10 Reads from the First 10 Years of the ‘Arabic Booker’
The latest issue of Banipal, the London-based literary magazine with a focus on Arabic, hosts a vibrant debate about Arabic book prizes. While there are many new awards—the Katara Prize in Qatar, Almultaqa in Kuwait—most of the Banipal debaters focus praise and ire on the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), the most high-profile among the new arrivals. This prize, popularly known as the “Arabic Booker,” is set to announce its tenth annual award in Abu Dhabi at the end of April.
In his amusing short essay for Banipal, Syrian novelist and journalist Khalil Sweileh sets his satirical gaze on the IPAF. Sweileh, who recently won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal, asks, “What have the awards done to my fellow Arab novelists?”
The prize seems to “emulate those contests on satellite TV channels, where the best singer, actor, acrobat or dancer is selected, and is seen to reach the top one step after another,” Sweileh writes, in an essay translated by Valentina Viene. “That is how the longlist appears. Then comes the shortlist, then the ‘Big Brother,’ the moral coronation and its material twin, while tens of other novels exit the sorting mill.”
While high-profile, multi-stage literary prizes have been around French and English literature for a century or more, they are relatively new to Arabic letters. Authors, critics, and publishers have been alternately hot and cold on the phenomenon. The IPAF isn’t the biggest-money prize, offering a not-inconsiderable $50,000 to its winner, $10,000 to each shortlisted novel and the cost of translation into English of the winning novel. But it certainly is the most well known, and its shortlisted novels regularly become bestsellers.
Lebanese publisher Hassan Yaghi, in his lit-prize essay, had some criticism of the new surge in literary prizes. But, Yaghi wrote, he looks at the IPAF from a "highly positive perspective."
Before this new prize surge, Arabic literary prizes went only to the most established writers, Yaghi notes. And government-sponsored prizes often went to safe, uncritical, regime-friendly writers. The IPAF, meanwhile, has brought lesser-known writers and controversial topics to the center of the literary debate. Yaghi particularly cites the attention the prize has given prolific Lebanese novelist Rabee Jaber.
Jaber was on the longlist and shortlist before he finally won the IPAF for his novel The Druze of Belgrade. And, Yaghi writes, "Arab readers are now going back to his [Jaber’s] early works and are waiting enthusiastically for his new ones.”
Not every book on the IPAF longlists—by now a group around 150 strong—has been equally worthy. Some of the prize-winning novels came and went without making much of an impression, such as the 2008 winner, Bahaa Taher’s Sunset Oasis, translated by Humphrey Davies. Some have made readers question the judges’ judgment, like the 2010 winner, Abdo Khal’s Throwing Sparks, translated by Maia Tabet and Michael Scott. Some were edited too drastically by the English-language publisher, such as Khaled Khalifa’s In Praise of Hatred, translated by Leri Price. And a good many excellent Arabic novels never made any of the IPAF lists.
Still, among the “Arabic Booker” books available in English, there are many strong reads. To mark the prize’s first ten years, I chose ten novels, the first by the celebrated Rabee Jaber:
Two more forthcoming later this year and early next year:
Ahmed Saadawi's Frankenstein in Baghdad, translated by Jonathan Wright, will be out from Penguin in early 2018. (Winner, 2014)
Rabai al-Madhoun’s Destinies: Concerto of the Holocaust and the Nakba is scheduled for release by Hoopoe in Fall 2017. (Winner, 2016)
Four more if you read in French:
Jabbour Douaihy's Saint Georges regardait ailleurs. (Shortlist, 2012). Won the Prix de la Littérature Arabe in 2013. translated to French by Stéphanie Dujols.
Jabbour Douaihy's Le Quartier américain. (Longlist, 2015) Translated to French by Stéphanie Dujols.
Mohammed Hasan Alwan's Le castor. (Shortlist, 2013), translated to French by Stéphanie Dujols. Won the Prix de la Littérature Arabe in 2015.
Ali Al-Muqri's Le Beau Juif. (Longlist, 2011). Translated by Khaled Osman in collaboration with Ola Mehanna.