Mourid Barghouti: ‘It Is Not a Prize Designed to Give Incentives to Young Writers’

The chair of judges for the 2015 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, Mourid Barghouti, spoke from the following speech at tonight’s awards ceremony. The translation was provided by International Prize for Arabic Fiction organizers:

mourid“I prefer silence to speech. But now I must speak, since it is part of the prize cycle of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction and, by the way, I have the half-serious, half-mischievous idea, that the prize has moved on both in years and experience and no longer needs one of the words of its long name, the word “international”. Is it enough just to call it “The Prize for Arabic Fiction”? The expression “international” has for us become a symbol of something lacking, not an addition. Naguib Mahfouz needs it, whilst Hemingway, Szymborska or Shakespeare, for example, do not. Omar Sharif needs it, but Peter O’Toole, Marlon Brando or Marilyn Monroe do not. I hope I have not gone beyond my remit, but going beyond one’s remit is the job of the writer, is it not?

“Before naming the winning novel, I would like to describe some of the factors and conditions which influenced us, the judges, and of course they were not written down, nor was there an artistic prescription, but they crystallised during lengthy discussions and debates which were enjoyable and agonising in turn. The following is just a summary, given because so many people have requested it:

“1) This is not a prize designed to give incentives to young writers, nor is it a prize celebrating established writers’ achievements.

“2) The judging panel judges novels, not novelists.

“3) Awe of an artistic achievement must not be transformed into fear of going beyond it. Rules of classic style were made to be broken and one must experiment in order to go forward. The panel does not value one style above another.

“4) However biting, problematic or even nightmarish its world may be, the novel must give the reader pleasure.

“5) Weak style, superficiality and tedious digressions undermine artistry, and this is not just limited to language. Characters, plot, images and dialogue can suffer from the same pitfalls.

“6) Too much explanation negates the role of the reader. More than that, it is an insult to him/her.

“7) Hackneyed formulas used by a novelist are always easy to see through, however shimmering on the surface of the text, and are a burden on the work, adding nothing to it.

“8) We read the novels democratically, surrendering ourselves to the writer’s style and narrative choices, until we end up where he/she wants us to be. But each novel has to justify its components: its style, plot, length, language, rhythm and character development.

“9) We have embraced novelty in both content and form, however shocking or out of the norm, while insisting that artistic efficacy must lie within both and in any predetermined readerly sensibility.

“10) We are not interested in considerations of geography, nationality or age and we are not issuing judgments on the literary status of countries which may by chance appear on the longlist and shortlist each year. We are not issuing judgments on the literary past or future of the country. History is what it is and our task was limited to deliberating over a finite number of submissions in a single year.

“11) The decision was taken firstly by aiming at consensus, and if that failed, by voting, and then the result was binding.

“Then I want to say the following:

“About the Judging Panel

“It was not easy to reach consensus when choosing the lists. There were conflicts between different tastes, visions and methods. Some of us lost their arguments while others on the panel won them. We aimed at consensus before having to resort to voting. While the creative process is hardly the result of random acts, the selection of members of the judging panel has a certain measure of randomness to it. Some writers may feel they had bad luck because we were on the panel this year. Others may think they were lucky that we were there and that if there was another panel, things would be different. Both are right.

About the Novels

“It is always the same and this year was no exception: the novels which did not win had enduring value and those which did had their share of weaknesses. There is a measure of relativity at work. The novelists here, both male and female, need to know that they are all worthy of the prize.

“About the Publishers

“The judging panel noted that there were nominations from publishing houses which it seemed had been established for the purpose of submitting to the prize. We hear that there are publishing houses which obtain money from authors by various means. This knowledge protected the panel from ready assumptions such as that the publisher’s agreement to publish the novel necessarily must mean that there is some quality in it. We found that some of the novels which were not selected were not really novels; they were “folk chattering”.

“But the most important thing is the absence of the literary editor. Publishers in our countries need to appoint an editor who can discuss the manuscript with an author and suggest a primary artistic revision. We are not talking here about a copy editor. An editor intervenes in the techniques, texture, structure, rhythm and dialogue of the novel. He suggests additions and deletions. He alerts the author when the text slips into being an article or thesis. This is an attempt to rescue the work from slipping into bad practice or being flabby or overstated, or writing the ending before its time, or after its time. Thus the novel arrives at its printed form, safe from falling into these traps.


“I would like to express my admiration for my esteemed colleagues in the judging panel and I think that both our calm and our heated discussions were the only way to reach agreement which did not offend our consciences. Responsible discussion enriches those who differ. I would like to express my admiration for the Trustees of the prize, who were careful to respect the panel’s complete independence. Their role was limited to administrative matters facilitating our work, travel and accommodation. Here we applaud the team managing the daily work of the prize: Fleur Montanaro, Katy MacMillan-Scott and Lizzie Grumbach, who managed the difficult combination of cheerfulness and efficiency. I mean, being firm and good-humoured. I thank the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, for their keen and generous support, and before everyone I wish to record my admiration for the female and male novelists, absent and present, those in the longlist and shortlist and those absent from them. They have enriched our personal worlds with their artistic experiments, even those who achieved the least. There is always a flash of artistry or wonder in every attempt at perfection. We have read you in an expectant spirit, with anticipation given to any new text; we have not read you as school examiners. In writing, all of us make attempts and no-one claims that he has arrived. We have come out of this experience with a greater desire to learn and ask questions and with a greater humility. Greetings to the creative writers and thanks to you all in this hall for doing me the honour of listening.

“And now

“The winning novel of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for this prize cycle, of 2015, is “The Italian” by Shukri al-Mabkout. Congratulations.”