Abdo Wazen
Abdo Wazen
Arab awards: the novel in the lead

The Arab world has recently seen an unprecedented upsurge in literary awards, driven by a growing interest by governments and private entities in patronizing cultural activities. While those awards cater for different genres, the novel seems to have won the lion’s share. The local, country-level awards are sponsored either by the government, such as Egypt’s State Creativity Awards, or by private institutions, such as the Sawiris Cultural Club, also in Egypt. Other awards go beyond national boundaries and open up the competition for talent from across the Arab World. Examples of these are the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF, known in the region as the Arab “Booker”), Sultan Al Owais Cultural Awards, Sheikh Zayed Book Award for Literature, and the lucrative Katara Prize for the Arabic Novel (which every year honours five published novels with $60,000 each, and three unpublished ones with $30,000 each).

These heavily funded awards are turning into a magnet for Arab writers like never before. They are also giving rise to some kind of competition among those patron states to attract literary talents, but without imposing any custodianship upon writers or demanding anything in return. Whatever the driver behind such lavish generosity, those awards are surely lending substantial financial support desperately needed by the writers, most of whom are financially distressed, some even hanging on the poverty line. Indeed, those awards have enabled many novelists, poets, and thinkers to secure houses for their families, pay for the schooling of their children and meet their essential needs. A quick glance at the names of the winners would tell you how democratic and inclusive these awards have been, with the avant-garde and progressive represented on equal footing with the conservative and traditional, and with left-wing writers featuring prominently on the lists.

An interesting feature of these award programs is that the vast majority of prizes go to the novel, with very little dedicated to poetry, short stories, and theatre. Some awards are exclusive to the novel. These are more lucrative and have a higher profile than the others. Two prominent examples are the IPAF and the Katara Prize. The attractiveness of these awards has prompted many poets, critics, and short story writers to try their luck with the novel. In contrast, the poetry awards are significantly leaner, fewer, and of lower profile.

These awards give rise to many questions that need answers: to what extent can they impact the quality of writing? Can they inhibit the writer’s freedom and audacity? Can they throw cold water on his/her enthusiasm to break taboos?

We might need to wait for some time before we can find answers to such thorny questions. But how about this one: has money corrupted the Arab literary awards? Most of the Arab writers would emphatically say no, although they are pretty sure that money has a negative bearing on literature, particularly when prizes become an obsession for writers. But prizes without money are surely deficient, no matter how high their so-called ‘moral value’ might be. Such prizes are little more than souvenirs, a certificate to hang on the wall for some time. Money lends appeal and glamour to the award, and turns it to a goal in its own right, a legitimate means of earning, particularly when its value is substantial. Most of the Arab writers feel they deserve compensation for the efforts to which they have devoted half of their lives or even more. Sales of their books earn them only peanuts, except for the “popular” writers, whose books receive wide circulation for reasons that sometimes have nothing to do with their creative value. Only a few Arab writers are making a living from writing, unlike many writers in the west. None of the literary awards in the west, except for a few, offers substantial financial value. However, winning such prestigious awards as the French Goncourt, the British Man Booker, the US Pulitzer, and the Spanish Cervantes, will guarantee high sales, and hence, decent income for both the writer and the publisher. Western critiques of these awards may be right in portraying them as a struggle, or even covert plotting, between publishers and judging panels. Arab awards, on the other hand, rarely help in promoting the winning works. One exception may be the IPAF.

The rise in the number of Arab literary awards is an interesting development. I mean here the transnational awards, rather than the local ones, and the ones with high cash value rather than the ‘moral’ ones. The latter type is declining, with the exception of Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, a $1,000 (USD) prize sponsored by the American University in Cairo, which also sponsors translation of the winning novel into English. 

The International Prize for Arabic Fiction was launched in Abu Dhabi under the patronage of the Emirates Foundation, as an Arabic version of the famous English Man Booker in Britain, Ireland, and the Commonwealth. The IPAF has on its Board of Trustees such figures as Jonathan Taylor, long-standing Chairman of the British Booker, along with other British and Arab figures. The IPAF is clearly modelled on the British Booker, which has given birth to two other offshoots: one in Russia, and another, based in the UK, under the name of the Caine Prize for African Writing (which includes the Arabic-speaking countries of Northern Africa). It can be claimed that the partnership with Britain lends IPAF a touch of “legitimacy” and “objectivity” and protects it from being associated with any particular political or regional background, although some names on the Board of Trustees may not help give strong credence to such a claim.

Another important question that needs to be answered is to what extent can IPAF help in promoting the winning works in the Arab world? Could it, like all international awards, serve as a catalyst for boosting sales and readership or would it remain as a prize without readership? It is a well-known fact that literary prizes in the Arab world rarely help boost the sales of winning works. Even the Nobel Prize did little to trigger the sales of Naguib Mahfouz’s novels in the Arab world, but it opened up wider markets for him worldwide. Another example is the Algerian novelist Waciny Laredj. Although his novel, Kitab el-Amir (The Prince’s Book), won the high profile Sheikh Zayed Book Award for Literature, that did little to endear it to a wider readership in the Arab region that would have encouraged its Beirut publisher Dar al-Adab to reprint it. Yet whatever the sales proceeds might be, they can never come close to the $200,000 (USD) Laredj received in prize money.

The real merit of IPAF lies in the fact that it gives its laureates an invaluable international exposure through translation into several languages, as stipulated in the contract terms. As such, it offers the new Arab novel the chance to reach out to international readership. This promotion is not based on any external, or commercial, considerations but rather purely on the merits of the work as a creative text, not as an “exotic” text that appeals to the Western reader or because it is light, entertaining and makes a good read on the train.

The upsurge in the number of literary awards is a promising development. Although most of the funding for these awards comes from the GCC states, the majority of the winners are non-GCC writers, which adds to the credibility of those awards. Most of the laureates of the Sultan Al Owais Cultural Award are prominent Arab writers, predominantly with progressive inclinations. The same applies to the IPAF, which has propelled many names to fame – and to the Katara prize, despite some negative points raised by some critics.

These are the most sought-after awards in the Arab world. Some other ones are open only to the nationals of the particular country. The State Creativity Award in Egypt, for instance, is exclusive to Egyptians. Sudan has two literary awards, both named after its world-renowned novelist, the late Tayeb Salih. The first was launched in 2002 by the Abdel Karim Mirghani Cultural Center to recognize homegrown talent in fiction. The second, launched in 2010 by a major telecommunications company, opened the door for writers from across the Arab world to compete over the $200,000 (USD) total prize, distributed between the novel, short story, and poetry.

Of all the novel-focused awards, the IPAF stands out as the most important, despite some flaws here and there. It is the only award that has attracted considerable readership to the novel. Winning the IPAF will guarantee the writer, no matter how obscure he is, high publicity, promotion, and wide review. This is apart from its cash value, although that is not as big as some other awards. It is a “promotional” award par excellence. Its true value lies in its ability to propel winners to a sometimes unwarranted stardom. A novel that would normally have occupied the shelves for a long time will be sold out in a few days, and will even go into multiple reprints. Yet that fame hardly goes beyond the confines of the Arab world. The Arab Booker has not yet managed to put any of its laureates on the world map. The translations into English, mostly by medium-size publishers, are still too far from giving the winning works access to the English reading world anywhere comparable to the stature of their counterparts in the English Booker.

The IPAF is an Arab award, first and foremost. One of a kind, with a significant publicity machine – and if I may say, it has acquired a “regional” status. If awarded to an Egyptian, the credit goes to his country. If the winner is a Saudi, the credit goes to Saudi Arabia, or perhaps to the wider GCC. Criticism circulated for some time about the Maghreb countries being left out; at other times, some voices complained about Iraq and Jordan being neglected. It is obvious that the award has come to allure Arab novelists across identities and generations. There is hardly any novelist who is disinterested in popularity, or more of it, in high sales and circulation, and who can resist the temptation of media cameras. Many novelists have been tempted to come out of their self-imposed solitude. When Gamal el-Ghitani won the Sheikh Zayed Award, which coincided with Youssef Ziedan winning IPAF, he said, almost in jest, that he would have preferred the Booker, although the latter offered much less prize money. Ziedan’s win provoked a wave of angry sentiments from many Egyptian novelists who dismissed him as a researcher intruding into their world of the novel. A big controversy arose over the winning novel Azazeel (see my article about it in Banipal 34 – The Word of Arab Fiction). According to some Arab publishers, many novelists would submit manuscripts only on condition that their works be nominated for awards.  Many short story writers and poets have recently forayed into the novel in order to enter the competition although they are aware that they have no chance of competing with long-established novelists.

Controversy aside, one thing is beyond doubt: this “Arab Booker” prize has created an environment of keen competition between veteran and new novelists, and has lent vigour, enthusiasm and passion to the literary scene in the Arab world. It has come in “the time of the novel”, to quote critic Gaber Asfour, which has dwarfed all other genres. The IPAF has become a highly anticipated event. Each year, novelists and readers wait in suspense for the longlist, then for the shortlist, and finally for the winner. It is an occasion for celebration, but also for criticism and gossip. This time each year, much ink is shed, reflecting divergent views.

Could the International Prize for Arabic Fiction have had all this glamour and appeal among Arab novelists, critics, and readers without the “Booker” name attached to it? The answer is definitely no.  For it is a name strong enough to lend the prize glamour and prestige experienced by none of the other Arab awards, some of which are more important and real than this “imported” one.  The British Booker prize seems to have woven its spell on the Arab novelists, and particularly on the readers who have grown confident that any novel that wins this award is worth reading. The secret power of IPAF lies in its ability to promote the selected works and to invade the “bestseller” lists. It is an unprecedented phenomenon. Even Naguib Mahfouz had never experienced the luxury of reprints that “Booker” laureates today enjoy. Had it not been for that promotional effect and “imported” aura, the IPAF would have been undistinguishable from the other awards.  


Translated by Adel Babikir


Published in Banipal 58 – Arab Literary Awards (Spring 2017)

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