Arabic Booker has done its job, says 2011 winner Raja Alem

As the announcement of the longlist for the 2012 International Prize for Arabic Fiction approaches, this year's winner discusses the effect of the award.

The Saudi author Raja Alem, who won the 2011 Ipaf with her book The Dove's Necklace, sees 'a real shift in the importance of Arab novel-writing'.
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Next month, the longlist for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (Ipaf) 2012 will be announced. If a literary prize’s success can be measured by the controversy it courts, then the organisers can probably look back at the past five years with some satisfaction. There have been claims that some shortlisted novels have been too western in their outlook, some too allied with the establishment, or too male. And next year, if the winner happens to be female and critical of a regime, then there may well be rumblings the jury members were too politically correct.

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All nonsense, of course. Every new prize has teething problems, but when this year’s joint winner Raja Alem tells me that the simple act of being longlisted makes a huge difference to every single author, it is clear that any imperfection in the system pales into insignificance compared with Ipaf’s achievements. For Alem, it’s not so much the lure of the US$50,000 (Dh184,000) prize money provided by the Emirates Foundation as the sense of achievement and recognition. “I come from Mecca,” she says. “The victory was not mine alone. It told every person who likes to write in Mecca that anything is possible.”

Alem, who was the first woman to win the prize, is talking to me in the peculiarly English surroundings of a converted cotton mill in Manchester. It’s a world away from Mecca, but perhaps such a setting proves that some of the initial aims of the prize – often referred to as the Arabic Booker, thanks to the support of the Booker Prize Foundation – have already been met. Launched in Abu Dhabi in 2007 with the “intention to address the limited international availability of high-quality Arab fiction”, a truly global audience is gathering at this special Ipaf-related event at the Manchester Literature Festival.

Later, she’ll share the stage with Paul Starkey and Ghalia Kabbani – both judges in Ipaf’s inaugural year in 2008 and happy to reminisce about those early days. Starkey calls the process “challenging”, while Kabbani admits she panicked at first. Unsurprising, really, because even then it was obvious how influential Ipaf might be. All of which is confirmed by the other panellist, Margaret Obank. A trustee of the prize, she reels off a long list of nominated books either already in translation or waiting to be published in a dazzling array of European languages. Slovenians, it transpires, are particularly keen on their Arabic literature.

So this is the obvious byproduct of Ipaf: a prize-winning book written in Arabic gives a European publisher a reason to translate it, a ready-made seal of approval. But encouragingly, there have been significant effects within the Arab world, too – crucial when, as Starkey points out, the number of people reading Arabic fiction in translation is still fairly limited. “A lot of people have switched from poetry to novel-writing since the prize was started,” adds Kabbani. “And publishers have started to chase writers rather than wait for them to submit their work.”

Alem agrees: “There’s a dynamism around creativity and literature that just hasn’t been seen for decades. The scene felt stagnant, and that might have been because people felt they lost their dignity within the political system, their power to change. But when Ipaf is receiving more than 130 submissions from publishing houses every year, I think that reflects a real shift in the importance of Arab novel writing.”

Of course, when Alem refers to change, it’s impossible not to mention the Arab Spring. And although the events of this seismic year may well have a significant effect on the interest in Arabic literature, both Alem and Kabbani caution against getting too excited. Kabbani in particular remembers only too well the effect September 11, 2001 had on the profile of Arab writers and poets in the West. “The interest was simply because of where they were from,” she says. “Not because they were particularly good writers.”

Alem rolls her eyes. “People keep asking me what my role is in the Arab Spring, whether I was in Tahrir Square,” she laughs. “And I tell them, I live in Paris, I don’t know!”

In fact, Kabbani points out that the internet has made a bigger difference not just to the way people might be exposed to Arabic literature, but to the ways in which authors themselves might make the contacts vital to their work gaining wider exposure. Some of Alem's books are banned in her home country (The Dove's Necklace, which won her the Ipaf in March, depicts a crime-ridden, corrupt and exploitative Mecca), but rather than sit back and be silenced, she now has publishers based in Morocco and Lebanon. The translation into English is slated for 2013 and Italian, German and French editions will appear next year.

"People can still read the books, even if you can't get them in the bookshops of Saudi Arabia," she says. "The thing is, I wouldn't call The Dove's Necklace a negative portrait of Mecca; it's more human than that. But anyway, I never think about censorship when I write."

She adds: “Maybe there are some words I cannot write in Arabic, and that is a form of inner-censorship, but if the books are banned I just publish them elsewhere. Everything is possible now. Fortunately there are no borders; it’s a unique age.”

Maybe, then, the International Prize for Arabic Fiction arrived at the right time. But even if there was an element of serendipity about its beginnings, it has still become not only the foremost literary award for writing in Arabic, but a really valuable annual clearing house for the best the form has to offer.

“There is a global audience these days,” beams Alem. “It’s like leaving your own sea to go to the ocean. Winning the Arabic Booker doesn’t guarantee that will happen for you. But it gives you a chance.”

The longlist announcement is on November 10. Visit for details.

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