London: Whenever the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), popularly known as the Arabic Booker, releases its long and shortlists, debate over the choices quickly follows. Novels which did not make the cut, also feature in discussions.
Debate surrounding the Booker Prize has become an annual conversation that does not end with the announcement of the winner.
These debates are not restricted to the most recently released lists either, sometimes past lists are brought up again as a topic of conversation — with observers criticising or praising various works.
The prestigious prize has managed to retain its luster over the past 15 years and managed to maintain its position as the most distinguished Arab award in the field of literature.
Its aim is to “to reward excellence in contemporary Arabic creative writing and encourage the readership of high-quality Arabic literature internationally through the translation and publication of winning and shortlisted novels in other major languages."
The prestigious prize strives "to reward excellence in contemporary Arabic creative writing and encourage the readership of high-quality Arabic literature internationally through the translation and publication of winning and shortlisted novels in other major languages.
Over the years, the prize has developed certain traditions and merits —characterised by its ability to invigorate the Arabic literature landscape and create an Arab market for fiction, exporting dozens of novels to various publishing houses from the different regions in the Arab world.
A wealth of literary works
The panel of judges sifted through a wealth of literary works and identified some of the most distinguished, creative and innovative novels.
This January, the International Prize for Arabic Fiction announced the titles of novels nominated for the longlist for its 2023 round.
The English list comprised 16 novels by writers from nine Arab countries: Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Morocco, Libya, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Oman, from different generations. The authors' ages ranged from 40 to 77 years.
The longlist reads as follows:
1. Drought, by the Algerian Siddiq Haj Ahmed, published by Dar Al-Dawaya Publishers & Distributors 2. The Sandbox, by Libyan Aisha Ibrahim, published by Al-Mustawasit Publications 3. Everyone Says I Love You, by Lama Al-Telmisani from Egypt, published by Dar Al-Shorouk 4. One Night Is Enough, by Qassem Tawfiq from Jordan, Al Aan Publishers and Distributors 5. The Stone of Happiness, by Azhar Georges from Iraq, published by Dar Al-Rafidain 6. My Name is Zayzofon-Linden by Sawsan Jamil Hassan from Syria, published by Al-Rabee Publications 7. The Ruler of the Two Citadels by Lina Hawayan Al-Hassan from Syria, published by Dar Al-Adab 8. Our Big House, by Rabia Rayhan from Morocco, published by Dar Al Ain 9. The Corina Eduardo Concerto by Najwa Bin Shatwan from Libya, published by Takween Publications Iraq 10. Days of the Rising Sun by Miral El-Tahawy from Egypt, published by Dar Al-Ain 11. The Higher Horizon by Fatima Abdul Hamid from Saudi Arabia, published by Masciliana Editions, UAE 12. The Ages of Daniel in the City of Threads by Ahmed Abdel-Latif from Egypt, published by Dar Al-Ain 13. Antikhnae by Naser Iraq from Egypt, published by Dar Al-Shorouk 14. Layalina by Ahmed Al-Fakharani from Egypt, published by Dar Al-Shorouk; Al-Qafir's Exodus by Zahran Al-Qasimi from Oman, published by Dar Rashem 15. The Rabbit's Music by Mohamed El-Haradi from Morocco published by Al-Moustawasit Publications.
This year's jury panel was chaired by the Moroccan writer and novelist Mohamed Al-Achaari (who previously shared the Booker Prize in 2011 for his novel The Bow and the Butterfly with Rajaa al-Aalem from Saudi Arabia).
Other members are Egyptian novelist and academic Reem Bassiouney. Algerian novelist, researcher, journalist Fadhila El Farouk, Swedish university professor and translator Tetz Rooke, and Omani writer and academic Aziza al-Ta'i.
In a statement, the panel spoke in general about some of the topics addressed by the selected novels: "From immigration and the experience of exile and asylum to human relations, whether transient or deep, the novels also explore the world of childhood and the experiences of transition from childhood to maturity, showing the complex political turmoil and various individual and group conflicts."
It continued: "In these novels, we find irony, magical realism, dystopia, symbolism, and attempts to invest in folklore and oral stories to understand current political and social issues."
Muhammad al-Achaari, the panel's chair, pointed out, in his statement on the longlist, the diversity of "writing styles, which included journalistic investigative techniques, cinematic recording, and traditional narration, as well as sarcasm, contemplation, and poetic language."
The writing styles of the selected novels included journalistic investigative techniques, cinematic recording, and traditional narration, as well as sarcasm, contemplation, and poetic language.
Muhammad al-Achaari, Panel chair
According to the statement, some writers who had previously reached the final stages of the competition have now managed to get onto the longlist.
These are Aisha Ibrahim, Azhar Georges, Lina Hawayan Al-Hassan, Najwa Bin Shatwan, Miral Al-Tahawy, Ahmed Abdel-Latif, and Nasser Iraq.
Nine other writers have been selected for the first time to the longlist. They are Al-Siddiq Haj Ahmed, May Al-Tilmisani, Qasim Tawfiq, Sawsan Jamil Hassan, Rabia Rayhan, Fatima Abdel-Hamid, Ahmed Al-Fakharani, Zahran Al-Qasimi, and Muhammad Al-Hradi.
Reading the statement, one wonders about the circumstances surrounding the novelists' selection. What criteria governed the selection process? Was it the topics or the methods, the stories or the technique, the narrative or the ways of telling stories, and the novelists experimenting and their "playing" in the worlds of their novels?
The statement will give you a definitive answer.
It's important to note that the tastes of the judges are subjective, which makes it difficult to accurately judge the reasons for selecting particular novels.
This opens the door for speculation, due diligence and questioning the elements of quality, distinction, and experimentation, which, in turn, opens the way for guessing and posing questions on the criteria of excellence, distinction, and experimentalism.
Although the award does not have an allocated country quota, geographical distribution remains present and a renewed topic of discussion.
It was remarkable, though, that some Arab countries are not represented in this year's longlist, including countries with a significant presence in previous years, such as Lebanon, Tunisia, Palestine, Kuwait, and others.
Conversely, other countries were particularly dominant, such as Egypt, which had four novels on the list.
Publishers also have a share in the glory. When a novel is selected, it will generate buzz which helps with book sales. This increases the chance it gets nominated to subsequent lists, as well.
This year, there is also an overwhelming presence of Egyptian publishing houses. Dar Al-Ain has three novels in the competition, and so does Dar Al-Shorouk, in addition to one novel from Dar Al-Rabea.
Other publishers secured a place for themselves in the award lists after years of work and perseverance, such as the publications of Masciliana Editions and Al-Mutawasset – The Mediterranean.
With the announcement of the long list, several questions arise about what happens next. Interested observers begin to anticipate what novels will be shortlisted and who the winner will be this year.
Will it be an Egyptian novel, considering the large number of Egyptian competitors, or will some of them be taken away from the shortlist to maintain geographical balance and thus equal chances of winning?
Is the trend this year to support a new novel or to dedicate names that have previously been selected in the award and had their share of fame and promotion? Will there be a coronation of participants from countries that have yet won the prize?
However, a creative outburst has been observed — particularly in novels from Syria.
It is natural for each longlist or shortlist to reflect the opinions of the jury panel so that the winner is the best Arab in the competition for a given year.
However, the powerful media plays a role when it selects certain novels and puts them in the spotlight — to either over-praise or destroy them, at the expense of many works that were not nominated for the award.
The powerful media plays a role when it selects certain novels and puts them in the spotlight — to either over-praise or destroy them, at the expense of many works that were not nominated for the award.
Perhaps Jonathan Taylor's (Chairman of the Booker Prize Foundation) previous comment on the controversies raised by the award reflects its movement and takes it out of the framework of opinion and speculation into the realm of the unexpected in terms of presenting new and different experiences and dedicating names around it in one way or another.
Over the years, droves of novelists attend the prize as nominees or arbitrators, which is seemingly charting the course of literary tastes according to specific experiences and preferences.
There is no question that the award's impact is evident and growing in Arabic fiction. The debate continues among novelists, critics, publishers, journalists, and readers, sometimes years after the results are announced.
The results are met with criticism or showered with praise. This gives it the ability to continue raising divergent and dissenting opinions that propose alternatives that, in turn, promote the award, albeit in a contradictory or critical context.
Finally, it is noteworthy that the International Prize for Arabic Fiction is an annual prize for fiction creativity in Arabic.
The award is sponsored by the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre under the umbrella of the Department of Culture and Tourism, Abu Dhabi. The Booker Prize Foundation based in London has served as its mentor.