Discussing the Arabic Booker at the Cairo International Book Fair (Photo: Mary Mourad)
One the most heated discussions witnessed at the Cairo International Book Fair was on the renowned international Prize for Arabic Fiction, known as Arabic Booker.
The Booker judging committee had come under fire as soon as the shortlist was announced in Tunisia earlier in January 2013.
Critics complain the committee excluded various experienced writers who were nominated two months ago, including Lebanese writers Elias Khoury, Hoda Barakat and Rabee Jaber (winner of Arabic Booker 2012) and Algerian Waciny Laredj. Commentators considered this committee the weakest since the launch of the Booker award six years ago, asserting it lacked a renowned critic or a prominent writer and only included academic critics that are little known outside of academic production, with the exception of Galal Amin. However, even Amin heard grumbling from critics, who don't accept him as readily for his strong economics background and see him as quick to quiet freedom of expression.
The roundtable discussion at the book fair (steered by poet and journalist, Sayed Mahmoud) was panelled by head of the judging committee for this year's award: professor Galal Amin;the sole Egyptian novelist nominated among the short list, Ibrahim Issa; prize coordinator, Fleur Montanaro and the Algerian publisher from the board of trustees of the award, Assia Moussei. The Roundtable was steered by poet and journalist, Sayed Mahmoud.
Montanaro described the procedures for electing a new judging committee every year: the board of trustees give their nominations and as soon as the committee is selected they are left to work fully independently from the board.
Moussei confirmed this, and, separately, indicated that even she was surprised by the results. However, she did agree that "we should not worship literary idols," quoting an Algerian writer who although he was nominated, did not make the shortlist.
The difficult role played by Galal Amin was to describe and somewhat defend the committee's selection process. It is difficult to pin down scientific criteria to judge literature and, therefore, it is left to pure taste, Amin says. Since "taste" cannot be judged, he expected that people understand that the committee's choices are simply the result of these individuals' personal taste.
Replying to criticism that he is mostly an economics professor, Amin asserted that he represents the Arabic readers on this committee and, therefore, judged by his own taste. He guided his choices by six criteria: talented storytelling; consistency in structure; tasteful language; novelty; limitation in content related to sex, religion and politics and, finally, that it has a message to deliver.
Amin was clear that these were his personal criteria but that the various members of the committee had different views. Each came to the meetings with their preferred novels and each one championed their choices; sometimes succeeding to convince the others and other times not.
"Do we want to continue the monopoly of politics in literature? Among the purposes of this award is to introduce new writers to the public. It goes without saying that even big writers have published works that are not very good," Amin concluded.
For Ibrahim Issa, the challenge is that among the limited space for criticism within the Arab world, there's a celebration of dull works and the brooding, dark, moody reader, while works that would bring true pleasure, joy and storytelling are rarely celebrated.
Issa was glad that the Booker Award got past these standard criterion and was biased towards "readable" yet high-quality works, which culture journalists often depreciated. "I'm not waiting for any [positive] testimony from my colleagues in the journalism field after what renowned critics such as Ragaa El-Nakkash, Edward Al-Kharrat, Salah Fadl and Samia Mehrez said about me," Issa stressed.
"Jealousy is like fire, and it seems that writers are less able to control their feelings than others," was Galal Amin's final remark regarding the attack on the Booker shortlist results.
A number of publishers present at the discussion seemed to agree on the award's value, prestige and importance within the Arab world, confirming that it has its own standards and furthermore, that they and the intellectual simply must accept that it has no liability but the committee's taste.