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This is a slightly edited version of an article written by Susannah Tarbush. A complete version originally appeared in the Saudi Gazette.
The shortlist of six contenders for the annual International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF,) announced last Tuesday at the Beirut International Book Fair, is arousing much interest, as in the previous two years of the prize’s existence. There is speculation, for example, over whether for the third year running it will be an Egyptian author who gets the prize which is worth $50,000 to the winner, plus the $10,000 awarded to each shortlisted author. There are two Egyptians on the shortlist, together with authors from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan.
The prize was set up by the Emirates Foundation of Abu Dhabi in association with the Booker Prize Foundation of London, and is often dubbed the Arabic Booker. The 2010 prize received 115 eligible submissions from 17 Arab countries, from which the longlist of 16 titles was selected in November.
The winner will be revealed at an awards ceremony in Abu Dhabi on March 2, the first day of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.
As in the previous two years, the shortlist features only one woman. She is Egyptian Mansoura Ez Eldin for “Beyond Paradise” (Al-Ain Publishing, Egypt) which focuses on the female editor of a literary magazine who tries to free herself from a painful past by writing a family history. Ez Eldin and Rabee Jabir were among the 39 Arab writers aged 39 or less chosen by a jury in October for Beirut39, a project which will introduce the writers to a wider readership and will publish an anthology of their work.
The administrator of the prize since its inception has been the Lebanese poet, author and journalist Joumana Haddad, who is on the Beirut39 list. But there is concern in some quarters that women are not playing a greater role in IPAF as judges and authors.
In each year of IPAF there has been only one woman on the panel of judges, starting with Syrian writer Ghalia Kabbani in the first year. Last year the only woman on the panel, the Lebanese scholar and critic Youmna El-Eid, was chair of the judges. This year there was again only one woman judge, Egyptian Shereen Abu El-Naga, who is lecturer in English and comparative literature at Cairo University. Furthermore, Abu El-Naga resigned the day after the shortlist was announced.
The National newspaper of Abu Dhabi quoted her as saying that the voting method was the main reason for her resignation: “There was no dialogue or debate between myself and the other panellists and we could not debate our choices.”
However when the chairman of the judges, Kuwaiti novelist and short story writer Taleb Al-Refai, announced the shortlist he said: “A democratic objective discussion was held, the most important target of which was to reach a list approved by the judging panel. The selected books represent the opinion of the panel, with due respect to and appreciation of the longlisted novels.”
The other judges are Tunisian Raja’ Ben Salamah, a lecturer at Tunisia’s Manouba University; French academic and translator Frederic LaGrange, head of the Arabic and Hebraic Department at the Paris-Sorbonne (Paris IV), and Omani writer and poet Saif Al-Rahbi.
Only three of the 18 authors shortlisted for IPAF so far have been women. This is much lower than the proportion of women in Beirut39, which has 12 women authors, almost a third of the total. Yousef Awad, a Jordanian PhD student at the University of Manchester whose thesis is on Arab women’s literature, particularly that by Arab-American and Arab-British women writers, sees dangers of “tokenism” in having only one female judge, and one woman on each IPAF shortlist to date.
He thinks the judging panel should have more women, “and of course more representatives of other marginalized groups – in the wider sense of the word.” The shortlisting of one woman writer “reflects the tokenistic agenda I am trying to point out.”
He argues that because Arab women tend to write about their private experiences, their works may not be well understood or well-contextualised. Whereas Arab male writers “usually concentrate on the public experience – politics, class struggle and so on – and this makes it easier for readers to identify with the characters they depict and the themes they explore.”
In addition, Arab women writers may be under more pressure than men to be “non-confrontational” in order to be published, and this may lead to compromises and to mediocre writing.