Two Egyptian authors on ‘Arabic booker’ short list

Two young Egyptian authors have made the shortlist for the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), popularly known as the “Arabic Booker.”

The shortlist was announced today in Doha, Qatar.

The two Egyptians are Miral al-Tahawy, for her novel “Brooklyn Heights,” and Khaled al-Berry, for his “Middle Eastern Dance.” The two are joined on the six-strong shortlist by celebrated Saudi author Raja Alem (for “The Doves’ Necklace”), Sudanese author Amir Tag El-Sir (for “The Head Hunter”), and both Morocco’s current Minister of Culture and a former holder of the post: Bensalem Himmich (for “My Tormentor”) and Mohammed Achaari (for “The Arch and the Butterfly”).

The IPAF winner, who will take home US$50,000, will be announced on 14 March in Abu Dhabi on the eve of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. Each of the shortlisted writers will be awarded US$10,000.

The two Egyptian natives, Al-Tahawy and Al-Berry, both currently reside outside of the country; Al-Tahawy, a former resident of New York City’s Brooklyn Heights neighborhood, now works as an assistant professor at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. Al-Berry works for the BBC in London.

Both Al-Tahawy’s “Brooklyn Heights” and Al-Berry’s “Middle Eastern Dance” explore the experiences of Egyptians abroad. “Brooklyn Heights” centers on an Egyptian immigrant experience in New York City, and “Middle Eastern Dance” tells the story of an Egyptian killed in Italy on New Year’s Eve.

Al-Berry said that being shortlisted for the IPAF makes a big difference for him as a novelist: "[It means] that I can say that I'm a novelist, write with more confidence, feel that my work has a chance of recognition. It's also put my name on the map, which is really important for unknown name like myself."

The prize, now in its fourth year, has been won twice by Egyptians. The inaugural prize was taken by Bahaa Taher for “Sunset Oasis.” The following year, in 2009, it was won by Youssef Ziedan’s controversial “Azazeel.” In 2010, Saudi author Abdo Khal was awarded the prize for his satiric novel “She Throws Sparks.”

Of the previous winners, only Bahaa Taher has thus far been translated into English. However, four of this year’s shortlisted authors, including both Al-Tahawy and Al-Berry, have books in English translation.

Raja Alem, a prominent Saudi author, has two books out in English translation. Her “My Thousand & One Nights: A Novel of Mecca” and “Fatima: A Novel of Arabia” were translated by Tom McDonough and published by Syracuse University Press. And Naguib Mahfouz Medal-winning author Bensalem Himmich has had English translations of his award-winning “The Polymath” and his “The Theocrat” published by AUC Press. Both of Himmich’s novels were translated by Roger Allen.

It’s also noteworthy that two of the novels on the 2011 shortlist were written by women. In previous years, IPAF organizers were criticized for having few women on the longlist. Few books by women were submitted by publishers, and only one woman made the shortlist each year: May Menassa (2008), Inaam Kachachi (2009) and, last year, Egyptian author Mansoura Ez Eldin.

This year, publishers submitted more books by women and the longlist was divided almost evenly between male and female authors. However, Egyptian novelist Amina Zaydan still insisted last month, in an interview with Youm 7, that a woman wouldn’t win the IPAF prize in 2011. She said that women’s writing in Arabic is not taken as seriously as men’s.

The panel of judges—which has similarly been criticized for a lack of gender parity and diversity—was also revealed Thursday. They are Iraqi poet and novelist Fadhil al-Azzawi (Chair); Bahraini academic, critic, and researcher Munira al-Fadhel; Italian academic, translator, and critic Isabella Camera d’Afflitto; Jordanian author Amjad Nasser; and Moroccan writer and critic Said Yaktine.

All the shortlisted authors are expected to be in Abu Dhabi on 14 March for the announcement of the 2011 IPAF winner.

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