Word art: spotlight on Arabic fiction

The fifth International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), an annual literary prize run with the support of the Booker Prize Foundation in London and funded by the Emirates Foundation in Abu Dhabi, will take place this week. Ben East considers what the attention will mean for writers focused on that region

When the fifth International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) is announced in Abu Dhabi this week, there will be more than personal satisfaction at stake for the winning author. Of course, one (or perhaps more than one – last year the prize was shared between Raja Alem and Mohammed Achaari) author will take home US$50,000. But the international exposure afforded by a prize colloquially called the Arabic Booker is much harder to quantify.

A full six months after last year’s ceremony, Alem was still basking in the glow of her victory at a special IPAF follow-up event. And it wasn’t in Mecca, where she set her book, but Manchester. “Winning the Arabic Booker really gives you a chance to reach a global audience,” she said, rather aptly, at the time.

And sure enough, The Doves Necklace will soon be available in two English editions (UK and US), French, German, Italian and Polish. Arabic fiction has never been so popular, so how did it get to this point?

Growing interest

It’s not quite fair to say that IPAF alone is responsible for such an increase in interest - Alaa al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building was translated in 2004 by Humphrey T Davies and remains one of the most famous and widely read Egyptian novels of all time. Lebanese writer Elias Khoury has enjoyed an international audience since Gate Of The Sun, the 2006 translation of his novel based around the Palestinian “nakbah” of 1948. And the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988, swiftly becoming a bestselling author in the US. So arguably, it’s the authors on the margins who have really benefited from the IPAF.

“I was longlisted in 2009 and 2010,” explains Ali Bader - who is now published by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation. “And I have to say my experience with The Tobacco Keeper in 2009 was really amazing. Suddenly, the Arabic version was selling out everywhere. But then work began on the English translation, and there are French, German and Chinese versions to come. It’s lovely to think I might have a global audience!”

Changing times


Which isn’t to say there aren’t great novelists still waiting to be translated. The selection of authors who took part in the Beirut39 project – a grouping of writers from across the Arab world gathered together to “identify and highlight contemporary literary movements among Arab youth” - was hugely impressive.

“I really think we’re witnessing today an explosion of artistic and narrative writing in all Arab countries,” confirms Bader. “The Arabic novel today is very different from what it was in the past: now it is very courageous, it is characterised by a heightened interest in individual expression and politics, and has rebelled against established social rules and conventions.”

Despite these advancements in subject matter, Bader still holds concerns that what is translated is often what conforms to the stereotypes, though he believes this is getting better. “I hope the IPAF can help break down those barriers and present a far more representative group of books that reflect the diversity of Arabic literature.”

It’s a standpoint with which one of this year’s shortlisted novelists, Ezzedine Choukri Fishere, has some sympathy. His book, Escape On Brooklyn Bridge, is fascinating: set in New York but very much an Arab story, he hopes it can break down misconceptions about nationality and religion.

And perhaps that’s the prize’s greatest achievement; it fosters a genuine sense of hope among Arab writers. No wonder Raja Alem and Ali Bader are still taking about it, months – and even years – on.

The winner of the International Prize For Arabic Fiction is announced in Abu Dhabi on 27 March. www.arabicfiction.org