Longlist announced for international "Arabic Booker" fiction prize
It's that time of year again, when speculation begins about which novel will be this year's winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF).
The record number of 180 submissions for this year's competition was whittled down to 16 longlist finalists, announced on Monday morning. The submissions were from 15 different Arab countries, with the highest number from Egypt and Lebanon, which are well represented in the longlist with three novels each.
Launched in 2017, and funded by Abu Dhabi's Tourism and Culture Authority, IPAF is the Arab world's most prestigious fiction prize. It draws a lot of media attention and discussion, partly because it was modelled on the UK's Man Booker Prize. It usually includes wide range of novels, from crime novels to thrillers, historical fiction and magical realism.
The longlist of sixteen books will be cut down to six for the shortlist on 13 February, before the final winner is announced in March.
The Arab Spring has been a theme for many writers since 2011, but it has also reportedly been damaging to the publishing industry in the Arab world, with book sales reduced dramatically and production costs up. The IPAF is therefore a welcome prize at a time when literary production and the publishing industry appear to need encouragement and support.
This year's longlist includes both established and first-time novelists from ten countries. It represents "stylistically and thematically varied novels", said Professor Yasir Suleiman, Chair of IPAF's Board of Trustees. "Their combined and contrasting perspectives make for a rich and fertile range of reading material".
There are five novels by female authors - more than on any previous longlist: Mona Al-Sheemi's The Size of a Grape (Egypt), Lina Huyan Elhassan's Diamonds and Women (Syria), Jana Elhassan's Floor 99 (Lebanon), Maha Hassan's Female Voices (Syria) and Hadia Hussein's Riyam and Kafa (Iraq).
Also on this year's longlist are Atef Abu Saif's A Suspended Life (Palestine), Mohammed Barrada's Far from Clamour, Close to Silence (Morrocco), Antoine Douaihy's Drowning in Lake Morez (Lebanon), Habib Abdulrab Sarori's The Daughter of Suslov (Yemen), Ashraf al-Khamaisi's Sharp Turning (Egypt), Hamour Ziada's The Longing of the Dervish (Sudan), Shukri al-Mabkhout's The Italian (Tunisia), Abdel Waha al-Hamadi's Don't Tell your Nightmare! (Kuwait), Ahmed al-Madeeni's Willow Alley (Morocco) and Hisham al-Khashin's Graphite (Egypt).
Jana Elhassan was also shortlisted in 2013, while Lebanon's Jabbour Douiahy, whose novel The American Neighbourhood is on this year's longlist, was also shortlisted in 2008. Three of this year's longlisted authors have appeared on previous longlists.
As with the UK's Man Booker Prize, we don't know which 180 titles were actually submitted for the prize by the publishers, so it is impossible to tell whether some novels did not make the longlist or whether they were simply not submitted.
The 'Arab Booker'
The prize has been popularly dubbed "the Arab Booker" because it has received support and mentoring from the Booker Prize Foundation, the UK charitable foundation that awards the Man Booker Prize. But both IPAF and the Man Booker discourage this epithet, affirming that they are separate organisations.
IPAF's declared aim is to bring international recognition to Arabic fiction, which would be otherwise unknown outside Arab countries.
"I believe that this prize will reward and bring recognition and readership to outstanding writers in Arabic," IPAF's chairman Jonathan Taylor stated when it was first launched.
The six shortlisted authors will be awarded $10,000 each and the overall winner $50,000 - a large sum in comparison with other literary prizes in the Arab world. There are a few larger: the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, also funded by the UAE, offers a total of nearly $2 million to winners in a number of categories, and Qatar's Katara Cultural Village recently launched a $200,000 award for Arabic fiction, offering a $20,000 prize as well as translation into English.
But the IPAF remains the most prestigious prize, and gives listed authors exposure and publicity. Winning novels, as well as several shortlisted and longlisted works, have been translated in Europe, the US, Latin America and Asia.
Bahaa Taher's Sunset Oasis (winner in 2008) and Rabee Jaber's The Druze of Belgrade (winner in 2012) were both translated into nine different languages, while Yousef Zeidan's Azzazeel (winner in 2009) has been translated into 15 languages.
The prize aims to be as inclusive as possible but has had its fair share of controversy. It is frequently criticised for not including enough women. Before 2015, there had been 19 novels by 17 women on the longlists since the prize was launched - but only one female winner, Saudi writer Raja Alem, who was awarded the prize jointly with Moroccan writer Mohammad Achaari in 2011.
The prize has also been accused of favouring novels that would appeal more to Western tastes, such as those which focus on themes of intercultural relations or migration. But some internationally acclaimed authors who have featured on the longlists, such as Elias Khoury, Hoda Barakat and Rabee Jaber, have not made the shortlists - with preference shown to less established, emerging writers.
The organisers also emphasise that the judges' choices are independent and not based on governmental agendas, even though the prize is funded by Abu Dhabi's Tourism and Culture Authority.
The identities of the judges remain secret each year until the shortlist is announced so that they are not subjected to any pressure - with the exception of 2010 when there was a leak. Still, there remain rumours that the UAE has tried to guide judging decisions.
Now that this year's longlist has been announced, there will be plenty of speculation about the 2015 winner, and hopefully also lots of healthy cultural discussion about the longlisted and shortlisted novels, as well as debate about the choice of the judges themselves, the prize's independence and its aesthetic criteria.