Left: pic of Mansoura Ez Eldin.
Why do so few Arab women writers make the IPAF shortlist?
The shortlist of six contenders for the annual International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF,) announced last Tuesday at the Beirut International Book Fair, is arousing much interest, as in the previous two years of the prize’s existence.
There is speculation, for example, over whether for the third year running it will be an Egyptian author who gets the prize which is worth $50,000 to the winner, plus the $10,000 awarded to each shortlisted author. There are two Egyptians on the shortlist, together with authors from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan.
The prize was set up by the Emirates Foundation of Abu Dhabi in association with the Booker Prize Foundation of London, and is often dubbed the Arabic Booker. The 2010 prize received 115 eligible submissions from 17 Arab countries, from which the longlist of 16 titles was selected in November.
The winner will be revealed at an awards ceremony in Abu Dhabi on March 2, the first day of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.
The two previous prizewinning novels were both published by Dar Al-Shorouk of Cairo. Bahaa Taher won in 2008 for “Sunset Oasis”, and this year Youssef Ziedan won for “Azazel”. One aim of IPAF is to encourage translation of Arabic literature, and the winning novel is guaranteed publication in English.
“Sunset Oasis” was published in English by the Hodder & Stoughton imprint Sceptre earlier this year and was recently chosen as a book of the year by several British and American publications. “Azazel” will be published in the UK next spring by Atlantic Books in spring 2010, and is also to be published in six other European languages.
The latest shortlist includes a further Dar Al-Shorouk title: Egyptian writer Muhammad Al-Mansi Qindeel’s “A Cloudy Day on the West Side”.
A young girl is taken from home by her mother, who is fleeing an abusive husband, and is left in an Asyut village. Her life intersects with the lives of others including English archeologist and Egyptologist Howard Carter, Lord Cromer and historian Abdul-Rahman Al-Rafa’i.
For the first time there is a Saudi on the shortlist, Abdo Khal with “She Throws Sparks” published by Al-Jamal Publications of Baghdad and Beirut.
The novel is a satire on the destructive power of power and wealth
Two other Saudis made the longlist: Abdullah Bin Bakheet with “Street of Affections” published by Dar Al-Saqi, and woman writer Umaima Al-Khamis with “The Leafy Tree” published by Dar Al-Mada.
From Lebanon there is Rabee Jaber [pictured top] with “America” (Al-Markaz al-Thaqafi al-Arabi, Morocco and Lebanon), about Syrians who travel to America in the early 20th century in search of a new life.
Jordanian novelist Jamal Naji’s with “When the Wolves Grow Old” (Ministry of Culture Publications, Amman) concerns the secret lives of social climbers who have risen from Amman’s poor areas to positions of wealth and power.
Raba’i Madhoun, a Palestinian who grew up in the Khan Younis refugee camp in Gaza and now works in London as an editor on Ash-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper, is shortlisted for “The Lady from Tel Aviv” (Arab Institute for Publishing and Studies, Beirut). In the novel a Palestinian returning to Gaza after many years of exile in Europe engages in dialogue and sharing of memories with an Israeli woman sitting next to him on the flight to Tel Aviv.
As in the previous two years, the shortlist features only one woman. She is Egyptian Mansoura Ez Eldin [pictured top] for “Beyond Paradise” (Al-Ain Publishing, Egypt) which focuses on the female editor of a literary magazine who tries to free herself from a painful past by writing a family history. Ez Eldin and Rabee Jabir were among the 39 Arab writers aged 39 or less chosen by a jury in October for Beirut39, a project which will introduce the writers to a wider readership and will publish an anthology of their work.
The administrator of the prize since its inception has been the Lebanese poet, author and journalist Joumana Haddad, who is on the Beirut39 list. But there is concern in some quarters that women are so scantily present on the shortlists.
At least this year two of the five judges were women. In the first year only one of the judges, who numbered six, was female - Syrian writer Ghalia Kabbani. Last year the only woman on the five member panel, the Lebanese scholar and critic Youmna El-Eid, chaired the judges.
One of the women judges this year is Raja’ Ben Salamah, a lecturer at the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Humanities at Manouba University, Tunisia whose published works include "A critique of the Man of the Masses, The Construction of Masculinity and Desire and Writing".
The other woman judge was Egyptian Shereen Abu El-Naga, lecturer in English and comparative literature at Cairo University. But Abu El-Naga resigned the day after the shortlist was announced. The National newspaper of Abu Dhabi quoted her as saying that the voting method was the main reason for her resignation: “There was no dialogue or debate between myself and the other panellists and we could not debate our choices.”
However when the chairman of the judges, Kuwaiti novelist and short story writer Taleb Al-Refai, announced the shortlist he said: “A democratic objective discussion was held, the most important target of which was to reach a list approved by the judging panel. The selected books represent the opinion of the panel, with due respect to and appreciation of the longlisted novels.”
The other judges are French academic and translator Frederic LaGrange, head of the Arabic and Hebraic Department at the Paris-Sorbonne (Paris IV), and Omani writer and poet Saif Al-Rahbi.
Only three of the 18 authors shortlisted for IPAF so far have been women. This is much lower than the proportion of women in Beirut39, which has 12 women authors, almost a third of the total.
Reviewing the IPAF judging process in its first three years, Yousef Awad [pictured], a Jordanian PhD student at the University of Manchester whose thesis is on Arab women’s literature, particularly that by Arab-American and Arab-British women writers, sees dangers of “tokenism” in having had considerably fewer female than male judges so far (four out of 16), and only one woman on each IPAF shortlist to date.
He thinks the judging panel should have more women, “and of course more representatives of other marginalised groups – in the wider sense of the word.” The shortlisting of one woman writer “reflects the tokenistic agenda I am trying to point out
He argues that because Arab women tend to write about their private experiences, their works may not be well understood or well-contextualised. Whereas Arab male writers “usually concentrate on the public experience – politics, class struggle and so on – and this makes it easier for readers to identify with the characters they depict and the themes they explore.”
In addition, Arab women writers may be under more pressure than men to be “non-confrontational” in order to be published, and this may lead to compromises and to mediocre writing.