International Prize for Arabic Fiction Shortlist Features Young, Lesser-known Authors

The International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) shortlist, just announced in Tunis, does not feature many of the acclaimed authors who were found on the longlist, such as Elias Khoury, Hoda Barakat, Muhsin al-Ramli, Waciny Laredj, Ibrahim Nasrallah, and 2012 IPAF laureate Rabee Jaber. 

Instead, the shortlist — chosen by a judging panel headed up by Egyptian writer and economist Galal Amin — is unexpected.

In alphabetical order, as given in the news release:

Title Author On ArabLit Publisher
Ave Maria Sinan Antoon Profile & more Al-Jamal
I, She and Other Women Jana Elhassan Profile & interview Arab Scientific Publishers
The Beaver Mohammed Hassan Alwan Profile & interview Dar al-Saqi
Our Master Ibrahim Issa Profile & more Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation
The Bamboo Stick Saud Alsanousi Profile & more Arab Scientific Publishers
His Excellency the Minister Hussein Al-Wad Profile & more Dar al-Janub

For Lebanese author Jana Elhassan, Kuwaiti Saud Alsanousi, and Saudi Mohammad Hassan Alwan, these were second novels, and all three novelists are well under 40.  It was also a second novel for Hussein al-Wad, who wrote His Excellency the Minister under the Ben Ali regime, but long kept it in a drawer. Al-Wad published his first novel in 2011, and his second, His Excellency, in 2012.

Shortlist announcement: Image from Katy MacMillan-Scott.
Shortlist announcement: Image from Katy MacMillan-Scott.

Ibrahim Issa’s name is certainly well-known, but more as a journalist than as a novelist. Of the group, perhaps only Sinan Antoon is widely known as a novelist, a poet, a translator. This is Antoon’s third novel — his first, I’jaam, is available in English translation, and his second will be released as The Corpse Washer later this year.

Antoon said over email, “I didn’t expect this shortlist either, but these things are often quite unpredictable!”

In general, the shortlist seems to emphasize page-turning novels over more experimental works, which is a criticism that has been levied at the English-language Booker Prize (more than once). Indeed, judging chair Galal Amin is himself an author who puts accessibility at the forefront of his project. Amin also has been criticized for being conservative by those who remember his attack on Mohammad Choukri’s For Bread Alone, a book here defended by Naguib Mahfouz.

According to the news release, Amin said:

 “The members of the committee feel extremely pleased that they were able to select an excellent shortlist of newly written Arabic novels, which bring to the fore several evolving talents around the Arab world. The committee is gratified to note that outstanding creativity is common across Arab countries and generations of writers.”

Shortlisted author Jana Elhassan, who earlier did an interview with ArabLit about her writing journey, was the first to check in with her feelings about being on the shortlist:

“Do you know the feeling when everything seems turning upside down, when everything you endured in life starts to have a reason? I feel like a little girl who just got a home full of candies and wants to share it with the world. I feel like I want to tell everyone to believe in themselves and go chase their dreams. I feel in love with life!”

The judges were announced as: Egyptian academic and writer Galal Amin (Chair); Lebanese academic and critic Sobhi al-Boustani; Ali Ferzat, who is head of the Arab Cartoonists’ Association, and owner and chief editor of the independent Syrian daily newspaper Al-Domari; Polish academic and Professor of Arabic Literature at the Arts College of the Jagiellonian University of Cracow, Barbara Michalak-Pikulska, and Professor Zahia Smail Salhi, specialist in Arabic Literature Classical and Modern and Gender Studies at Manchester University.


The winner will be announced at an awards ceremony in Abu Dhabi on April 23 of this year.

Twitter reaction, particularly to Galal Amin as the jury chair:

WalidMalouf ‏@WaMalouf@arablit the same Gala[l] Amin who highly praised Aswani’s Chicago? No wonder why many people don’t believe in IPAF lists.. What do you think?
susannah tarbush ‏@starbie99seems that IPAF (Arabic Booker) judges, chaired by Egyptian Galal Amin, went for a big injection of fresh literary blood with shortlist
hesham aslan @heshamaslan1  جلال أمين رئيسا للجنة تحكيم بوكر الرواية العربية؟!!!

(Trans: Galal Amin, chair of the Arabic Booker jury?!!!)