What Did the ‘Arabic Booker’ Judges Debate During the Longlist Discussions?

Not to go too “Arabic Booker” crazy, but International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) administrator Fleur Montanaro was recently on the BBC’s The Strand discussing the longlist for the 2013 prize.

Fleur_Montanaro.-Credit---Graham-FudgerFirst, Montanaro was asked what the debates were about so far this year. Of course, she was unable to mention the names of the five judges, but:

There was debate about the use of dialect in novels. Usually that’s fine in conversation, but where it becomes extreme, as one judge said, that can be off-putting, as one Moroccan person won’t understand an Iraqi necessarily, and generally about the Arab Spring, because that was a topic that featured a lot in the 133, we had 39 Egyptian authors, and I think many of them felt almost an obligation to bring that in somewhere, not necessarily successfully.

Montanaro was also asked about — Arab Spring aside — common themes:

There were love stories — more individual, more personal — and also Iraq featured heavily, with torture being a theme that was quite prominent, and again not always successfully, sometimes just gore. But there’s one or two Iraqi novels on the longlist, one dealing with Christian minorities in Iraq, by Sinan Antoon, called Oh Mary,* and another a kind of panoramic 50-year view from the point of view of three friends and how the historic events that have influenced their lives, called The President’s Gardens by Muhsin al-Ramli.

Last, Montanaro was asked what’s special about the International Prize for Arabic Fiction?

Many prizes in the Arab world are either local to that country or unfortunately marred by personal interests. Our prize genuinely prides itself, and strives toward, integrity and transparency. As an international prize, because it brings writers from the Arab world, it shines a spotlight on them in the West, and in Brazil and China, since the novels have actually been translated into over 20 languages. … We just had a novel that was shortlisted in the first year of the prize translated into Chinese.

*The book’s title is Ya Maryam, and Antoon has expressed that his preferred translation of the title is Ave Maria. I’m not sure who came up with “Oh Mary.”

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