Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Six Finalists Shortlisted for New $50,000 Arabic `Booker' Prize

By Edward Nawotka

Jan. 30 (Bloomberg) -- Egyptians Baha Taher and Mekkaoui Said are the best-known of six authors whose books have been shortlisted for the inaugural International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

Modeled on the Man Booker Prize, the new award is being funded by the Emirates Foundation of Abu Dhabi. The winner will receive $50,000 in prize money, with $10,000 going to each of the shortlisted authors.

The Booker Foundation, which administers the Man Booker Prize and the Man Booker International Prize, provided guidance for the award.

Samuel Shimon, an Iraqi writer and chairman of the judging panel for the awards, announced the shortlist yesterday in London. It includes the aforementioned Taher's ``Sunset Oasis'' and Said's ``Swan Song''; the Lebanese Jabbour Douaihy's ``June Rain'' and May Menassa's ``Walking in the Dust''; Jordanian Elias Farkouh's ``The Land of Purgatory''; and Syrian Khaled Khalifa's ``In Praise of Hate.''

``The purpose of the prize is to secure recognition, reward and readership for outstanding Arabic fiction,'' said Jonathan Taylor, chairman of the Booker Foundation and also chairman of the board of trustees of the Arabic prize. ``A further objective is to ensure translation and publication.''

The International Prize for Arabic Fiction is part of a boom in new literary awards emanating from Abu Dhabi. Last year the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage launched the Sheikh Zayed Book Awards, given in nine categories and worth a total of 7 million dirham ($1.9 million).

Poetry Readers

Though less rich, the International Prize for Arabic Fiction has a prestigious partner in the Booker Foundation, which also has been instrumental in developing both the Russian Booker Prize (first awarded in 1992) and the Caine Prize for African Writing (begun in 2000).

``Both of those prizes now operate fully independently, which is how the International Prize for Arabic Fiction will work,'' said Eve Smith, secretary of the Booker Foundation.

Gaining a wider readership for Arabic novels will be a challenge. Poetry is the dominant literary form in the Arabic- speaking world -- it is widely read (beginning with the Koran), written and published, and is even featured on a wildly popular ``American Idol''-style TV competition, ``Poetry Millions.''

Though various forms of Arabic prose fiction emerged in the 19th century, primarily inspired by the translation of European works into Arabic, the first Arabic book recognizable as a modern novel -- Egyptian Muhammad Husayn Haykal's ``Zaynab'' -- was published only in 1912. Widespread recognition for the form didn't come until 1988, when Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz became the first Arabic writer to win the Nobel Prize.

More Publicity

There have been popular novels since then, such as Alaa Al Aswany's 2002 ``The Yacoubian Building,'' which has sold more than 200,000 copies worldwide. Yet they remain few and far between.

Marilyn Booth, a professor at the University of Illinois who has translated many highly regarded Arabic novels, believes the new prize might help.

``The trustees and this year's judges are highly respected cultural figures,'' she said. ``I applaud the fact that the shortlist, as well as the winning novel, is getting financial recognition and publicity.''

Her own latest project has been a translation of Saudi writer Rajaa Alsanea's novel ``The Girls of Riyadh,'' whose depiction of the love lives of a quartet of women has prompted critics to call it the first example of Saudi chick lit.

In all, 131 books were entered from 18 different countries, with 29 entries by women writers. Booth said, ``I'm surprised there weren't more.''