The ‘Arabic Booker Prize’ Could Make History This Year

This could be the first time a woman is named the sole winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction

Sahar Khalifeh chair of the Arab fiction judges during the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in Abu Dhabi, 2017.
Kamran Jebreili / AP

The suspense is growing in the Arabic literary world. The short list has just been announced for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, the Arabic version of the prestigious Booker Prize, and four of the final six authors are women, the highest number in the prize’s history (Seven of the 16 books on the list before the final cut were penned by women).

In all the years of the prize’s existence, no woman has ever won it alone, though Saudi writer Raja Alem shared the 2011 prize with Moroccan author Mohammed Achaari. The winning novel will be announced on April 23.

From left to right: Hoda Barakat (Lebanon) and Raja'a Alem (Saudi Arabia) and Inaam Kachachi (Iraq).
Agence Opale / Alamy Stock Photo, Leonardo Cendamo / Leemage / AFP, Ulf Andersen / Getty Images IL

The International Prize for Arabic Fiction, awarded to the best novel of the year written in Arabic, was begun jointly in 2008 by the Booker Prize organization in Britain and the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi (where the award ceremony is held). The selection process is quite complicated, not surprising considering the vastness of the Arab world. The competing books are written in a language spoken by 467 million people in numerous countries.

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The 16 books on this year’s preliminary list were chosen out of 134 submissions from nine Arab countries. Three were by Lebanese writers, two from Jordan, two from Algeria, two from Egypt, two from Iraq, two from Morocco and one each from Eritrea, Saudi Arabia and Syria. No Palestinian authors were nominated this year, but two have previously won the prize: Rabai al-Madhoun in 2016 for “Destinies: Concerto of the Holocaust and the Nakba, Palestine” and Ibrahim Nasrallah in 2018 for “Dog War II.” Last year, four Palestinian submissions made the final 16 and two made the short list. The six books on this year’s short list are: “The Night Mail” by Hoda Barakat (Lebanon); “The Commandments” by Adel Esmat (Egypt); “The Outcast” by Inaam Kachachi (Iraq); “What Sin Caused Her to Die?” by Mohammed Al-Maazuz (Morocco); “Summer with the Enemy” by Shahla Ujayli (Syria) and “Cold White Sun” by Kafa Al-Zou’bi (Jordan).

The cover of “The Night Mail” by Hoda Barakat (Lebanon).

A number of the authors on this year’s list of 16 have been in the running for the prize before and even made the short list, including Hoda Barakat in 2013; Waciny Laredj twice, in 2011 and 2013; Inaam Kachachi in 2009 and May Menassa in 2008. This goes to show that the prize is essentially meant for established authors and is not about promoting young writers. Besides the generous financial reward - $50,000 to the winner and $10,000 to each of the others on the short list, the prize also brings with it recognition, prestige and literary acclaim that transcends borders. Winning enables the writers to reach readers around the Arab world as well as an international audience, as the winning submissions are also translated into English. Naturally, it also affects sales. With a dominant group of authors controlling the discussion and the literary content, Arabic literature is less able to really take off and expand its boundaries.

This is just one of the criticisms made of the prize, about which opinions in the Arab world are divided. Many writers and publishers feel that the prize has jolted Arabic literature out of stagnation and led to much-needed revitalization. The strongest example of this is Saudi literature. When Saudi writer Abdo Khal won the prize in 2010, it greatly raised the profile of literature coming out of his country. In 2015, the Kuwaiti author Laila Al-Othman told the Al-Hayat Al-Lubnaniya newspaper, “Awarding prizes and giving acclaim to artists and writers reflects a cultural recognition, but I am not in favor of authors repeatedly contending for the prize.”

In the same article, the Libyan writer Ahmed Fagih said: “I’m in favor of giving prizes, but against cultural corruption. It’s very important that the criteria for selecting the works be more sharply defined. The Arabic Booker is an excellent way to boost Arabic language, literature and culture, as long as it is done properly.” Fagih was referring to one of the main arguments made against this prize, which some critics who call for its cancellation see as little more than a patronizing literary show. This argument is directed mainly at the selection process for the winning books. The Abu Dhabi-based board of trustees appoints a judges panel with representatives from around the world. This year’s panel was comprised of Charafdin Majdolin, a Moroccan critic and academic appointed chairman; Fowziyah Abu Khalid, a Saudi Arabian poet, writer, academic and researcher in social and political issues; Zulaikha Aburisha, a Jordanian poet and activist; Latif Zeitouni, a Lebanese academic and literary critic and Zhang Hong Yi, a Chinese translator and researcher.

Iraqi novelist, poet and screenwriter Ahmed Saadawi accepts the prize at the seventh International Prize for Arabic Fiction, for his book "Frankenstein in Baghdad".
International Prize for Arabic F

Publishers from around the Arab world submit the best works they have released that year. Then the list of the final 16 is compiled, the judges read and discuss the works and decide their fate by majority consensus. One problem, though, is that the criteria by which the lists are compiled are not entirely clear. Concepts such as creativity, innovation, breaking of religious and social taboos, and more, are supposedly among them. But the discussions are not accessible to researchers and literary critics, so the process remains hidden.

Aside from the lack of transparency, some also complain that the selection process is marred by the aggressive intervention of publishers, personal interests and business considerations. There have even been contentions that at times the competition was rigged. An investigative report in an online Lebanese publication alleged that Lebanese author Alawiya Sobh had made a deal with the judges ahead of the 2010 ceremony to be awarded the prize for her book “It’s Called Love.” An internal source who insisted on anonymity pointed the finger. The story sparked much indignation. The Egyptian writer Gamal El-Ghitani wrote in the weekly magazine Akhbar Al-Adab (“Literature News”): “I don’t understand the need for a panel of judges to select literary works in Arabic when the results are known from the start. We all know that the prize is going to the writer Alawiya Sobh! So there’s no need for meetings and discussions and committees and plane tickets and hotel reservations. It’s a waste of public money.” In an interview with the Egyptian paper Rose al-Yusuf, writer Ibrahim Farghali said: “This deal shows the rot in the Arabic cultural climate.” Author and journalist Gaber Asfour, one of the judges, denied the allegations, telling Rose al-Yusuf, “These are false accusations. I have no knowledge of Alawiya Sobh’s candidacy and I do not know her.” Sobh did not win the prize. But opposition to the prize still grew in wake of this affair and the following year a number of top authors threatened to boycott it.

Other criticisms of the prize, at least before this year, have been that women writers are not given due attention, and that Sudanese literature in Arabic is underrepresented as well as Moroccan literature to some extent. In 2017, the Moroccan writer Abdelkarim Jouaiti said in an interview: “A majority of Arabic literature is created in the countries of the Maghreb. It’s unfathomable that there isn’t a single text that represents them.”

This year, two Moroccan titles made the list of 16 and one made the short list. Generally, though, the dearth of representation is because the main publishing houses are located in Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan, and they have a lot of influence. Moreover, the Sudanese and Moroccan literary experience has always been perceived as being on the fringes of the Arabic literary world, as too different for the ordinary Arab reader to easily relate to. The common notion is that compared to Egypt, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza, where there are major political and humanitarian crises, struggle and upheaval, which makes the literature written there more attractive to publishers who see greater marketing potential, the political, social and cultural currents in the Maghreb are much tamer.

Palestinian or Syrian stories or subjects also garner sympathy and interest, for political reasons as well. The Maghreb is not seen in the same way. As has been the case with women’s literature, anything that isn’t mainstream isn’t a good candidate for the Arabic Booker.