Q&A with Galal Amin: ‘The Novels That We Loved Seemed to Be More or Less The Same’

Chair of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction judges in 2013, Galal Amin introduced himself by saying: “I am an economist originally, or mainly, but I am also very interested in literature, and novels of all kinds. And I have written quite a bit in literary criticism. And I don’t mind at all being chosen or working in a committee like that.”

galal_amin_smKaouther  Jellassi: The press release that came out with the longlist was a little confusing where it touched on the “Arab Spring.” Some were unsure whether you meant the Arab Spring could not (yet) be written about or whether these particular novels that addressed it had not been successful? What is your view?

Galal Amin: I don’t really mind people trying to write about the Arab spring. But I think, with works of literature, it’s far too early. You know, you can write a good political analysis of the Arab Spring. But to write good fiction after — after only two years of revolution is a bit too early.

KJ: There were a lot of worthy books on the longlist this year. How difficult were the discussions in coming to an agreement on a shortlist of just six?

GA: Actually, we found it rather easy. And I was nicely surprised. That actually the opinion of the five members were very close to each other. And the novels that we loved seemed to be more or less the same. We didn’t quarrel a lot. At all. There were some novels where there was some difference of opinion, whether it would rank number three or number four or number five, but that was very limited, luckily, so we found it rather easy to settle our differences.

KJ: Another question was raised in an interview that Fleur Montanaro, the prize administrator, gave shortly after the longlist was released. She indicated that nominated books were a tough sell if they used a lot of 3ameya. Could you clarify your thoughts on that?

GA: I am not aware that this was ever an issue. With regard to the use of 3ameya, or colloquial  there is you know a very big difference of opinion on that. And it is a problem which is very difficult to solve. You know, sometimes the use of 3ameya ranks very high. You can produce something exceedingly beautiful and appealing and useful by using 3ameya. But also 3ameya could be terribly low and vulgar and does not achieve what a good literary work should. So we have to be very careful. But we never discussed this in our discussion, and the reason is — I remember — that one person once mentioned that in one particular novel, he did not object to the use of colloquial, but that it was too heavy.

You know, I mean, the use of colloquial also can vary. There are some colloquial words or phrases which are very close to the fos7a. Or to the classical Arabic. And there are others which are too colloquial, too local, to be understood, and to be even accepted. You see what I mean? This was sometimes raised, but we never spent too much time on it. We luckily, we found that that novel that creates the problem was weak on other grounds.

KJ: You spoke about one of the novels on the panel. What was great about that novel, really special about it?

GA: We were asked to divide the six novels among us five, so everyone would choose a novel to speak about, and one would speak about two. I chose this one — which is Ana, w Heyya, w el Ukhrayat (I, She, and the Others) — by a Lebanese writer called Jana Elhassan. It’s not that it’s necessarily the best of the six, I don’t want to commit myself there, but I loved it. And I found it really breaking new ground. And her treatment of the psychology of the Arab woman was extraordinarily successful. That’s what [I found special about it].