In three short years, the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (Ipaf) has quickly become the most important literary prize in the Arab world. Often dubbed the "Arabic Booker", rightly so, as the prize is actually run using the combined support of the Booker Prize in London and the Emirates Foundation in Abu Dhabi, all three winning books (from Bahaa Taher, Youssef Ziedan and Abdo Khal) have been translated into English and many other languages. Even the shortlisted authors have enjoyed far greater exposure than they might have otherwise expected, as well as the consolation prize of $10,000 each. But the aims of Ipaf go beyond translation and profile-raising. Rather, the Prize is, as administrator Joumana Haddad said on Wednesday, "a critical conscience and a literary reference in all that relates to the modern Arabic novel, in both the Arab and Western worlds."
Haddad was speaking at the longlist announcement for the 2011 Prize, which was immediately notable for its record amount of female nominees. The Chair of the Judges (whose identity remains a secret until the shortlist is announced to "ensure the independence and integrity" of Ipaf) was delighted with the "thematically varied" entries, covering everything from religious extremism to the Arab expatriate experience.
Former politicians writing memoirs is of course very common. Fiction is considered a little more unusual, which is why it's worth remarking that Achaari is the former Moroccan minister of culture. But although he did hold this role in the Moroccan government until 2007, Achaari is very much a writer first and a politician second.
With The Arch and the Butterfly, he has not entirely separated his creative and political life - it follows the story of a father who learns that his son, whom he thought was studying in Paris, in fact died on an al Qa'eda mission in Afghanistan.
Alem is already one of the most critically acclaimed authors writing in Arabic today, publishing a raft of short stories, plays and novels - two of which were high-profile collaborations with American writer Tom McDonough. Those books - Fatma: A Novel of Arabia and My Thousand and One Nights - garnered widespread praise for their elegant prose, but The Doves' Necklace may take her to another level. The under belly of Mecca provides the backdrop to the life of protagonist Aisha, who finds solace from the grime in the love letters she writes to her German boyfriend.
The only debut on the longlist, al-Alawi's Turmoil in Jeddah takes us back to the end of the 19th century for a historical novel set in the Arabian Gulf. But the contemporary resonances are clear; an Arab naval captain lowers the British flag on his ship and flies an Ottoman one instead, which sets in motion a chain of events leading to a dramatic wave of bloody nationalism.
If there's one novelist who should be able to understand the trials and tribulations of an Egyptian living in England, it's al-Bari: he moved to London 10 years ago. And so he is on solid ground in An Oriental Dance, in which a young Egyptian marries an older British woman and attempts to assimilate into the English capital's Arab expatriate community. Given its subject matter, a translation into English is more than likely.
Dedicated Ipaf-watchers may remember that Haddad was shortlisted in 2009 for The Unfaithful Translator. While that was very much a treatise on the art of writing, God's Soldiers is perhaps more accessible - and on similar ground to Achaari's The Arch and the Butterfly. A father journeys to Iraq to find that his son has joined al Qa'eda, but is kidnapped by insurgents and confronted by real-life militant al-Zarqawi.
One of the more high-profile nominations, Hassan is notable not just for her novels and journalism, but because she's been banned from publishing in her homeland for 10 years for her liberal attitudes. Now living in France, her latest book might be a thinly veiled autobiography - a young woman decides to return to France after concluding she can't enjoy the same freedoms in Syria - but, in Hassan's case, her experiences have served her well.
Hayek is on something of a roll at the moment; her last novel, Prayer for the Family, was also longlisted for Ipaf in 2009. Many of the books on this year's longlist concern themselves with the experiences and collisions that occur when Arabs leave their homelands, and in A Short Life, journalist and translator Hayek explores the way the civil war in Lebanon changed those who remained - and those who left for a new life abroad.
They're a talented bunch in Moroccan goverment - following Achaari, in the role of minister of culture, was the novelist, poet and philosopher Himmich. Certainly one of the most well respected and celebrated Arab authors on the international scene (The Theocrat and The Polymath were translated into English, and he's won countless literary prizes), Himmich's new book explores powerful subject matter. He drops us right into an American prison where an innocent man - a victim of extraordinary rendition - is interrogated by Arabs and foreigners. Himmich was also longlisted in 2009, for The Man from Andalucia.
It might seem slightly odd for a prolific Algerian author with a sizable French following to set his new book in Spain. But The Andalucian House is simply the prism through which Laredj can write a sprawling historical epic. Essentially a history of the people who lived in the house, one of the characters in this labyrinthine novel is 16th-century pirate Dali Mami, famous for capturing Miguel de Cervantes and taking him to - wait for it - Algeria. The French love Laredj, and it would be nice to think the rest of the world could too.
There are a record number of women on the Ipaf longlist - seven out of 16. Al-Maghrabi's inclusion is also important because of her subject matter in this, her second book. It's the story of a Moroccan servant girl who gathers together the women in her life so she can get help to smuggle herself away, and it's very much an exploration of female friendship across generations and nationalities.
The classic tale of star-crossed love across the barricades, two teenagers from completely different religious backgrounds run away to the Yemeni capital to be together. One is the daughter of the Imam, the other a Jewish boy learning to read and write Arabic. It's not exactly a plot-spoiler to reveal their elopement doesn't go down well. Al-Muqri was also longlisted in 2009 for Black Taste, Black Odour - about a marginalised Yemeni group - and this poet, journalist and novelist continues to debate religion and tolerance in his thought-provoking work.
One of the surprise entries on the longlist, al-Murr divides her time between teaching French Literature at the Lebanese University and writing fiction. Common Sins could easily be her breakthrough novel simply because of its subject matter and setting - a story of love and resistance set in Lebanon but also taking in Beirut and London. Like Hayek and Hassan, al-Murr broadens her geographical horizons with Common Sins: an encouraging development.
Very much the wise old man of Arabic literature. Shalaby is responsible for a staggering 70 books translated into many languages - including the enjoyable English version of The Time Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets from earlier this year. His new book, Istasia, is part morality tale, part murder mystery - and if anyone can pull off a rip-roaring thriller and a plea for religious tolerance, it's Shalaby.
In Sudan, al-Sir has published nine novels, two biographies and one poetry collection - so it will be interesting to see what effect his first longlisting has on his international profile. Certainly The Head Hunter is something of a page-turner: it follows a retired secret service agent who decides to write a novel about his experiences, only to find the police are watching him a little too closely for comfort.
Legend has it al-Tahawy never left her eastern Nile village without a male relative until she was 26. Her life is dramatically different now - the widely translated author moved to New York and the result is Brooklyn Heights. Unsurprisingly, she focuses on the US city's Arab immigrants, but al-Tahawy is particularly adept at nailing the relationship - both good and bad - between East and West. Her deceptively simple prose is part of the key to her charm.
If al-Tahawy's book is, in part, about leaving home, Teresa's fifth novel explores what happens when you come back. In The Eye of the Sun, Nasma returns to Syria after a period of exile in Sweden, her past catching up with her as the relationships with her father, her lovers and her brother are revealed. Add a dash of political upheaval to proceedings and this is very much a socially literate novel in the very best traditions of the genre.
The shortlist is announced on December 9, and the winner on March 14 2011. www.arabicfiction.org