As the inauguration of the 2011 Cairo International Book Fair approaches, getting up to speed on this year’s top Arabic novels, many of which have been translated into English, is imperative. The shortlist for this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) is a good place to start.
The IPAF, popularly known as the Arabic Booker Prize, is a prestigious prize inaugurated in 2007 and sponsored by the Emirates Foundation for Philanthropy in Abu Dhabi along with the UK’s Booker Prize Foundation. The prize was created to promote recognition of outstanding work in Arabic, as well as to encourage the translation of Arabic novels into English and other languages.
The winner is set to be announced on March 14 in Abu Dhabi as the city’s International Book Fair kicks off. Shortlisted authors each receive $10,000, while the winner receives an additional $50,000 prize.
This year’s shortlisted books include Egyptians Miral Al-Tahawy (“Brooklyn Heights”) and Khaled El-Berry (“An Oriental Dance”) as well as “The Doves’ Necklace” by Saudi author Raja Alem. Works by the current and former Moroccan Ministers of Culture have both been incorporated on the list: Bensalem Himmich’s “My Tormenter” and Mohammed Achaari’s “The Arch and the Butterfly.” The final shortlisted work is “The Head Hunter” by Sudan’s Amir Taj Al-Sir.
While each of the novels on the shortlist have been widely praised, this year’s selection was mired in more than the usual controversy as some authors expected to make the cut were left out. Egypt’s Khairy Shalaby was widely predicted to earn a place on the shortlist for his novel “Istasia.” Egyptian authors Radwa Ashour and Gamal El-Ghitany declined to be nominated in protest against perceived interference by publishing houses in the nomination process. This year’s list was also notable for the inclusion of two women authors.
Egyptian authors won the IAPF in its first two years, but are not expected to win this year’s prize despite outstanding contributions, particularly Al-Tahawy’s “Brooklyn Heights,” which was awarded the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature last month. Al-Tahaway’s novel is a compelling story about an Egyptian woman living in New York that explores exile and the diverse experiences of immigrant communities in the United States.
Khaled El-Berry, a trained physician originally from Assiut, has lived in London for over 10 years and works at the BBC. He gained renown for a memoir, “Life is Paradise,” which traced his brief flirtation with radical Islam. His shortlisted second novel, “An Oriental Dance,” is a lengthy work that follows the story of a young Egyptian man who comes to the UK after marrying an older English woman. The work describes the young man’s struggle to adapt, and the ins and outs of the Arab expatriate community in the UK.
Raja Alem’s “The Doves’ Necklace,” written with Tom McDonough is a striking example of the author’s highly unique style, although it has been argued that this is not the award winning author’s strongest work to date. The book reveals the darker side of Mecca, the author’s home town, exploring the protagonist’s run-ins with everything from prostitution to the exploitation of foreign workers to religious extremism in a mesmerizing narrative.
“The Head Hunter” by Amir Taj Al-Sir, a Sudanese physician living in Doha, tells the story of a retired secret service agent writing a novel about his career. When, engrossed in the writing process, he begins to frequent a café popular with intellectuals and begins to arouse suspicion among the local police. Taj Al-Sir, a former poet who has written 10 novels, is widely regarded as a giant among Arabic fiction writers.
Former Minister of Culture Mohammed Achaari’s “The Arch and the Butterfly” looks at the implications of terrorism for family life through the story of a liberal father who discovers that his son, who he thought was at school in Paris, has died a martyr in Afghanistan.
Sitting Moroccan Minister of Culture Bensalem Himmich’s “My Tormentor” is a particularly exciting prospect. Two-time winner of the Naguib Mahfouz medal, Himmich is known for his difficult, philosophical style, but in this work, he seems to have struck the correct balance between storytelling and speculation in a gripping tale of an innocent man’s experience of extraordinary rendition in an American prison.
A panel of Arab and foreign judges has the difficult task of choosing the winner from amongst these strong works; it is expected that one of the Moroccan works will take the prize this year.