Four Judges on Making Their Selections for the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction

When the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) shortlist was announced on February 10 in Amman, Jordan, the identities of the five judges were just as much a part of the surprise as the identities of the six novels. Here, we look at the IPAF judges, who — with the exception of Mehmet Hakkı Suçin, hospitalized at the time of the announcement — were interviewed by 7iber staff:

The judges at the shortlist announcement. Photo credit: Hussam Da'ana
The judges at the shortlist announcement. Photo credit: Hussam Da’ana

The identities of IPAF judges are supposed to be kept secret for the first two stages of the process: the selection of the IPAF longlist and the winnowing down to a six-novel shortlist. This secrecy is to prevent any apperance of tampering. Whether it really serves any anti-tampering function is open to debate, but, with the exception of 2010, it has worked smoothly, keeping judges out of the limelight until the shortlist announcement. 

Each year, the five IPAF judges are chosen by the IPAF trustees, who are supposed to have one meeting with the the year’s judging chair. “And from that point,” prize administrator Fleur Montanaro said in a 2011 interview, “there should be no contact between the trustees and the judges, so that the judges are free and independent and impartial.”

Last year, some critics questioned the trustees’ choice of judges. Two of the judges were “nonspecialists,” including the chair of the judges, economist and memoirist Galal Amin. This year, the judging committee is entirely made up of novelists or academics who teach and write about the Arabic novel.

As 7iber’s Doa Ali notes, at least two of this year’s Arab judges are part of official government bodies. The chair of the judges, Saudi academic Saad Albazei, is a member of Saudi Arabia’s Consultative Assembly. Iraqi judge Abdullah Ibrahim, who won the 2014 King Faisal Prize for Arabic Language and Literature, is a cultural adviser at the Emir’s court in Qatar.

The other three judges are Turkish Arabist and academic Mehmet Hakkı Suçin, Moroccan novelist Zhor Gourram, and Libyan novelist Ahmed al-Faitouri.

What follows are excerpts from interviews with four of the judges: Ahmed al-Faitouri, Zhor Gourram, Abdullah Ibrahim, and chair of the judges Saad al-Bazei. An interview with Suçin will follow, insha’allah.

Ahmed al-Faitouri

Al-Faitouri at the shortlist announcement. Photo credit: Hussam Da'ana
Al-Faitouri at the shortlist announcement. Photo credit: Hussam Da’ana

7iber: What was the thing which you most wanted to read during the judging process which is usually not found in stories?

AF: The large number of novels which we saw — numbering more than 150 — addressed various issues. There is no doubt that there is only one winning novel, but this does not mean that the rest of the novels are not important ones or do not address important issues. We are the judging committee, and it is not just I alone or any one individual who nominates novels. There are various topics and themes and many styles of writing. There is a powerful narrative novelist who is well known who did not win.

7: In your opinion, which novels are the most important in the shortlist?

AF: I do not want to select any because there is more than one which I am partial to on a personal level and I am inclined towards them, but they did not reach the shortlist. I believe that prizes do not endow a work of fiction with actual value. Rather, they are more celebratory than critically evaluative. When we say we have looked at more than 150 manuscripts with objectivity and rationality, we mean that each of these works is understood impressionistically, exclusively, and momentarily. It is all too possible that after a while I will stop and re-read and change my opinion on a work which I had nominated previously. The reason being that it fits the given criteria and in the short amount of time I had, I could only look at it briefly. Although I was partial to it before, it is possible that in the second reading I would not be partial to it. Hence, the award is not a critical and scientific appraisal.

I believe that prizes do not endow a work of fiction with actual value. Rather, they are more celebratory than critically evaluative. When we say we have looked at more than 150 manuscripts with objectivity and rationality, we mean that each of these works is understood impressionistically, exclusively, and momentarily.

It is my belief that, in general, literature cannot be appraised critically and scientifically. There were [authors] which won the Nobel Prize and today they have been forgotten about completely. There were stories which we read at stages of our lives and we considered them basic and important, but we no longer mention them. This award too could be like that, where it is possible that after a few years we will no longer mention some of the stories on the shortlist which we ourselves had nominated. I think it is naïve to say that the award was made for a particular book or a particular author. I do not read stories solely on the basis that it won an award or listen to a singer just because he is famous, and I do not watch a match just because it is causing a lot of noise. I enjoy things based on my own mind and not based on what others enjoy, because awards and appraisals are general agreements, and a story does not always garner full appraisal.

7: If we stay with the idea that the judging is based on “criteria,” have you taken into consideration the ability for stories to be translated within this criterion?

Which is why I believe that the reading which takes place is essentially a process of delighting in the works and inspection more so than a scientific and critical analysis.

AF: Absolutely, we had in front of us a number of books, and sometimes we would practise arbitrariness in the choice of books to read. Sometimes, I would go in and take a book and, without looking at the title or the name of the author, aim to form some kind of affection or relationship with the book. What must be noted is that, from the 157 books, there are books which have no relation to writing. Publishers nominate works which essentially have no relation to novels. There are also stories which have attracted or have formed a special connection with some of the readers, critics or researchers and have not won an award. There are readers who do not enjoy reading stories from particular writers, but this does not mean that if one of their books is nominated that does not deserve it, that would be considered a confiscation of their right. Which is why I believe that the reading which takes place is essentially a process of delighting in the works and inspection more than a scientific and critical analysis.

7: What are the trends or topics which you have seen that are prevalent in the novels?

AF: There are dominant themes in a number of stories. In Egypt, for example, there were many stories based on the Egyptian revolution. It is also a theme that is written about which fits within the framework of its time. Similarly, there is the theme of African migrants who escaped to Europe. This theme was addressed in many books.

There is something which I would like to point out within the collection of 150 books: There were a large percentage of female writers, which is a brilliant thing regardless of the lack of appraisal. However, there is boldness in writing, boldness in the use of the narrative and a general boldness in revealing things. This is a point taken into account for the award. Of course, in the shortlist there is Inaam Kachachi, but also in the big collection of books are many female writers and many of them are young writers.

7: Do you think that the award or awards generally give space to an experimental style in writing?

AF: I do not know precisely the determining characteristics for a novel. Until now, I consider it to be a boundless creature. It is impossible to limit it to a certain criterion. It is more a narrative than a particular thing which is just called a novel. And even for this award, there have been multiple writing styles. …. It is possible for you to read a new style of work from an author which is different from the context found in his previous work. And perhaps you will read work from a young author, two stories written in the same style. Thus, the experimental work has more of a personal touch than an objective one.

7: Were there novels which were disturbing or controversial? How did you deal with them and was that aspect in their favour or one which pushed them to be excluded?

Therefore, it was as if I was the voice of the novelists in the committee.

AF: On a personal level, I raised a lot of questions and debate in the committee. I used to invite debate and discussion and did not just want all-around agreement. In the end, however, there was no doubt about reaching an agreement, because in reality, the oppositions were not at a serious level — meaning they were not over mistakes in a novel. There were agreements or a collective opinion. There were many novels which stirred up debate and some of them were left out of the longer list. Beside the aspect of good taste, there is the aspect of making a good selection based on the certain criteria held by some of the judges in the committee. That is because there are judges who are specialists in novels and in narratives. The academics called for a particular debate from my side but I am not a specialist in this field. I am a general reader and I write novels. I am not a specialist in research or in novels. As a result, I used to create debate surrounding what seemed like particular details in the making of a narrative work in front of me. Therefore, it was as if I was the voice of the novelists in the committee.

Translated by Hiba Mohamad, a finalist reading Arabic and Persian with Islamic Studies at Pembroke College, Oxford.

Zhor Gourram

Gourram at the shortlist announcement. Photo credit: Hussam Da'ana
Gourram at the shortlist announcement. Photo credit: Hussam Da’ana

7: Was there a novel that, in your opinion, deserved to make it to the shortlist but did not?

ZG: First of all, there is the question of selection of the novels in the longlist.  There was perhaps great, ample space for us to choose 16 novels, and for that reason we would enter each novel that appeared to have an organized narrative structure and strong, creative language, and we had this space to select all the novels that were consistent with novelistic logic.

Then there are six novels in the shortlist, and selection became very difficult.  For that reason, the competition between the group of novels was important; however, priority was always given to the novel whose author was able to transcend the weaknesses in other novels.  For example: language.  We know that language is an essential element in creative writing in a general sense.  There are some novels which perhaps are structured well, but have a great weakness in language.  For that reason, the novels that were able to write the narrative world with sober and responsible language, from the basis of balanced prose and so on, corresponded to this selection.

[The]…novels that did not make it to the shortlist are not lacking in quality or are structurally weak. But because the spaces on the list are few, by extension selection becomes difficult and from there the competition, likewise, becomes precise.  Within the framework of the committee, we worked to select the shortlist with absolute precision.  This does not mean that some of the novels on the longlist are not good, but rather perhaps that novels that made it to the shortlist surpass them with perhaps stronger artistic elements than the novels in the longlist.

7: Is there a bias toward novels that have greater potential for translation?

ZG: I speak frankly and I am known to always say in my discussions that criticism has a historical responsibility, and whoever appeases or flatters in one’s critical work betrays one’s historical responsibility.  I consider criticism a scientific logic.  Truthfully, these considerations [of translatability] were not present.  Geographic considerations were not present, gender considerations were not present – male or female writer – on the longlist we did not even realize until after we had organized the texts that there were two female authors.  We did not consider translation.  The concept of translation was not present.

Even our debates were scientific, objective, critical debates.  We did not reach the voting stage because we convinced ourselves with criticism, and criticism in a scientific sense.  

The only consideration that was present was the nature of the construction of this novel because, in the end, we are responsible for this choice.  The selection committee is responsible for the selections on the shortlist.  We are also responsible for presenting readings in all the proposed novels.  Translation was not present.  The Authority responsible for the prize did not interfere.  Personally, if I had felt that there was a sort of steering and that there was tribalistic guidance, I would not have agreed, because I believe in my choices.  Even our debates were scientific, objective, critical debates.  We did not reach the voting stage because we convinced ourselves with criticism, and criticism in a scientific sense.  Another idea is that — when we would gather as a group — most of the time, eighty percent of the time, our selections were close, identical even.  This is evidence that we operated with the responsibility of a critic.

7: Do you see a particular general trend in the Arabic novel in recent years?

ZG: Yes, yes.  First, I am very happy this prize has given me the opportunity to read the latest Arabic novels.  We know very well that the novel develops with social developments because the source of the novelistic genre is transformations that took place in Europe.  The more you see advanced novels in a society, the more you know that this society undergoes political, economic, and social transformations.  There is a close and overlapping relationship between social transformations and novelistic structure and construction.  The novel is a cultural condition that is connected to social transformation.

This large number — 156 novels — that we read familiarized us with the type of issues that concern the Arab author. Among the most important of these issues is the discussion over the Arab Spring.

This large number — 156 novels — that we read familiarized us with the type of issues that concern the Arab author. Among the most important of these issues is the discussion over the Arab Spring.  There are many novels that discuss the Arab Spring; the Arab revolutions.  Many novels seeking reconciliation with the past; to create a consciousness of the past through revealing and making bare this reality whether it be a political or social reality.  There are issues that concern the Arab individual, and we have become accustomed to always thinking of the collective in Arab society.  But there is a new trend in the Arabic novel, from the number that we have read, that there is a concern with the individual, and also narrating the condition as if the Arab novelist has now begun to turn toward the individual as a condition, trying to create a kind of consciousness by placing this individual who lives in the framework of this violence and these social conditions.

Another point that we must record: The reality of the developments in the Arabic novel…does not constitute a rupture with previous paradigms.  It is in the framework of a trajectory of development of the Arabic novel in a general sense, because the Arabic novel now belongs to its questions, its time, and to the average citizen.

One final point: I have noticed that a large sample of the novels are concerned with giving a voice to the average citizen.

One final point: I have noticed that a large sample of the novels are concerned with giving a voice to the average citizen.  Usually the narrative was given to a cultured [elite] or the narrator would dominate and control the world of the novel, but in many of the novels now we find the average person.  It is the average Arab citizen who controls the world of the novel and produces knowledge from his position and his perspective.  This means the the Arabic novels, certainly based on this sample – there are other important novels that were not nominated by the publishing houses, we must not forget this issue,  I personally read some novels and found that they were not on the nomination list – have this concern with the Arab individual and the Arab condition and the Arab person, and allowed ordinary people in the novel to reveal, to narrate their stories without the influence of another dominant narrator.

This situation also affected the ordering structure of the novel, for we found different methods — we did not encounter a single method of writing or a single technique of writing.  We found a diverse variety of writings, and by extension, each novel, we can say, through its composition and arrangement comments upon the composition and transformations experienced by its society.

7: There are two novels from Morocco on the shortlist.  Can you tell us about the Arabic novel and literature in Morocco today?

The Moroccan novel is unique in one important respect: It evolves quickly.

ZG: Unfortunately, the Moroccan novel arrived in a delayed manner to the Arab east.  The mashriq looks to us in Morocco as critics and readers, so the concern with Morocco is a concern with it in terms of criticism, thought, or philosophy, and rarely as a concern with Moroccan creativity.  This is an opportunity, through this prize, to become familiar with the novelistic creative experience in Morocco.  In Morocco, we write in Arabic, French, and English because we believe that whoever is proficient in any language has the right to tell stories in it and to present an approach to social transformations from the starting point of the linguistic form or commentary in which he is proficient.  The Moroccan novel is unique in one important respect: It evolves quickly.  For instance, particularly since the mid-eighties, in Morocco we do not subscribe to a trend or school but we subscribe to diversities of writing techniques.  This goes back to the particularities of the transformations undergone in Morocco: politically, economically, and socially. Morocco has experienced a rapid rhythm and pace of transformations.  Every decade, there are transformations of the political system, the economic system, and in choice.  As a result, the novel keeps pace with these transformations.

Perhaps also, the general climate of human rights permits the novelist to speak about nearly all subjects, for instance, the novel A Rare Blue Bird, which made it to the short list by the Moroccan author, Yousef Fadel, talks about the period of the seventies, a difficult time in the history of Morocco. But it is now permissible for a novelist to reconcile with the past for the sake of looking forward to the future, as though there is a kind of reconciliation with the past through the laying bare of that past and its examination to produce a knowledge of it, because we cannot look forward to the future without having a consciously aware reading by the creative producer of this past.

7 :Do you feel that prizes like this tend toward formal [fusha] Arabic so that there is no barrier among Arabic readers in the Mashriq and Maghreb

ZG: Even in Morocco, [literary] production has begun in the colloquial.  There is a novelist named Mourad al-Almy who published a number of important novels in the colloquial.  But we do not forget that before publishing in the colloquial you must work on the language in which you will write because there is no single vernacular or dialect.  In every Arab society, there are dialects: The northern region does not resemble the south does not resemble the east, the west, the middle, the interior, and so on.  It is up to the creative producer, first of all, to organize the linguistic structure in which he narrates, not to begin with the novel and only begin to work on language when a shortcoming of expression occurs to him.

I do not think that writing in the colloquial works with this prize because it is difficult. 

I do not think that writing in the colloquial works with this prize because it is difficult. First, the novels must increase.  Novels in the colloquial must present themselves on the basis that they are a literary phenomenon for which critics and readerships have emerged, and then they should have stipulations so that they can fit in the frameworks of prizes like these.

Abdullah Ibrahim

Ibrahim at the shortlist announcement. Photo credit: Hussam Da'ana.
Ibrahim at the shortlist announcement. Photo credit: Hussam Da’ana.

7iber: Is there more you would like to read more of?  Is there something absent in the nominated books this year?

Abdullah Ibrahim: These are diverse novels.  We dealt with nearly 160 novels, all different – different in style, different in form.  A gradual process of elevation occurred with the works, their filtering and their selection.  In reality, these six works reveal the deep diversity in Arab culture and the manner of writing from the mashriq to the maghreb.  Through your site, I invite readers to follow observe and these works.

7: Is there a particular book that did not reach the shortlist, but that in your personal opinion deserved to be nominated?

AI: I base my judgments on the implementation of critical standards.  All the works were written with and contain a certain degree of qualifications.  However, the works that reached the shortlist are those works which contain the most refined degree of literary qualifications.

7: What are the current directions that you have noticed in the contemporary Arabic novel?

AI: Of course, writing develops.  One might write a novel in one manner in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, and that may be of interest. It is natural for narrative writing to develop, and we observe that this development and its assessment is a literary one.  And if a given style of writing warrants appreciation, then we do not shy away from appreciating it.  New writing is the child of new times.

7: There appears to be an imbalance in the novels nominated for the lists in terms of writers’ gender.

AI: In my assessment, this question is out of place because of the novels put forward, 160 [156] of them, there was a significant proportion of female novelists.  However, the literary selection process dropped those works which do not contain artistic qualifications.  Despite that, the shortlist has a female author, and we evaluate works based on the artistic criteria exhibited in them, and not according to the writer or the country to which they belong.

7: Does the committee tend to avoid books that have been censored or that discuss controversial issues?

AI: I don’t know about this matter because that has to do with the Authority.  However, 160 works reached us and we do not know the situation of the novels in their own countries nor does it concern us, because we evaluate the book itself, without consideration of its author — whether it be a man or a woman, or from this country or that, or if it is a writer that has been banned from this country or that, this is all beyond my concern.

Translated by Joseph R. Farag, a 2013-2014 EUME postdoctoral fellow currently based in Berlin.  His research focuses on Palestinian literature and Arabic literary modernism.

Saad A. Albazei (Chair of Judges)

Al-Bazei at the shortlist announcement. Photo credit:
Al-Bazei at the shortlist announcement. Photo credit: Hussam Da’ana

7iber: What are the current “directions” that prevail the Arabic novels on the shortlist?

SA: Most novels on the shortlist display a renovation in the style and narrative form. Common to most novels is the preoccupation with different issues in the Arab world, such as the consequences of the Arab Spring and the suffering of the individual in face of cultural and political organizations. Many novels also pay attention to the situations in Syria and Iraq (actually there are three novels from both regions)… The novels are actually good ones, remarkable both in narrative and style. Moreover, they tackled problems in the Arab world.

Other novels have tackled these problems as well; but from different perspectives. An example of these is the Moroccan novel The Journeys of ‘Abdi, Known as Son of Hamriya. It tackles the situation in the Arab world through the Arabic and Islamic heritage and by means of creating a narrative similar to ancient writings.

7: Do you avoid censored books or those that tackle controversial issues?

SA: These controversial books choose us. The Moroccan novel, for example, tackles the attempts to effect a coup in Morocco. It is a very interesting novel… It displays political courage… Iraqi novels nowadays depict the situation of Iraqis who lead diasporic existence all over the world.

Translated by Somaya Abdul Wahhab, who was born in Alexandria in 1983 and graduated from the Faculty of Arts, English Dept., Alexandria University in 2005. Currently enrolled for a Master’s in English poetry with a thesis entitled “The Quest for Identity in the Poetry of Eavan Boland and Derek Walcott.” Abdul Wahhab has been working as a freelance translator since 2007. 

Thanks to all the volunteer translators who pitched in!