Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The 'Arabic Booker' grows - despite Syria

Championing Arabic literature: Booker Prize Foundation Chairman Jonathan Taylor, centre, with judges Youmna El Eid (left) and Mohammad Al Murr

The Syrian government would seem to be the body spoiling the mutual understanding and international exchange that lies at the heart of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), the ‘Arabic Booker’ ( The 2009 shortlist was announced at a press conference at the Royal Festival Hall today at which the Syrian publisher of one of the shortlisted books, Fawwaz Haddad’s The Unfaithful Translator (Riad el Rauyyes) said the title had already been banned in his homeland. Last year, the first year of the prize, the same fate befell In Praise of Hatred (Amisa) by the Syrian writer Khaled Khalifa.

Putting that somewhat important point to one side, this was a positive occasion at which it did genuinely seem as if the world of books could lead to a useful exchange of ideas and world views that would increase understanding (and, dare one say it, peace). The other shortlisted titles are: Hunger (Al Adab), by Mohammad Al Bisatie (Egypt); The American Granddaughter (Al Jadid), by Inaam Kachachi (Iraqi); The Time of White Horses (Arab Scientific Publishers) by Ibrahim Nasrallah (Jordan-Palestine); The Scents of Marie-Claire (Al Adab), by Al-Habib Al-Salmi (Tunisia); and Beelzebub (Dar al Shorouk) by Yusuf Zeydan (Egypt).

It is odd to be at an event at which the list of authors is so unfamiliar, yet surely The American Granddaughter will find an English language publisher. It tells the story of an Iraqi-born girl who leaves the country for the US when she is 13, but returns as a young woman to be an interpreter. She welcomes the US action of 2003, but has qualms about the target. She has spent much of her life drinking Coke, the author observes, but has also “drank from the Tigris and Euphrates”.

There is so much happening with books in the Middle East. The Abu Dhabi Book Fair next March now has a geographic – and calendar – neighbour with the Emirates Airlines International Festival of Literature in Dubai in February; the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, General Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed al Nahyan, is lavishing money on the book trade in an effort to eradicate illiteracy; HarperCollins and Random House have just opened offices in the region, partly helped by favourable rates offered by the Sheik; and Bloomsbury is opening in Dohar.

The aim of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction is to “bring the best of contemporary Arabic fiction to a wider public,” said Jonathan Taylor, Chairman of the Booker Prize Foundation and one of the trustees of the IPAF. It also seeks to encourage more reading and writing of good literature in the Arab world itself. This is a laudable aim: the more the west understands about Arabic cultures – and vice versa – the better. Yes, there are problems with Syria, but they mustn’t be allowed to spoil the party.

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