Former ‘Arabic Booker’ Winners, Jury Members Call on Prize to Stop Taking UAE Gov’t Money

On August 26, 2020, a group of 17 former winners, shortlistees, jury members, and former members of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) Board of Trustees called on the prize — the best-known Arabic novel prize — to stop accepting Emirati government funding, or any government funding, in light of the UAE-Israel “Abraham Accord” announced August 13, 2020:

The letter is markedly not from detractors of the prize, popularly called the “Arabic Booker.”

“Since its inception,” the letter begins, the International Prize for Arabic Fiction “has represented a distinguished addition to the Arab cultural scene, and it has also actively contributed to the development of the Arabic novel and ensured both Arab and international attention.”

It goes on to say that the prize’s independence and professionalism were among “the most important factors in its success; this is the independence that was enshrined ever since the award was first created in London, where it was legally registered by Arab intellectuals and publishers from various Arab and Western capitals. The award has had financial backing from the United Arab Emirates since its inception in 2007, with a clear understanding that there is to be no interference either in its management or in the selection of its jury committees.”

The letter goes on to state that — although media has lately called it an Emirati prize — the IPAF was instead “an independent Arab award founded by Arab and foreign intellectuals who support Arab culture, and its financially sponsorship by official Emirati institutions has been unconditional.”

But, letter-writers argue, that independence is now in jeopardy, and the letter-writers “call on the current Board of Trustees to assume its historical cultural responsibility and protect the award by ceasing to take Emirati funding, in order to preserve the award’s credibility and independence, and also to allow it to continue playing its pivotal role in spreading and developing the Arabic novel. Moreover, the award should keep its distance from any official state funding from any country. We affirm that we make in this appeal from a position of cherishing the award and being keen on the interconnectedness of Arab culture and intellectuals in the face of the political devastation into which some regimes have descended, and it also stems from the recent move toward normalization in the UAE, and, according to statements by Emirati officials, this strategy of alliance with Israel will include all fields, not excluding the cultural one.”

They finish the letter by stating that the award is facing “a difficult test, for which we need a bold stance from the Board of Trustees. And if, in these delicate circumstances, a courageous decision is not taken to shore up the independence of the award, then the Board of Trustees must prepare for the worst-case scenarios that might plague the award and its legal status, waste its historical balance, and undermine its position in the Arab cultural conscience. These dire scenarios are easy to imagine. Therefore, we appeal to the Board of Trustees to assume its responsibility in preserving this award, so that it remains clean, honest, and independent as it has always been, and for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction to remain one of the bywords of free and creative Arab creativity.”

The signees of the letter are listed as: Palestinian-Jordanian novelist Ibrahim Nasrallah, winner, 2018; Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury, multiply shortlisted; Moroccan novelist Bensalem Himmich, multiply shortlisted; Lebanese critic Pierre Abi Saab, former member of the jury; Palestinian academic Khaled Hroub, a former member of the Board of Trustees; Jordanian poet and critic Zulaikha Aburisha, a former member of the jury; Palestinian novelist Sahar Khalifeh, former chair of the jury; Jordanian critic Fakhri Saleh, former member of the jury; Syrian novelist Fawwaz Haddad, former shortlistee; Palestinian critic Faisal Darraj, former member of the jury; Palestinian novelist Rabai Al Madhoun, winner, 2016; Moroccan novelist Mohammad Al-Achaari, co-winner, 2011; Moroccan poet Mohamed Bennis, former member of the jury; Palestinian writer Mahmoud Shukair, former shortlistee; Palestinian poet and memoirist Mourid Barghouti, former chair of the jury; Qatari writer Hoda Al-Naimi, former member of the jury; and Palestinian writer Yahya Yakhlif, former longlistee.

Submissions to the 2021 prize close tomorrow.