"Arab Booker" winner defends Arab Gulf arts drive

Mon Mar 23, 2009 7:48am EDT
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By Andrew Hammond

ABU DHABI (Reuters Life!) - An Egyptian novelist who won the "Arab Booker prize" this month defended the kind of lavish spending on the arts in Gulf Arab countries that has also drawn criticism internationally and in the Arab world.

Writer and scholar Youssef Ziedan won the "International Prize for Arabic Fiction," a prize offered by a United Arab Emirates government body in association with Britain's Booker Prize Foundation which operates the award process.

Dubbed the "Arabic Booker," the $50,000 prize has established itself in only its second year as one of the major literary awards in the Arab world, competing with a number of others funded by governments or wealthy individuals which are often accused of skewed and biased judging criteria.

It comes amid a flurry of cultural activity in recent years as Gulf countries with extra cash to burn because of oil and gas revenues seek to put themselves on the global arts map with prestigious museums, festivals and exhibitions.

"The Gulf has started to play its natural role as a part of the Arab region and it's an appropriate role to play since they are Arabs," Ziedan said on the sidelines of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, where he received his prize.

Egypt, with the largest population in the Arab world, has long been considered the cultural motor of the region but has ceded ground since the 1970s to the Arabian Peninsula, often depicted as a cultural backwater.

The wealth of Gulf governments and ruling families has helped draw many Arab nationals seeking a better life and make the Gulf a center for Arab television and entertainment, rivaling traditional centers like Cairo and Beirut.

"The concentration of culture in Egypt was a mistake in itself, we have to share this role. Egypt should not be the official spokesperson for Arab culture," said Ziedan, who won the prize for his historical novel "Azazeel" (Beelzebub).   Continued...