Monday, December 15, 2008

arab booker shortlist

shortlisted titles (credit James Darling)

The shortlist of six novels for the $60,000 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), announced last week at an event in London’s South Bank arts complex, confirms the importance of Beirut as a publishing center. No fewer than five of the novels are published in Beirut, two of them by Dar al-Adab.

At the same time the shortlist reflects Egypt’s continuing domination of Arabic fiction writing. As in the first year of the prize, the shortlist includes two novels by Egyptian authors. The other shortlisted writers cover a broad sweep of the Arab world, from Tunisia to Palestine-Jordan, Syria and Iraq.

The winner of the first IPAF, who was announced in Abu Dhabi last March, was Egyptian Bahaa Taher for “Sunset Oasis”. Taher’s publisher, Dar al-Shorouk of Cairo, is the only non-Lebanese publisher with a book on the IPAF 2009 shortlist.

The IPAF 2009 winner will be announced in Abu Dhabi on March 16, on the eve of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. The winner will receive a total of $60,000, comprising the $50,000 prize itself plus the $10,000 awarded to each of the six shortlisted authors.

IPAF was established in Abu Dhabi in April 2007 with funding from the Emirates Foundation and support from the Booker Prize Foundation, which administers Britain’s leading fiction prize the Man Booker. IPAF is often referred to as “the Arab Booker”.

At the announcement of the shortlist, the chairman of the Booker Trust Jonathan Taylor said: “This is only the second year of the prize, but already it seems to be pretty well established. Indeed last year’s winner, Bahaa Taher’s novel ‘Sunset Oasis’, is in the process of being translated into eight languages – including, rather remarkably, Serbian – and the other shortlisted authors are also being translated. ”

The chairman of the five IPAF 2009 judges, the eminent Lebanese scholar and literary critic Youmna el-Eid, read out the titles of the shortlisted books. The best-known author on the shortlist is probably Jordanian-Palestinian poet and novelist Ibrahim Nasrallah, with “Time of White Horses” published by Arab Scientific Publishers of Beirut. The two Egyptians shortlisted are Muhammad Al-Bisatie for “Hunger” (Dar al-Adab) and Yusuf Zaydan for “Beelzebub” (Dar al Shorouk).

Syrian Fawwaz Haddad is shortlisted for “The Unfaithful Translator” (Riad el Rayyes, Beirut). The Iraqi journalist Inaam Kachahi – the only woman on the shortlist – is included for “The American Granddaughter” (Al Jadid, Beirut). From Tunisia there is Al-Habib Al-Salmi with “The Scents of Marie-Claire” (Dar Al Adab).

In all, 131 books were submitted, but ten were deemed unsuitable and the judges read 121 books to arrive at their 16-book longlist announced on November 11. Youmna el-Eid’s co-judges (pictured with el-Eid) are the Egyptian Rasheed El Enany, Professor of Modern Arabic Literature and Director of Arab Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, England; the Emirati writer, journalist and head of the Dubai Cultural Council Mohammad al-Murr; the Palestinian-Jordanian critic, journalist and author Fakhri Saleh, and the German translator of Arabic literature Hartmut Faehndrich.

As in the first year of the prize, the identity of the judges was kept secret until the announcement of the shortlist. This secrecy might seem excessive, but last year the organizers explained it was enforced so as “to ensure the independence and integrity of the selection process.”

El Eid stressed that the judges made their selections irrespective of a particular writer’s position or country of origin. Some well known authors of the 121 books considered were omitted from the longlist. And a striking example of a longlisted author who did not make it to the shortlist is the Libyan Ibrahim al-Koni, famed for his novels set in the desert among the Tuareg.

Al-Koni is an acclaimed author who won the Mohamed Zefzaf Prize for the Arabic Novel in 2005 and the 2008 Sheikh Zayed Award for Literature, and his some 60 books have been translated into 35 or so languages.

But then the shortlist for the Man Booker prize itself produces upsets almost every year: for example there was shock in September when Sir Salman Rushdie, widely tipped to win this year’s Man Booker for “The Enchantress of Florence”, failed to make the shortlist.

The six shortlisted novels encompass a wide range of Arab historical, social, religious and political concerns, and explore their impact on individuals. Muhammad Al-Bisatie’s “Hunger” tells of those on the bottom rungs of society, and the contradictions between rich and poor. The judges describe it as “a detached yet intimate portrait of day-to-day lives”.

Inaam Kachachi, Paris correspondent of Ash-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper, delves into the dilemmas of Iraqis who have grown up abroad, and their relationship with Iraq. A young American-Iraqi woman, “The American Granddaughter”, returns to Iraq as an interpreter for the US Army after the 2003 invasion.

In “Time of White Horses” Ibrahim Nasrallah depicts the history of three generations of a Palestinian family in a small village, from Ottoman times to the modern era. The judges observe that this saga is descended from a genre introduced into Arabic fiction by Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s “Cairo Trilogy”.

Tunisian Al-Habib Al-Salmi’s “The Scents of Marie-Claire” evokes another genre of Arabic fiction, exploring the East-West relationship through a love affair between an Arab man and a Western woman. Earlier examples of this genre are Tayib Saleh’s “Season of Migration to the North” and Tawfik Al-Hakim’s “Bird from the East”.

Yusuf Zaydan’s “Beelzebub” is set in fifth century Upper Egypt, Alexandria and Northern Syria at a critical time in Christian history. The novel, by a respected Muslim historian, has received critical praise but has upset the Coptic Orthodox Church, which reportedly tried to get it banned.

The central figure of Fawwaz Haddad’s “The Unfaithful Translator” is a translator accused of betrayal. He builds a network of literary figures, journalists and critics to campaign for the upholding of human values and an end to oppression in the art of writing. Ironically, this novel upholding freedom of expression is apparently banned in its author’s home country, Syria. (This was similarly the case with a novel by a Syrian author shortlisted for IPAF 2008, “In Praise of Hate” by Khaled Khalifa).

One of IPAF’s main aims is to encourage the translation of Arabic fiction into English. Arrangements for the translation of the eventual winner of the 2009 prize, and the other shortlisted novels, are already being discussed.

The English translation of the 2008 winner “Sunset Oasis”, being carried out by the highly-regarded translator Humphrey Davies, is funded by the philanthropist and publisher Sigrid Rausing. It is due to be published in the UK by Sceptre, a Hodder & Stoughton imprint, late next summer. The other five novels shortlisted in 2008 have been, or are being, translated into English and other languages.

Taylor says: “We are also becoming aware of another challenge and priority which is to improve the distribution and availability of our Arabic shortlisted writers within the Arabic-reading world. That may be as great a challenge – or even a greater challenge – as securing translation.”
Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette, December 15 2008

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