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From left: Member of the jury Dr Gonzalo Fernández Parrilla talks to Mariam al-Saedi while shortlisted author Jabbour Douaihy looks on, member of the jury Maudie Bitar is interviewed for Egyptian TV, Margaret Obank talks to Fadhil al-Azzawi in the hotel lobby
As the afternoon of the 27th of March progressed, a slight nervous tension mixed with the happy greetings of old friends meeting each other in the Rocco Forte Hotel lobby, where jury members and shortlisted authors went from one interview to another, as journalists and trustees speculated on the outcome.
Margaret and Huzama Habayeb Mariam al-Saedi
We met with authors Huzama Habayeb and Mariam al-Saedi and talked about the prize and the United Arab Emirates as a sponsor of, but increasingly also a participator in, the Arabic literary scene. The increasing number of Emirati writers appearing on the scene are hindered, Huzama insisted, by the lack of literary critics in Emirati newspapers or journals. “While the infrastructure exists, the basic 'grassroots' reading is lacking,” Mariam added. “People study business and management at university, not literature or philosophy”.
Rabee Jaber receiving his prize The press conference
At the prize ceremony, each of the shortlisted authors were introduced with a short film recorded in their respective home towns. This turned out to be the most we saw of Rabee Jaber, who consistently hid his face from the cameras even as his book The Druze of Belgrade was announced this year’s winner. While many were amused, Jaber’s monosyllabic answers during the press conference were the source of some annoyance from journalists, who had clearly hoped to get an interview with the secretive author. Asked to comment on one questioner’s lengthy likening of his writing to Hemingway’s, he retorted: “Yes. That may be true.”
Within the short film, however, Jaber outlined what he considered the main questions of the book. Firstly, identity, fate, and justice – “Who is Hanna Yaqoub? Why did this happen to him? And where is the justice in this happening to him?” Secondly, an exploration of human nature: “In a tough world like ours, yesterday or today, how much can a human endure?” This emphasis on the timelessness of Hanna Yaqoub’s experience was repeated at the press conference. Describing how the Ottomans would close the gates of Beirut and arrest people at random, Jaber added: “... a destiny common at that time, as it is today”. We had hoped we would get another chance to hear him speak about his work in a slightly more relaxed setting at the Book Fair the following evening, but upon arrival we were told that he had decided to leave Abu Dhabi already that same morning. Which, if we are to believe his friend and collegue Abdu Wazen, cultural editor at al-Hayat, may have been the last time we had the chance to see him: “Now that he has won this prize money, he will completely disappear from the public eye and show himself only through his novels!”
Instead, there was a panel discussion about the prize and the winner which proved very interesting in its own right. Wazen brought up Rabee Jaber’s particular passion for history, and how he strives to “read reality through history”, commenting on the present situation rather than writing historical novels. Hassan Yaghi, Jaber’s former publisher and a close friend, who began by saying: “I cannot hide my love for Rabee’s writing”, went on to talk of his importance as the youngest of a generation of post-war novel writers. He especially emphasised the coherence of Jaber’s writing, and said that he is not just writing beautiful novels, but he has a project for the Lebanese novel, a plan which he is trying to realise through his writing.
Questions about the judging process posed during the press conference were once again addressed by jury member Hoda Elsadda, in particular regarding the notable absence of women among the shortlisted authors. Only about 15% of the original works submitted were written by women, she explained, and though there were three women in the jury, it was obviously the quality of the work, rather than the gender of its author, that was reviewed and judged. There were also questions about the jury’s decision to longlist only 13 authors, out of a possible 16 places. The trustees of the prize announced that next year the number will be fixed to 16, rather than the current 12-16.
Mariam al-Saedi with her publisher at the book fair
Ibrahim Nasrallah Habib Selmi in his publisher's stall at the book fair
The first day of the Book Fair, which also included a reading by Ibrahim Nasrallah, concluded with a reception for all participants at the Book Fair Hotel's rooftop terrace.
Kadhim Jihad Hassan and Hassan Khodr Mariam al-Saedi talks to a French journalist; Habib Selmi
Please click here foor more information on the 2012 Prize
And here to see the videos of the shortlisted authors