Sixteen novels have been selected for the longlist of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, which has been dubbed the Arab Booker. The prize, which boasts a first prize of US$50,000 (Dh183,500), was launched last year to promote Arabic literature around the world. It is funded by the Emirates Foundation, one of the country's leading philanthropic organisations, and earned its nickname because it is run in association with Britain's Booker Prize Foundation.
The list includes a handful of works by writers who have been translated into English, including Hunger by the Egyptian novelist Mohammed el Bisatie and Time of White Horses by Ibrahim Nasrallah, the Palestinian poet and novelist. Ibrahim Koni, whose novel The Tumour is on the list, is a Libyan writer who has published more than 30 novels, story collections and critical anthologies, and whose works have been translated into 35 languages. Last year, he won the Sheikh Zayed Book Award for Literature for the novel Call What Was Far. The longlist was selected from among 131 entries from 16 Arab countries, from Kuwait to Morocco.
The administrator of the prize, Joumana Haddad, said there were no entries from the UAE, but nonetheless there was "lots of good literature in the Arab world that is not getting the attention it deserves". She noted that a number of the novels were set in war-torn countries or during times of conflict. Two novels by women also made the longlist, including Prayer for the Family by Lebanon's Renée Hayek, and The American Granddaughter, by Inaam Kachachi, an Iraqi novelist born in Baghdad in 1952 who moved to Paris in 1979.
But many of the other writers are less well-known and there are a few debut novels on the list. Mrs Haddad said that much of the Arab fiction published in the West was of a sensational nature. "There was a raid on Iraqi novels that were talking about the war there; not all of the novels that were translated are necessarily good novels, but that was not the criteria." She said many books about the lives of Arab women were also popular in translation for dubious reasons. "Many publishers are looking for the bestsellers all those clichés, that is not what makes good literature."
A shortlist of six finalists will be announced on Dec 10 along with the names of the judges on this year's panel. Each shortlisted finalist will receive $10,000. The six novels that made the inaugural shortlist for last year's prize, which was won by the Egyptian writer Baha Taher for his historical novel Sunset Oasis, had not been previously translated into English. Sigrid Rausing, the Tetra Pak heiress who owns Granta and Portobello publishers, agreed to fund an English translation of the winner, and Taher's novel will be published in Britain next summer by Sceptre, an imprint of Hodder & Stoughton.
Dr Peter Clark, a member of the board of trustees for the prize, said the book award had already increased the visibility of Arab novels, but added that distribution of books in the Middle East remained difficult. "Usually in one country you can find books by the writers of that country, but you don't have books from all over the Arab world in bookshops in any one particular country." However, Ms Haddad said she believed distribution had improved in the past year. "We have witnessed some of the main publishing companies making partnerships with other publishing companies in other countries."
The prize will be awarded on March 16 in Abu Dhabi.