'Arab Booker' sees rise in female contenders

More women writers than ever before have emerged on the longlist for the upcoming International Prize for Arabic Fiction, nearly doubling last year's number.

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Nearly half of the contenders for next year's International Prize for Arabic Fiction are women, the highest number for the award better known as the Arab Booker.

The award, which is run in association with Britain's Booker Prize Foundation, received nearly twice as many submissions from women as it did a year ago.

"Women across the Arab world are very active in writing fiction, so to see that reflected healthily in the list should not be surprising," said Rasheed el-Enany, a professor of modern Arabic literature at Britain's University of Exeter who was a judge for the prize in 2009 and is now on its board of trustees.

Some of the seven women nominated are already established writers: the Saudi novelist Raja Alem, who previously co-wrote My Thousand and One Nights, and the Egyptian Miral al-Tahawy, author of the widely acclaimed The Tent.

The other female nominees include the Syrian journalist Maha Hassan for Secret Rope, Lebanon's Fatin al-Murr for the love story Common Sins and the Libyan writer Razan Naim al-Maghrabi forWomen of Wind.

Women's struggles, religious extremism and political and social conflict emerged as key themes in the 16 pieces of literature selected.

Alem is nominated for The Dove's Necklace, which is set in the holy city of Mecca.

"To see a female writer such as Raja Alem from Saudi Arabia, a country where the position of women is always under debate, is indeed very refreshing," Prof el-Enamy said.

The prize is funded by the Emirates Foundation, one of the country's leading philanthropic organisations.

Each of the six shortlisted finalists, to be announced next month, will receive US$10,000 (Dh36,700) while another US$50,000 goes to the winner, who will be announced in March just before the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

The longlist includes four authors nominated last year, including Bensalem Himmich, Morocco's current minister of culture who has published 26 books and won several literary awards. His novel My Tormentor, about an innocent man's experience of interrogation and torture in an American prison in Morocco, has been nominated.

Among newcomers to the prize, the Egyptian author Khairy Shalaby, who wrote the award-winning book The Lodging House, penned the contender Istasia about a widow avenging the death of her son through prayer.

Some of the writers were virtually unknown in the literary world. The Saudi writer Maqbul Moussa al Alawi saw his debut novel about Ottoman nationalism in the 19th century, Turmoil in Jeddah, chosen.

Two of the novels listed are about fathers with sons who join al Qa'eda, while two others are about the struggle of Arab expatriates in Western society.

Other countries represented on the longlist include Lebanon, Yemen, Sudan and Algeria. There were no entries from the UAE.

There were 123 submissions from 17 countries, with the highest number coming from Egypt. It was the first year entries came from Afghanistan.

"You can see a pretty good representation of the full spectrum of the Arabian Peninsula and from African countries, which were underrepresented in previous years," Prof el-Enany said.

The three past winners of the prize, from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have had their work translated into English as well as other languages.

The prize has boosted readership of Arabic books, and publishers have printed multiple editions of titles listed in previous years, said Salwa Mikdadi, head of the Emirates Foundation's arts and culture programme.