as opposed to other local writing workshops available in the Arab world.

The Emirates Foundation, which has funded the nadwa and the prize, is now handing over to the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture who has become the sole funder, in addition to help in kind from other organisations.

What the IPAF represents in the Arab World:

From Jonathan Wright’s point of view, the IPAF has made a significant impact on the Arab world because it is transnational. Most prizes before that tended to be national prizes within the countries. Also, the prize itself is an enormous incentive for cultural productivity. Shortlisted authors receive $10,000 and the winner receives an additional $50,000, with the guarantee that the novel will be translated and published in English.

“This,” he says, “by standards of the Arab literary market, is a huge incentive for cultural production, which also attracts a lot of attention to the winner and to the shortlist so it helps people who report on literature to get a framework in which to place the various books that are coming out.”

The provision that the winner of the prize is automatically translated and published in English, in Wright’s view however, is controversial, or rather, anomalous and reflects the imbalance between Western and Arab cultural production. He sees that though it is not necessarily a bad thing, it might give preferential treatment to a Western audience. It also “has some adverse side effects by skewing the type of production you’re getting from the Arab world. Arab authors might end up finding incentive to produce for Western audience or giving preferential treatment for a Western audience.” He adds, “It seems a little odd that people should be writing in one language and primarily addressing themselves to an audience of another language.”

Maudie Bitar, on the other hand, asserted that translation is one of the benefits of the IPAF and there is nothing wrong with writers who are writing towards translation and being publishing in the Western world. She felt there are a lot of commonalities now in the human condition and the experiences of people in the West and the Arab world, and perhaps the exotic element that people used to look for in A Thousand and One Nights does not exist any more.

Maudie Bitar

A lot of Arabs live in the West and, although they try to maintain essential aspects of their own culture, they become different whether they like it or not. “There is a universal element here”, she says, “and what makes IPAF prestigious and different from other awards is that many of the authors are being translated into one or more European languages. I think it’s a very positive thing and it should be encouraged, and I hope that people in the Arab world keep sponsoring this prize to be recognized and to find an audience in the world.”

The Role of the Judge:

As a judge for this year’s IPAF, Maudie Bitar gave us insight into the judging process. She mentioned that a novel is judged based on the range of the narrative, the portrayal of characters, the way the narrative progresses, and the fluidity of the language itself. She admits that it, in the end, it is subjective and it depends on what matters most to you as a judge when you read the book whether it is the characters, the language or the building up of a certain condition.

The Benefits of the Prize:

From Wright’s point of view, the longlist and the shortlist get a lot of attention. This has led publishers to pick up on translations of those works. Many of the shortlisted books get published, not just the winner. Paul Blezard wondered whether or not that would lead to a Western readership – now seeing Arabic fiction in translation through the prism of the IPAF and some of the published works of Bloomsbury Qatar – only getting a few details of Arabic fiction while there is indeed a much broader spectrum.

The prize secretary, who was present in the audience, and in response to Bitar’s belief that because the shortlist is so good, more than one work should be translated, added that there is a fund for other translations. Part of the value of the prize is an English translation, and efforts are being made to provide a translation for all the shortlisted works. The IPAF has received requests for translations not only in English, but also in German and Italian, even Japanese and Chinese. She said, “These requests usually come from publishers who are interested, but for whom it’s not going to be for them a viable proposition to pay for the translation. We take view that we’re happy to pay for translations but the publisher has to take responsibility for the commercial side of it, for publishing and promoting the book.” Even though the fund is there, she asserts, books still take a long time to be published.

The Selection Process:

Every publisher submits three novels. A publisher who has previously submitted a novel that has been shortlisted is able to nominate a fourth work to give a better chance for emerging writers. The judges also have the right to submit one novel.

Marie-Thérèse Abdel-Messih

There are five judges, and they are not revealed until the longlist has been announced. In 2012, the themes of the novels revolved around estrangement, belonging, ideology, existential conflicts that Arab writers are going through and border situations. Though according to Marie-Thérèse Abdel-Messih, “We can’t view citizens as nationals. We are all partly national and partly cosmopolitan. The Druze of Belgrade includes a lot of conflicts between religious sects in one Arab society. So it involves intra-Arab relations not just relations between Arabs and the West. This is becoming more magnified nowadays as a result of the political scene; one can become an outsider or estranged in one’s own society.”

Islamic Fiction – Does Such a Thing Exist?

Jonathn Wright

According to Jonathan Wright, there are perceptions of what a Western audience would want to read. From his point of view, they are quite open to quality, whatever the form. For example, the immense success of the Yacoubian Building was in its structure. It was a kind of Victorian novel of sorts, with its plot and portrayal of characters. Readers want a good story, and Alaa Al-Aswany is a good storyteller. It is very Egyptian, not a book that addresses the outside world. But a Western audience is happy to take it on because it fits within the Western mould of what we expect of a novel.

Bitar disagreed. She believes that it is the scandalous nature of Al-Aswany’s novel that appealed to Western audiences, as did Hanan El-Sheikh’s novels years ago. What Al-Aswany writes about is what the Western world wants to read: about homosexuality, Islamic fundamentalism and sexual frustration. Abdel-Messih sees that the success of Al-Aswany in the West is due to the success of the translator.

In any case, she asserts, he is a populist and has raised a new readership. Intellectuals however, do not accept him because his writing is not savoured; it doesn’t last after you read it.

Blezard touched upon the cultural difference between both readerships: while Arab readers expect Arabic novelists to be intellectual, Western readers prefer a populist storyteller who is successful. For example, more people read Dan Brown than Julian Barnes. Wright’s response was “the reading public in the Arab world has been extremely small because the spot that was available was for pretentious literary works, but the emergence of more popular literature has opened up a new field for marketing”.

Circulation of Arab Writers in the West:

From the point of view of the publisher of Bloomsbury Qatar, “The biggest selling books are actually the original Arabic texts. In Arabic, not in translation. The new Ibrahim Eissa novel is into its second printing in two months. That is over 3000 copies in two months. And that’s successful.”

He added that in translation, it is hard to break a new novelist through into the English reading market but that Ahmed Khaled Tawfik’s Utopia for example, published in 2008, has attracted good attention.

The discussion ended with a question from the audience on whether there has been an improvement in the quality of writing since the IPAF emerged 5 years ago. The panel concluded that there has indeed been an improvement. The incentives are there and more young people are taking the initiative to write. The IPAF has enabled Arabs to read from each other for though there has always been good writing in the Arab world, it has been suppressed by political factors. Moreover, the way Arab writers are practicing their craft nowadays is different. The language is less lyrical, except maybe in the Gulf, and it is becoming more minimal, the language is not as excessive as it used to be. It has become much more succinct and to the point.

Editor’s questions: Is the (alleged) phenomenon of Arab authors writing toward/for a Western audience a problem? Is the IPAF “improving” Arabic fiction? We’d love your thoughts.

Amira Abd El-Khalek studied English literature and anthropology in Egypt and the UK. She has held academic positions at Ain Shams University and the American University in Cairo and has worked in national and international NGOs. She is an avid reader in English and Arabic, enjoys writing and is passionate about films.

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