Shortlist announced for Prize for Arabic Fiction 2011

A half dozen authors, including two women, have made the shortlist for the fourth International Prize for Arab Fiction 2011 from 123 submissions from across the Arab world.

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Six authors, one from Saudi Arabia, one from Sudan, two from Morocco and two from Egypt, have been shortlisted for the fourth International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2011.

The announcement was made yesterday in Doha by the chair of the judges, the Iraqi poet and novelist Fadhil al Azzawi.

The shortlist for the award, considered the Arab equivalent of the Booker Prize, includes two women, Raja Alem from Saudi Arabia and Miral al Tahawy from Egypt.

The five judges chose the six from a longlist of 16, announced last month, which they had narrowed down from 123 submissions from across the Arab world.

Alem, whose previous work has been translated into English and Spanish, won the 2005 Arabic women's creative writing prize as part of Unesco's 60th anniversary, and the Lebanese Literary Club prize in 2008.

Al Tahawy, an assistant professor of Arabic literature at the University of North Carolina, has previously published three novels: The Tent, The Blue Aubergine and The Strumming of the Gazelles.

The other shortlisted authors are Moroccans Mohammed Achaari and Bensalem Himmich, as well as Khalid al Bari from Egypt and Amir Taj al Sir from Sudan.

Mr Azzawi said the five judges had been almost unanimous in their selections for the longlist.

"From the beginning the judging panel worked together in harmony and with a great degree of agreement," he said. "The fact that they reached near consensus on the longlist made choosing the shortlist easy."

Each novel was chosen based on its literary and creative merit, he said.

"We don't care where the author is from or how famous he or she is, we don't care about gender or age or who published the book or even if the author has previously submitted a work to the award or not," Mr al Azzawi said.

"All we care about as a panel of judges is the importance of the literary novel and the beauty of the work of fiction, and the ability of each author to create a world of imaginative creativity in the novel."

The four other judges are the Bahraini researcher and critic Munira al Fadhel; the Italian academic, translator and critic Isabella d'Afflitto; the Jordanian writer and journalist Amjad Nasser; and the Moroccan writer and critic Said Yaktine.

The winner will be announced in Abu Dhabi on March 14, as part of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

Jonathan Taylor, chair of the prize's board of trustees, said the prize was "truly international" and "only has regard to outstanding literary quality."

Each of the shortlisted authors will receive US$10,000 (Dh37,000). The eventual winner will be awarded $50,000 (Dh184.000).

The winning novel will also be translated into English, giving it access to a huge international market.

The prize is supported by the Booker Prize Foundation and funded by the Emirates Foundation for Philanthropy.

Salwa Mikdadi, head of the arts and culture programme at the Emirates Foundation, said the award's reputation is steadily growing each year, "not only in the Arab world, but internationally as well".

Joumana Haddad, who has organised the award since its inception, said it presents the chance to establish a worldwide presence for Arabic literature.

"The notable success of the prize," she said, "secure[s] better opportunities in terms of publication and distribution of longlisted and shortlisted writers' works, as well as the winner."

This will be Ms Haddad's last year running the award. She plans to devote more time to her own writing. She will continue, however, to act as a consultant, and serve as a trustee on the board.

Previous winners include Bahaa Taher from Egypt in 2008 for Sunset Oasis. Youssef Ziedan, also Egyptian, won in 2009 for Azazel. This year, Abdo Khal, a Saudi, won for Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles.

The contenders

Raja Alem, Saudi Arabia: The Doves' Necklace

An exploration of the secret life of Mecca, Alem's novel touches on everything from crime and religious extremism to the exploitation of foreign workers, all set against the backdrop of a Saudi woman's romance with a German man.

Miral al Tahawy, Egypt: Brooklyn Heights

Tahawy's fourth novel is set in her current home, the US. It attempts to evoke the atmosphere of America during the last decade, contrasting the lives of Arab immigrants in New York with their previous lives back home in Egypt as they struggle to find a balance between East and West.

Khalid al Bari, Egypt: An Oriental Dance

A vivid account of the struggles and relationships of Arab expatriates in Britain, told through the story of a young Egyptian man who marries an older British woman. This is al Bari's second novel; he has also published an autobiography, The World is more Beautiful than Heaven.

Mohammed Achaari, Morocco: The Arch and the Butterfly

Achaari, originally a poet and a former culture minister, tackles Islamic extremism and terrorism. A left-wing father receives a letter from Al Qa'eda informing him that his son died a martyr in Afghanistan, and is not studying in Paris, as the father believed. The effect of terrorism on family life, especially on the father's relationship with his wife, is the crux of the story.

Bensalem Himmich, Morocco: My Tormentor

Himmich, longlisted last year for The Man from Andalucia, this time submitted a novel whose narrative style has been described as "a blend of Kafka and One Thousand and One Nights", about an innocent man's experience of extraordinary rendition in an American prison, suffering interrogation and torture by both Arabs and foreigners.

Amir Taj al Sir, Sudan: The Hunter of the Chrysalises (or The Head Hunter)

The story of a former secret service agent who, having been forced to retire due to an accident, decides to write a novel about his experiences in a cafe frequented by intellectuals. The protagonist becomes a subject of police scrutiny.