It was an unforgettable press conference. When the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) controversially announced that its 2011 award would be shared by Saudi Arabian author Raja Alem (The Dove's Necklace) and Moroccan writer Mohammed Achaari (The Arch and the Butterfly) – the only time this had ever happened – it made the regional press apoplectic.
The jury, led by Iraqi poet and novelist Fadhil Al Azzawi, fielded accusations, ranging from the panel not fulfilling their decisive remit, to them somehow conspiring to keep Arab female authors at bay by not allowing Alem to take the prestigious prize outright.
No one emerged from that scrap victorious. The judges were too defensive, the press too rabid, and the actual winners got swallowed up in the controversy. Most unfortunate, though, was that Alem's historic feat of being the first woman to win the IPAF award was relegated to a footnote. Not that she particularly cared. "My gender is not the competition, the book is, and I am very happy it won," she snapped during that press conference. She went on to say commentary had revolved around her, as a female, as a lesser being and added, "People talk about me winning this prize as if … the prize will change the view of Arab women in general. That is not the case."
It is a similar refrain heard today, eight years later, with last week’s news that a record high of four women – out of six authors – have been nominated for the IPAF award, which will be presented in a glittering ceremony in Abu Dhabi on April 23.
A celebrated shortlist
Three of the writers are also previous nominees. Iraqi author and journalist Inaam Kachachi, who was shortlisted twice in 2009 and 2014, returns with her novel The Outcast. Syria's Shahla Ujayli is also back on the shortlist, having been on it two years previously, for Summer with the Enemy; Hoda Barakat cracked the last six with The Night Mail after being long-listed in 2016; while Jordanian author Kafa Al Zoubi achieved her debut nomination with fifth novel, Cold White Sun.
Each shortlisted author will collect $10,000 (Dh36,725) and the winner will receive an additional prize of $50,000 – one of the highest prizes in fiction – and the translation of their book in to English.
With the odds on their side, this year’s IPAF awards will surely be the one in which a female author scoops the prize outright.
But what’s the big deal?
However, reaction to such an occasion from other leading female Arab authors has been rather muted. The view is the nominations, and even the winning of the award itself is merely confirmation of what any cultured Arab reader knows. "I don't actually find this news as amazing as some would think," Kachachi tells The National from Paris.
“There is already an impressive number of female authors producing great work. And that’s because they are discussing every aspect of life from the personal to societal and politics – many are not doing womens’ lit and, instead, writing to a broad audience who are obviously responding.”
What is interesting, Kachachi observes, is IPAF's consistent ratio of female writers and academics on the judging panel in recent years. For the 2019 prize, Saudi Arabian poet Fowziyah Abukhalid, Jordanian columnist Zulaikha Abu Risha and Chinese academic and translator Zhang Hongyi join their two male counterparts, Lebanese literary critic Latif Zeytoun and Moroccan critic Charafdin Majdolin. "I am not saying that has resulted in more female writers being nominated. That is something I don't know," Kachachi says. "But the fact is, there are talented and very accomplished female authors and academics in the literary field, and that is also being recognised in the prize. They will ultimately judge the works based on the skill, not on who wrote it."
Syria's Lina El Hassan, who was shortlisted in 2015 for Diamonds and Women, agrees with Kachachi. However, she states that it shouldn't overshadow the significance of this year's nominees. "Every woman on that shortlist more than deserves to be there. They are all experienced, and [have] written many books and some were nominated for the award multiple times. What does that tell you? That they are indeed great and skillful writers, first and foremost, and deserve to be praised," she says.
“But this news of the number of women also deserves to be talked about in a big way. Because there are still some elements of society, unfortunately, who are ignorant of what women can contribute to the culture generally and if hearing about this achievement helps them change those views, then that is ultimately a good thing.”
It’s all about the craft
Syrian-Kurdish novelist Maha Hussein, who was longlisted in 2015 and 2011 for novels Female Voices and Umbilical Cord respectively, says the conversation is exasperating. "I never ascribed to such theories. It doesn't concern me at all who writes the book. All I care about is the book. For example, I am pleased about Inaam Kachachi being shortlisted because she is an important writer, who just happens to be a female," she says. "Now some may celebrate that they are women nominees if they want to show the world what Arab women can do, but I am more about the work itself."
Hussein also doesn’t give credence to the consistent number of female judges on the award panel. “I am all for the panel being full of worthy judges, but I don’t agree with this notion of ratios and making sure that panels should always have females. It is about whether they are qualified to be on the panel,” she says. “Also I feel that this focus on having female judges can also work against female authors. It could create a sense of unnecessary competition between female authors that is not needed.”
While pleased to be acknowledged once again in such a prestigious competition, Kachachi says she is not interested in the commentary on what her potential win could mean for the Arabic literary scene. It is all white noise that blocks out the work itself, she says. “Am I getting better? That’s what I what I am interested in. And to be shortlisted for a third time is very positive and shows that I am heading in the right direction.”
“That’s what I learned from being a journalist. In all my years of covering events and issues, I never approached the job from the perspective of being a female journalist. It’s the same principle I apply to my writing career. I am just a writer. That’s it.”
For more details about the International Prize for Arabic Fiction visit www.arabicfiction