Wednesday, February 20, 2008

IPAF shortlist announced

The judges with Joumana Haddad

Six books shortlisted for Arabic fiction prize

The International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) attracted worldwide media attention last week when the six judges of the prize, now in its first year, appeared at a press conference in central London to announce the shortlist of six novels for an award worth a total of $60,000 to the winner.

The winner, to be announced at a gala dinner in Abu Dhabi on March 10, will receive a prize of $50,000 as well as the $10,000 that each of the shortlisted authors is automatically awarded. In addition, the winning book is guaranteed translation into English.

In all, 131 novels by authors from 18 Arab countries were submitted for the prize, but Egyptian and Lebanese writers dominate the shortlist. The two Egyptians on the list are Baha Taher with “Sunset Oasis” (published by Al-Shorooq) and Mekkaoui Said with “Swan Song” (Al Dar). Lebanon is represented by Jabbour Douaihy with “June Rain” (Dar An-Nahar) and May Menassa with “Walking in the Dust” (Riad El-Rayess). The other novels in the contest are “The Land of Purgatory” by Jordanian Elias Farkouh (Al Mouassassa Al Arabiya, and Azminah) and “In Praise of Hate” by Syrian Khaled Khalifa (Amisa).

Seventy-eight per cent of the 131 novels submitted were by men, and only 22 per cent by women. By far the largest share of novels, 33, came from Egyptian authors, followed by Syrian writers (16), Lebanese (14) and Tunisian (10). Six books by Saudi writers were entered.

IPAF was officially launched in Abu Dhabi in April 2007, in association with the Booker Prize Foundation of London and with financial and other support from the Emirates Foundation. One of its main aims is “to increase global readership of Arabic literature through the widest possible publication and distribution of contemporary Arabic fiction in translation.”

The Booker Prize Foundation administers Britain’s most prestigious literary prize, the £50,000 Man Booker Prize, which this year celebrates its 40th anniversary. Inevitably, the new Arabic prize is widely (if incorrectly) dubbed “the Arabic Booker”. Arabic is only the second language in the world to enjoy a Booker spin-off award: in 1992 a Russian version of the prize was established.

The sense of drama at the press conference, held at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) in Piccadilly, was heightened by the fact that the identity of the judges had until then been kept secret. This was so as “to ensure the independence and integrity of the selection process.” Since last July, the judges had each read their way through almost all the 131 novels in competition (a few novels were disqualified before this stage).

When the judges took their seats on the press conference panel they were revealed to be the Iraqi author and journalist and cofounder of Banipal magazine Samuel Shimon (judges’ chairman); London-based Syrian writer and journalist Ghalia Kabbani; Palestinian author and critic Faissal Darraj; British scholar, author and translator Paul Starkey, who is head of Durham University’s Arabic Department and Co-Director of the Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World; and the Moroccan writer and critic Mohammed Berrada and his fellow Moroccan, poet Mohammed Bennis.

The prize is managed by a 12-member independent Board of Trustees from the Arab world and the UK, representing a mix of writers, experts in Arabic literature and translation, and personalities from publishing, the media and academia. Jonathan Taylor, interim chair of the Board of Trustees and chair of the Booker Prize Foundation, told the press conference: “The purpose of the prize is to secure recognition, reward and readership for outstanding Arabic literary fiction of the highest quality, regardless of the nationality, religion, gender or age of the writer.” He announced that the philanthropist, anthropologist and publisher Sigrid Rausing has pledged to fund the translation of the winning work into English.

Maytha Al Habsi [right], director of communications at the Emirates Foundation, said: “As a foundation we hope and expect that the prize will inspire Arab authors, new and established, to apply their minds and spirits to the creation of high-quality literature that touches both our minds and hearts.”
It is also hoped that the prize “will encourage the translation of new Arabic literature into many of the world’s major languages” so that non-Arabs everywhere will have “the opportunity to read and absorb what the finest Arab writers are saying.”

The IPAF administrator, Lebanese poet, translator and journalist Joumana Haddad, believes that literature is the best tool for understanding the world and making it a better place. “Indeed, we have the best tool of intercultural and intercivilizational dialogue in books, provided we know how to choose these books – because a good part of what is being promoted, translated and exported from side to side is unfortunately enhancing the divide and the distorted images instead of breaking the pattern. “

Haddad said that IPAF “aims to be different, and by different we mean independent, transparent, objective, fair, bold and pioneering. It aspires to give the right Arabic books the local and international attention they deserve.”

Samuel Shimon said that the judges had arrived at their shortlist through two closed discussion sessions the previous day. The first session came up with a longlist of 16 titles, which was then whittled down to the final six.

Shimon explained what it was about each of the six novels that had led the judges to put them on the shortlist. For example, in the novel “In Praise of Hate”, Syrian novelist Khalid Khalifa narrates “the experience of oppression under the fundamentalist organizations and from inside a Syrian society deprived of democracy, in a multi-levelled language, and through characters who are torn apart facing an uncertain future.” The Lebanese novelist May Menassa in “Walking in the Dust” praises memory that is “scarred by the horrors of the war and loss in today’s world. The novel is written in a flowing style and rich prose, with a poetic dimension which suits the universal pain it is dealing with.”

Shimon described “Sunset Oasis” by Egyptian Baha Taher as “a fine work of fiction. Depending on the metaphor of the journey that crystallizes the existential crisis of a defeated man, he deals with many broad human questions.”

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette, February 4 2008

above: Joumana Haddad and Mohammed Berrada

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