In conversation with Kaouther Jelassi, International Prize for Arabic Fiction judge Sobhi al-Boustani introduced himself as “a professor of Modern Arabic literature at INALCO, that is the Institut National de langues de civilisation orientales (National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations) in Paris, and in fact I am directing the Arab Studies Department at this institute. I was asked to be a part of the jury for the 2013 International Prize for Arab Fiction and accepted with great pleasure.”

 Credit: Yahya Gabous
Credit: Yahya Gabous

KJ: Thank you. Seeing as there are so many works, that is, authors who have written so many interesting novels, how have you — how were you able to narrow it down to such a limited number of choices, down to six novels?

SB: You know how it works. There were 133 novels, and we read them all. At the same time, we kept notes for each book, and we take notes on the content, we note all our observations on the technique, the style, the narrative method, and we take all of this into consideration. And of course we see if the novel has interesting dialogue, whether it has a profound] underlying idea, does it have a problem – a case, that is does it address any particular issue.

So we take all of this into consideration, and then after that we sort them out. There are some novels that we regret after reading them. In order to be fair, whenever we start a novel, and we can see that it’s not going very well, we’re not enjoying it, we tell ourselves, perhaps after 100 pages it’s going to get going, and in this way we get to read all the novels.

We also use marks. For example I will mark a part of a work A, A+, B, B+, C, C+, I would review all my marks, I would compare them, I would reread the texts. As you know every choice has its difficulties. But we have to select.

We try to look at all the pros and cons, and choose the novel that has that little extra something compared to the others. This doesn’t mean that the other novels don’t deserve it, or that they are bad, no. But we have to choose 16, like in all competitions, and after these 16, that’s not to say that the 17th pick would have been bad. We just have to stop at 16.

And for the 6, it’s the same. We discuss amongst one another at length, we consider one another’s opinions, we each look at how the other has viewed it, and that’s it. To be sure this is not an easy decision, it’s one that engages us profoundly, because after all the stakes are high, and we are conscious of that. This takes time. A lot.

KJ: Thank you very much

SB: You are welcome.

Enormous thanks to Fatma Makki and Sophie Chergui for help with the translation. I promise, I will study my French.