International fiction prize spreads the word about Arabic literature

The winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction will be announced tomorrow. The prize is $50,000 but the global exposure and opportunities it offers are priceless, writes Asmaa Al Hameli

Youssef Ziedan receives the 2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction in Abu Dhabi. Andrew Henderson / The National
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Whoever steps forward to collect this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction (Ipaf) at the Hilton Grand Capital Hotel tomorrow night will be gaining a lot more than simply a first prize of US$50,000 (Dh184,000).

Seven years after it was launched in Abu Dhabi, the leading literary prize for the novel in the Arab world has brought recognition and reward to the winners on a global scale.

The prize “has been a successful journey”, says Jonathan Taylor, the chairman of Ipaf, which is funded by the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority and supported by the Booker Prize Foundation. “It is the most important prize in Arabic literature in terms of recognition, reward and readership to leading, very good writers in Arabic.”

The numbers for this year’s prize seem to support his statement. No fewer than 156 authors from 18 Arab states have submitted novels for consideration, all of them published in the past 12 months.

Their efforts are evaluated by a panel of five judges composed of literary critics, writers and academics from the Arab world, selected by the board of trustees.

The names of judges are kept confidential until the announcement of the shortlist to avoid claims of influence by nationality, age, religion or reputation,

“It is very important we maintain what we have got in Ipaf now,” says Mr Taylor. “Independence and integrity.”

One of the main goals of the prize is to encourage the translation of Arabic literature into other languages.

“What the prize does is secure translation for the writer, and this is the most important thing a prize can do,” says Mr Taylor.

Also important is finding the right translator for the job. Arabic is a highly expressive language in terms of dialect, accent and style. But when this rich source is translated, says Mr Taylor, it risks losing its richness. “There have been very few bestsellers [when translated] to other languages,” he says.

Part of Ipaf’s mission, therefore, is to collaborate with good translators and reward them.

Mr Taylor gives as an example Banipal magazine in London, which has been showcasing the work of Arab authors in English translation for 15 years.

“We want to find translators who can keep the identity of the original author and some mixture of the original version,” he says.

One of the early Ipaf winners was Youssef Ziedan, whose novel Azazeel took the prize in 2009. It later won the 2012 Anobii First Book Award after it was translated into English. The translation, by Jonathan Wright, also won the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation in February.

Azazeel has now been published in 25 languages, including Greek, Hebrew, Indonesian, Turkish and Russian.

The novel follows the journey of a Coptic monk from upper Egypt to Alexandria and then Syria at a time of major conflict in the early Church.

“To me, writing is a responsibility,” says Mr Ziedan, an Egyptian who lives in Cairo. “No doubt, the translation has helped reach a wider audience. Even though many people have access to read the book in different languages, however, I believe many Arabs would go for the Arabic version.”

Last year’s prize was won by Saud Alsanousi from Kuwait. His novel, The Bamboo Stalk, tells the story of a woman from the Philippines who leaves her family and her studies to seek a better future in Kuwait.

To research the book, Mr Alsanousi, a journalist as well as an author, travelled to the Philippines.

He has described the book as dealing with universal themes, including racism and discrimination.

This year’s six shortlisted writers, each of whom is guaranteed a prize of at least $10,000, come from four Arab nations.

Youssef Fadel, author of A Rare Blue Bird that Flies with Me, and Abdelrahim Lahbibi, whose novel is titled The Journeys of Abdi, Known as Son of Hamriya are both Moroccan.

Ahmed Saadawi, the author of Frankenstein in Baghdad is from Iraq, as is Inaam Kachachi, the writer of Tashari.

The shortlist is completed by No Knives in this City’s Kitchens, by Khaled Khalifa, who is Syrian, and The Blue Elephant by Egyptian writer Ahmed Mourad.

The themes of the novels echo the writers’ nationalities: a prisoner’s story in Morocco, a man’s struggle in a psychiatric hospital in Cairo, and a police hunt for an Iraqi Frankenstein’s monster.

Since it was launched, Ipaf has translated more than 20 books.

The inaugural 2008 prize was won by Bahaa Taher, from Egypt, for Sunset Oasis, which was published in English by the London-based publisher Sceptre and has subsequently been translated into eight languages.

Other winners have come from Kuwait, Lebanon and Morroco. Saudi Arabia has produced two winners, Abdo Khal in 2010 and Raja’a Alem, the first female winner, the following year, sharing the prize with Mohammed Achaari.

“When the winner is announced, it is not one country or one culture that rejoices, but the entire Arab world,” says Mr Taylor. “The prize goes beyond Abu Dhabi.”

After seven years of the prize, new themes are emerging in Arabic fiction, as well as changes in style and narration.

“Judges of the 2012 prize noticed that the Arab Spring was a theme of many of the books submitted,” says Fleur Montanaro, the Ipaf administrator in London.

“The themes of the books shortlisted in 2013 and 2014, they were influenced by the ongoing political and social upheaval.”

Shortlisted author Ahmed Mourad said translations offered an important opportunity to reach a new sphere and different cultures, which can add to and enrich it.

“I don’t think that the writer should change his literary process in order to have his works translated internationally,” he says.

“In fact I think that when the novelist makes a dedicated effort to create a state of mind or an atmosphere with a truthful and moving ring about it, after careful research, then his work will reach every person and every language.”

“I have started to understand better what it means for a writer to go to another culture and for other people who are completely different from you to receive you,” says Khaled Khalifa.

“It is another life bestowed upon the books of any writer.”