Why the International Prize for Arabic Fiction Controversies? ‘People Like To Talk a Lot’

A full house of almost 500 attendees came to hear a discussion about the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), which hosted prize shortlistees Inaam Kachachi, Ahmed Mourad and winner Ahmed Saadawi at the seventh Emirates Airline Festival of Literature:

By Mohga Hassib

Audience members waiting to get into the event.
Audience members waiting to get into the event. Photo credit: Mohga Hassib.

The session took place under the title “The IPAF Panel: Rewarding Wonders” and was moderated by Yasir Suleiman, Director of the Centre of  Islamic Studies and fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, also the chair and trustee of the IPAF board. Invited speakers were Iraqi novelist Ahmed Sadaawi, winner of the 2014 IPAF for his novel Frankenstein in Baghdad; Inaam Kachachi, Iraqi novelist and journalist whose novels Tashari and The American Granddaughter were shortlisted in 2014 and 2009, respectively; and Egyptian Ahmed Mourad, whose third novel The Blue Elephant was also shortlisted in 2014.

Suleiman commenced his lecture playfully poking at some of the Arab news’ mistranslation of the Arabic Booker prize to a poker game, and clarifying that one of its purposes was to reward Arab writers by increasing their international readership through translation.

The panel promised to discuss the creative space for the Arabic novel, controversy and debates that surround the IPAF, the makings of their texts, their impact, and the translation process.

What led the writers to their novels?

Photo credit: Mohga Hassib.

Kachachi’s reason was simply her “age. Forty years of journalism amount to years of characters and voices being built up and witnessing unforgettable situations which do not get enough material to make their way to the press.” The more she searched her old papers and materials, the more she found characters, pictures, names and voices which she set aside and said that one day she might write a diary — until the War on Iraq (WWIII) took place.

“I was overcome with fear and thought I have to express what happened to the dear place in my heart through a loud cry. I found the novel to be the place where I could vent my thoughts, and a novel was published and the rest followed.”

Suleiman asked if the tragedy Kachachi faced in the disintegration of the country and the Iraqi people played a role in leading her to write her novels?

She agreed vehemently: “I studied in Iraq, I fell in love in Iraq, I got married in Iraq, and I had my first child in Iraq. Iraq is inside me wherever I went, it is who I am, not a bag that I carry.” The disastrous events of the war would “would hit me in my skin and bones.” Kachachi further expressed her grief the day of the session as she learned that the bulldozers had ruined Nimrud monuments that go back to 13 B.C.

“The Mosul museum was an appetizer to the giant scene of ruin. Imagine the bulldozers removing the pyramids or the Sphynx in Egypt,” she said.

However, Saadawi had a different perspective on the role of literature — that tragedy does not necessarily beget literary creativity. Literature in any case is not tied to history and does not copy it. “We are in the age of media and it is more progressive than culture and recreates culture; it points to reality. The role of literature is not to point to reality but to reexamine and revisit things, and reveal what is hidden, to tie small things to general narratives.”

Saadawi’s Frankestein in Baghadad discusses a difficult and critical time in modern Iraq, 2005-2006. The novel is specifically associated with history. However, Saadawi’s perspective was “as long as you discuss a person and the life path of a person, you use a time and a place. You need the historical background. Any novel, no matter how simple, will seem to allude that specific background. Frankenstein in Baghdad is about the stories of regular people, but in the end the way these simple daily stories pour in a larger one, [it] discusses a more comprehensive reality.”

In the case of Mourad, it was the fact that he worked as the personal photographer to the former Pres. Hosni Mubarak. “In 2007, I had reached a level of political, social and professional accumulation … I thought it could be projected in an artistic form.”

An avid reader growing up, the ceiling of his ambition was to write a novel and have it read by his close acquaintances. He says his first novel, Vertigo, was successful because “during that time no one was able to discuss what was happening in Egypt, and the genre of thriller did not exist … it is a nice casing to dissect society. I tried to view society from the perspective of a young man living during that time in my age, I even gave the character my name and date of birth because I wanted to say that this is me, it is a combination of my biography and experiences that produced this novel and attracted a certain segment of society.”

By the time Mourad wrote The Blue Elephant in 2011, he had veered away from politics and thought the most thrilling experience would come when a person looks inside himself.

Finally, his latest novel 1919 came out before the announcement of the IPAF: “I chose to have it published before the announcement because I was afraid of the prize, I was worried people would say that I published the novel because I won the Booker, and I was in the middle of the making of The Blue Elephant into a movie … I wanted this novel to succeed on its own, away from the spotlight of the Booker prize and the cinema.”

What kind of impact does the IPAF prize have on the writers?

Mourad signing copies of 1919. Photo credit: Mohga Hassib.
Mourad signing copies of 1919. Photo credit: Mohga Hassib.

Saadawi mentioned that the explosion of press and media led to him being “a secretary to Frankenstein. Until this point I wish I can return to my isolation to be able to write.” He mentioned how in Baghdad the media has gotten in the way of his work: “When I go to al-Mutanabbi Street to shoot some footage for my show, I get photographed and asked for autographs, and I have work to do.”

The second impact is that the books are subject to debate. It is important that the writers forget about their finished book, Saadawi said; however, the press keeps reminding him of it. “The good thing is that that it is seasonal, and this attention will focus on something else.”

Mourad concurred with Saadawi’s point: “Just as the prize promotes a work, it can promote some negativity.” The prize adds an academic recognition to the text, which leads to stronger criticism. “I try as much as possible to stay hidden and not appear in any television shows. I want to be able walk in the streets.”

Mourad regards the most important thing about the prize that it brings writers from different cultures together and they can read each other’s work. The prize’s benefits surpass the negativity that is associated with fame, which could impact anyone who is famous in any field. “It created a sense of anticipation like the Oscars; the long list and the short list, the expectations… When something like this happens in the world of books, it’s better than happening in just the world of cinema and creates good publicity.”

Kachachi, as someone who lives outside the Arab world, has only experienced the positive side of the IPAF. “The Booker made me happy as it put me in the spotlight in the Gulf and other Arab regions, it introduced me to beautiful young writers such as both Ahmeds.” Although she mentioned that she felt tricked when the novel was translated to Chinese, “because I was told that the lousy publication sells at least 250, 000 copies … I couldn’t even read my own name in the Chinese translation and nothing happened.”

Have the translations of the texts opened new horizons for the writers and the Arabic novel?

The translation experience was different for Mourad: He mentioned that the translation movement was a little slow due to the scarcity of agencies, and that he had to exert a lot of effort in the translations. “I had to investigate the translation agency because some people destroy the text with poor translations. I am not in a rush, that’s why I have a total of eight translations of all my work; I care more about the quality of the translation.”

Saadawi, on the other hand, has no experience in the translation field at all. After being presented with several offers, he could not make a choice. Fleur Montanaro, the IPAF’s administrator, encouraged him to go with an agent with whom he felt comfortable, and this agent landed him the joint publishing offer from Oneworld and Penguin for the English translation.

As for Kachachi, someone has already decided to translate her text to Persian and sent it to the publishers, then he e-mailed her to inform her that her text would be available in Persian. “I was very pleased because it is seldom that an Arabic novel gets translated to Persian.”

Yet, she expressed her reservations saying: “There is a difference between having translated works and becoming an international writer. To date, Arabic literature has not received a large halo as Latin American literature or the Japanese novel. Even the Nobel Prize that was given to Naguib Mahfouz, his novels would only sell a maximum of 3000 copies*. Three thousand readers or copies do not create a global imprint. Everyone knows Mahfouz, but the question is how many people read his works outside the Arab world?”

However, Saadawi added that translation is inevitable if we want Arabic literature to enter the global market. Whether stardom follows or not, one must take the first step of entering the global market, giving Arabic literature a chance to take its place next to other works. Whatever happens next is chance.

With regards to the controversial debate about the prize, did it increase criticism of the writers?

Kachachi seemed baffled by the magnitude of controversy surrounding the prize and asked the same questions. Is it the finances of the prize? The secrecy of the judging panel? Or a political hidden side to it?

Mourad thought the reason for the controversies to be as simple as “people like to talk a lot.” He mentioned that we do not have a lot of prizes in the Arab world, and now social media has encouraged people to be outspoken with their criticism.

“I imagine that this controversy was around any prize, even in the Oscars. It is a characteristic of any prize, but the Arab world is simply new to it.” Mourad further mentioned that “personally it is enough that I made it to the top six, because I was selected from 150 novels, that in itself is a prize.”

Finally, Saadawi thought “there is a mix between the media world and the literary world, in the end it is for the benefit of reading, and the Arabic Booker prize increases reading.”

*Editor: It’s unclear what she means here. Mahfouz has had several best-selling works in English.

Mohga Hassib did her graduate work at the English and Comparative Literature department of the American University in Cairo and taught academic writing at Misr International University. She has also been president and vice president of the AUC’s literature club.