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Despite excluding the stars, Arabic Booker shortlist isn’t avant garde

As the Arabic Booker judges, including prominent economist Galal Amin, prepare to pick a winner, they are under fire for apparent 'populist' choices

Sayed Mahmoud, Monday 14 Jan 2013
Arabic Booker

The Arabic Booker selection committee is bound to face criticism on 23 April when it selects the winner from among the six shortlisted works of literature.

The committee, headed by renowned Egyptian economist Galal Amin, reflects a popularist taste in the selection of titles, biased towards works of a "classical nature" rather than more experimental titles, according to a Tunisian writer who participated in the press conference announcing the results last week.

According to the committee’s own report, the selected works “are considered to be at the heart of the Arab reality of today, dealing with religious extremism, lack of tolerance, rejecting the other, and the clash between thought and practice.”

The angry Tunisian writer’s comments reflected the taste of the committee which had selected six works for the shortlist, namely Ya Mariam (Ave Maria) by Iraqi Sinan Antoon, Ana wa Heyya wa Aloukhrayat (I, Her and Other Women) by Lebanese Jana Elhassan, Al-Qandas (The Beaver) by Saudi Mohammed Hassan Alwan, Mouwlana (Our Master) by Egyptian Ibrahim Eissa, Saq Al-Bamboo (The Bamboo Stick) by Kuwaiti Saud Alsanousi and Saadtouh AlSayyed AlWazeer (His Excellency the Minister) by Tunisian Hussein Al-Wad.

Although most of these authors are young writers, some of whom are no more than 35 years old, the selection does not so much reflect a tendency towards the avant garde as much as a preference for works that deal with current political conditions.

The committee responded to the issues during its press conference with a statement that is best described as 'reactionary' language rather than solid criticism, stating that it has not reacted to the pressure of the current moment, rejecting works that deal with the Arab Spring revolutions for they “have not ripened yet, and were obviously weak” and describing the selected works to be “humanist”, and not biased towards any political stance but the “taste of the committee members and their experience.”

The committee thus selected the young over the various experienced writers who made the long list two months ago, including Lebanese writers Elias Khoury, Hoda Barakat and Rabee Jaber, winner of Arabic Booker 2012, and Algerian Waciny Laredj.

Amin, head of the committee, stressed that it wasn’t intentional. “The committee didn’t seek to exclude any writer or order the execution of novels for prominent writers… Readers must accept the decisions of the committee with some forgiveness, for it’s not expected that a great writer would remain great all the time.”

The committee included, in addition to Galal Amin, Lebanese academic and critic Sobhi Al-Boustani; head of the Arab Cartoonists' Association, and owner and chief editor of the independent Syrian daily newspaper Al-Domari Ali Ferzat; Professor of Arabic Literature at the Jagiellonian University of Krakow, Barbara Michalak-Pikulska, and Professor of Arabic Literature at Manchester University Zahia Smail Salhi.

Facebook commentators viewed this as the weakest committee since the launch of the Booker award six years ago, lacking of a renowned critic or a prominent writer, including only academic critics that are little known outside of academic production, with the exception of Galal Amin. This caused a stir during the announcement, especially among Tunisian writers who considered there to be a “Mashreq” bias towards excluding any Arab Maghreb names, with two new names from Gulf countries and without a single name from Tunisia, Morocco or Algeria.

The followers noted that two of the selected works were published by the Arab Scientific Publishers, and apart from the quality of books, this reflected possible influence by owner of the publishing house, Bashar Shbaru, who is among the board of trustees of the award.

This led to a deeper reflection on historical winners, and it was discovered that in two cases out of the five the selected winning works were published by members of the board of trustees, hinting at a potential conflict of interest. However, Nouri Obaid, Tunisian publisher and among the board of trustees, indicated that the board has no interaction at all with the selection committee.

Galal Amin; a controversial choice

Choosing Galal Amin caused a stir, at least in Egypt, for despite his great fame as a professor of economics at the American University in Cairo and a renowned nationalist intellectual active since the 1980s, his literary taste has been subject to much debate.

Followers of the Egyptian literary scene over the past twenty years still recall his battle over the teaching of the famous book, For Bread Alone, by Moroccan writer Mohamed Choukri. Professor Samia Mehrez, who taught the book in class, was subject to fierce criticism from parents and newspapers, and Amin joined the call of those against teaching the book arguing that it included unacceptable material, and comparing how Choukri tackled sex in his book to Sudanese author Al-Tayeb Saleh.

Young Egyptian authors accuse Amin of prefering "popularist" books, owing to his role in introducing books that made it to bestseller lists in Egypt such as Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al-Aswany and Taxi by Khaled El-Khameisi. Both works, despite their fame, are quite controversial within the Egyptian literary scene. Amin himself doesn’t hide his preference for works of a political setting, for he considers George Orwell his role model.

On social networking websites, Amin paid dearly for his public friendship with Ibrahim Eissa, the only Egyptian shortlisted for the Arabic Booker.

Eissa, a renowned media and journalism star known for his opposition to the Mubarak regime, had started publishing books during the 1980s, but had never achieved much success, despite gaining the attention of renowned critics and writers such as Ragaa El-Nakkash and Edward Kharrat.

Eissa continued to address the public from a journalism perspective, and that gained him a significant audience in Egypt. His presence on the shortlist will allow him entry to literary circles where his works are currently dismissed as light political literature.

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