Since I wrote the previous article, on Alaa al-Aswany's "Friendly Fire", which concluded with the author's enthusiastic comments about his chairmanshiop of the judges for the Beirut39 project, Beirut39 has responded to a query I e-mailed asking them about conflicting information on Al-Aswany's being chair of the judging panel. The information is on different pages of the Hay/Beirut39 website at http://www.beirut39.com/.
The drop-down menu of judges on the site does not list him as one of the judges, who now number three - Lebanese poet and cultural editor in chief of Al-Hayat newspaper Abdo
Wazen, Lebanese writer Alawiya Sobh and Omani Saif Al Rahbi, poet and chief editor of the cultural magazine Nizwa. But on the site's questions and answers page, and according to its press release he is still the jury's chair. The e-mailed reply to me from Beirut39 said he is actually no longer part of the jury. What's going on; was there some kind of difference of opinion over the approach to be adopted? Arabic literature is a notoriously disputatious field, which is one reason why the identity of the judges in the first two years of the "Arabic Booker Prize" - the International Prize for Arabic Fiction - has been kept secret until the announcemement of their shortlist.
Beirut39 will select and celebrate 39 of the most important Arab writers aged 39 or less. It is an important project that is a joint venture of Beirut World Book Capital 2009 and Britain's most high-profile literary festival, the Hay Festival. The organisers said some time back that "Beirut 39 will be the flagship project of Beirut Unesco World Book Capital 2009".
As far as the outside world is concerned, having the world's best-known contemporary Arab author as chair of the judges would have been bound to have added to the kudos of Beirut39, so it is intruguing that for whatever reason he is no longer part of the jury.
This is not the first time there has been a shakeup in the composition of the Beirut 39 jury. The project started off with a panel of judges consisting of Abdo Wazen, Huda Barakat, Elias Khoury and Maher Jarrar, in May this was replaced by the Alaa Al-Aswany - Abdo Wazen - Saif al-Rahbi -Alawiya Sobh lineup, which gave a extended the geographical sweep of Arab author-judge from Lebanon to Egypt and Oman.
Maybe it's been general knowledge for some time that Al-Aswany is no longer a judge, let alone chair, and I've cottoned on late! Could be I'm reading too much into it. Still, it's an intriguing develoment' given the enthusiasm he expressed over chairing the Beirut39 jury when he appeared at Foyle's bookshop. To recap:
Al-Aswany, who is 52 this year, is keen to encourage a younger generation of fiction writers. He is the chairman of the panel of judges of ‘Beirut 39’, a collaboration between the Hay Festival and Beirut World Capital of the Book 2009. The idea is to bring together the 39 most interesting Arab writers aged 39 years old or less on a list to be announced in September.
Al-Aswany hopes that the Beirut39 list will include some lesser-known writers. He was previously the chair of a competition of novels in Egypt, organized by the newspaper Akhbar El -Yom. He presented a shortlist of ten novels, and then three winners, none of which were well known to critics or the public. “I am very proud that I did that and I must tell you that, to me and the judges, many of these ten names write much better than very known names. I believe that we must really work hard to present real talents, and not to stay in the same circle of people who are known.”