The Arab Spring revolutions were televised. In place of the stereotype of the homogenous ‘Arab Street’, news-watching UK audiences suddenly saw diverse men and women from across the Middle East eloquently disagreeing about the future of their states. Similarly, the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) shows that consensus and casual prejudices about Arabic novels are difficult to sustain. At this month’s London Literature Festival, key figures involved with organising, translating and judging the Prize expressed a refreshing lack of unity about aspects of contemporary Arabic literature as well as the influence of the prize itself upon Arab authors.
The IPAF has been running since 2007: it is currently funded by the Emirates foundation in Abu Dhabi, and supported by the Booker Prize Foundation in London. This year, Rabee Jaber won with The Druze of Belgrade: a case of mistaken identity set in the 1860s that exiles a ordinary Christian Lebanese man to prison at the edges of the Ottoman empire, in Serbia, amongst Druze co-patriots. The prize has started to bring together an international Arabic-reading audience across stubborn national reading divides in the Middle East, said translator and journalist Jonathan Wright. He added that the IPAF is also a “massive incentive” for authors to get writing, given that it is financially outstanding in the Arabic world ($50,000 for the winner and $10,000 for those on the shortlist) and ensures foreign language translation.
Yet, Wright wonders if the prize may – although he had no hard evidence for it – encourage Arab authors to target a Western, rather than Arabic, readership: “It seems a little odd writing in one language but addressing readers of another language.” The hunger of Western book-reading audiences for Arabic novels, as Judge Maudie Bitar reflected, may not only be for new literary perspectives on being a human being, but also for a “tourist” experience in the exotic Middle East. However IPAL trustee Professor Marie Therese Abdel-Messih argued that today’s Arabic novelists are inevitably exposed to other geographical and cultural worlds, living in a contemporary condition of “cosmopolitan citizenship”. Many Arabic writers even physically live in the West as Bitar pointed out : “They become different whether they like it or not”. Common themes this year reflected writers’ engagement with the idea of place: dilemmas of belonging; ideology; estrangement from both home and destination societies; and the existential crises that such questions prompt.
The prize also bears witness to emerging directions in Arabic writing technique. The florid, lyrical, embellished prose of the past is giving way to what Wright calls “a pithy Arabic fiction,” more easily digestible to Western authors in translation. Yet, this was not necessarily a cause for celebration- Abdel-Messih lamented that the beauty of Arabic literary writing could be lost in more commercial novels.
In a literary world that is clearly distinct from, yet inexorably linked to, the dominating market and cultural forces of the West, the International Prize for Arabic Literature is an exciting site for productive contention.