International Prize for Arabic Fiction Winner Announced

“These works existed but were not known outside the Arab world as they deserved to be.”

Last night in Abu Dhabi, Mohammed Hasan Alwan was announced the winner of the 2017 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) for his novel, A Small Death, chosen from an impressive shortlist including Elias Khoury of Lebanon and Mohammed Abdel Nabi of Egypt.

In a video for IPAF, Alwan, who was born in Saudi Arabia but now lives in Toronto, said, “It might seem odd to choose to write a novel about Ibn ‘Arabi with all those extreme eastern concepts, whilst residing in this distant cold corner of the world in Canada. I often think about this. So, at first, I directly linked it to me feeling nostalgic, then I realised that being exposed to what is seemingly foreign or different is what drives me to reconnect with myself, as well as with my heritage and old culture.”

Since its inception almost ten years ago, IPAF, often referred to as the “Arabic Booker,” has maintained as its central mission the translation of winning and shortlisted novels to encourage greater readership of high-quality Arabic literature internationally.  In fact, it guarantees translation of winning novels into English (and other languages when the budget permits), provides monetary awards to shortlisted pieces ($10,000 each, and $50,000 to the winner), and supports appearances of authors at international festivals, including Shubbak in London and the Berlin Literary Festival.

The initial idea for IPAF emerged in 2007 when Ibrahim el Moallem, then President of the Arab Publishers’ Association, “talked of the regrettably few numbers of high quality contemporary Arabic novels being translated into leading Western languages,” as Fleur Montanaro, current administrator of IPAF, recounted to me in a recent interview.  Ms. Montanaro added “these works existed but were not known outside the Arab world as they deserved to be.”

According to numbers alone, IPAF does appear to have made some headway in promoting translation.  Although some have argued in the past (see this report from Literature Across Frontiers) that IPAF primarily encourages Anglophone translations, winning and shortlisted novels have been translated into 20 languages, including several non-European languages, among them Chinese, Turkish, and Russian.  Furthermore, distribution has not been limited to the European continent.  For example, The Druze of Belgrade by Rabee Jaber, winner in 2012, was distributed in Latin America.

Winning pieces are not the only ones benefiting from the media attention and the monetary awards that IPAF provides.  At least two shortlisted novels, Khaled Khalifa’s In Praise of Hatred and Jabbour Douaihy’s Vagrant, have earned awards for their translations, leading more than one source to argue that IPAF has indeed achieved its goal of encouraging greater circulation of Arabic literature internationally.

Although the prize, co-sponsored by the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, has not escaped allegations about lack of transparency in its deliberations, winning novels have included banned or censored literature.  For example, The Italian, by Shukri al-Mabkhout, a Tunisian academic and author, which won IPAF in 2015, was initially banned in the United Arab Emirates at the time of the prize’s announcement of the winners.  Similarly, two Saudi winners of the prize (Raja Alem for The Dove’s Necklace in 2011, the first woman to win the award, and Abdo Khal for Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles in 2010) had their books censored back at home.

In my interview with her, Ms. Montanaro also highlighted effects the prize has had on readership within the problematically termed “Arab World” (which is commonly used to refer to the Near Eastern and North African regions). For example, she argued that IPAF has succeeded in changing the perception common in the Arab world that a great writer must be elderly. Many winning novels have been written by talented younger and/or previously unknown writers whose work deserved to be known and is now widely read. But in each prize cycle judges are required to find the best novel of the year in their opinion, irrespective of the author’s age, gender, politics, religion, or nationality.

Another important step to increase readership within these regions is to ensure that the novels are actually stocked in bookstores.  According to Ms. Montanaro, they are, as she notes that the winner’s “book will find its way into bookshops in all corners of the Arab world (significant when distribution is a problem in the region) and will be read in book clubs from Casablanca to Dubai.”  Additionally, she contends “[e]ven a longlisting causes extra editions of a book to be printed and the number increases steadily as books are shortlisted or win… I frequently meet bookshop owners who tell me that they sell out of their stock of the longlist or shortlist on the day of the announcements.”  Sounds like bookstores will be reordering copies of A Small Death today!

As alluded to above by Ms. Montanaro, there is evidence that individuals within the countries included under the blanket term the “Arab World” are getting greater exposure to Arabic literature. On the one hand, Ms. Montanaro highlighted official efforts by the prize to encourage reading among university students in the Gulf: “Each year we partner with the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai and provide hundreds of copies of either the winning or a shortlisted novel for UAE students, for them to read before having a masterclass with the author. Last year, we did the same in Muscat, where Saud Alsanousi discussed his novel The Bamboo Stalk [the 2013 IPAF winner] with students.”

Similarly, Ms. Montanaro provided some anecdotes of how IPAF is digested by people within these countries “from a 1000-strong book club of women meeting in a large venue in Morocco who read the longlist each year, to small groups of friends discussing IPAF books in cafés in the Middle East.”

Jessie Stoolman is Editor-at-Large, Morocco at Asymptote.  She currently works as a language educator in Tetouan, Morocco and intermittently contributes to transnational research projects, when possible.


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