DUBAI (Reuters) - The most prestigious literary prize in the Arab world unveiled its nominees this month, riling critics who say it is a politically charged shortlist crafted to appeal to Western audiences.
Two Moroccans, two Egyptians, a Saudi and a Sudanese rounded out the list of authors in contention for the $50,000 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, with its guarantee of lucrative translations into English and other languages. The winner is announced in March.
The award, now in its fourth year, is one of many in the region but its association with the Booker Prize Foundation has given it an edge over others which are clearly associated with Arab governments, such as the UAE’s Al-Owais Award and Saudi Arabia’s Arab Thought Foundation awards.
The Al-Owais prize was infamously withdrawn from Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef in 2004 after he criticized Sheikh Zayed bin al-Nahayan, the founder of the United Arab Emirates, a Western-allied federation of dynastic monarchies in the Gulf.
The Arabic Booker has an elaborate structure of judges and board of trustees to ensure fairness, including Arabs of different nationalities based in the region and abroad as well as non-Arab literary experts and publishing figures. However, it remains financed by Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Foundation.
“This prize is yet another indication of the corruption of Arab cultural life and the extent to which Arab oil money insists on dominating all aspects of life,” said As‘ad AbuKhalil, a Lebanese politics professor at California State University in the United States.
“This award has been criticized by many Arab writers and yet it continues with Arab oil money to award prestige to the UAE and its ruling families,” he said.
Gulf rulers have stepped up efforts in recent years to patronize the arts and transform a region with a traditionally limited output in terms of cinema, theater, writing and other forms of expression into cultural centers.
Some efforts are globally accessible -- Abu Dhabi is setting up branches of the Louvre and New York’s Guggenheim museums -- and some are regionally focused: This week Qatar opens a museum of contemporary Arab art, to add to its Islamic Museum.
Saudi novelist Abdo Khal’s Arabic Booker win in 2010 for “Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles” -- which critiqued Saudi social distortions created by the oil boom of the past decade -- suggested the award would not shy from sensitive material in Gulf countries, at least when it is presented as allegory.
It also reflected the rise of the novel as a popular art form in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf where political, social and religious oppression has for long limited literary output.
Some novelists complained in the Arabic press about Egyptians winning in the first two years, while an Egyptian critic resigned from last year’s jury saying her colleagues had stitched up the shortlist in a secretive manner.
The wide geographical distribution of this year’s shortlist suggests a certain political correctness is playing in the minds of judges, who this year comprise four Arabs and an Italian.
“They do not decide according to literary merit only. They divide the choices (on the shortlist) around the Arab world. This has to be criticized,” said Egyptian poet and journalist Usama El-Ghazouly.
With the works of many writers effectively banned in their own countries, the English translation can be the key to fame and riches and critics often say writers tailor their material accordingly. Naguib Mahfouz is the only novelist in Arabic to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Ghazouly pointed to some of the themes in the first award-winning book, Egyptian novelist Bahaa Taher’s “Sunset Oasis” as an example. It features lesbian relations and a character who questions Egypt’s right to control the Siwa oasis -- “post-modern tastes,” in his words, that are set to play well abroad.
In this year’s shortlist, a former Moroccan culture minister, Mohammed Achaari, was nominated for “The Arch and the Butterfly,” in which a father receives a letter from al Qaeda informing him that a son who he thought was in Paris has died fighting Western forces in Afghanistan.
Bensalem Himmich, Morocco’s incumbent minister of culture, imagines an innocent man’s experience of extraordinary rendition and torture in a U.S. prison in “My Tormentor.”
And Saudi novelist Raja Alem explores what the organizers term the “sordid underbelly” of life in the Islamic holy city of Mecca in “The Dove’s Necklace,” including prostitution, abuse of foreign workers and religious fundamentalism.
Publishers are scrambling to submit books such as these for consideration that lend themselves to the “sexy pitch” for the reading public outside of the Arab world, critics say.
“The publishers’ influence is more dangerous than the political one,” said Palestinian writer Elias Nasrallah. “At the moment the fight between the publishers and their lobbies is the most dangerous thing for this prestigious prize.”
M. Lynx Qualey, a Cairo-based writer who runs a blog called ArabLit (www.arablit.wordpress.com), said women authors had had trouble in getting onto the long and shortlists at first.
“Gender was an issue in the first couple of years, when publishers weren’t submitting books written by women, and thus women weren’t showing up on the lists,” she said.
But many still see value in the prize, despite the criticisms.
“I do think it’s a worthwhile venture. It’s a very young prize,” Lynx Qualey said. “It’s also a different prize for the region in that it’s a single-book award (with) a longlist, a shortlist, and finally a winner, so that people can see very clearly which books and novelists are in play.”
Ghazouly said Gulf Arab initiatives such as the Arabic Booker were ultimately doing the Arab world a favor after the traditional centers of pan-Arab culture such as Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq were hit by various political crises since the 1970s that have damaged their cultural output.
“They are not trying to control culture; they are filling a certain vacuum. They have come to save us by using their money to the benefit of the Arabic-speaking nations,” he said.
Editing by Paul Casciato