I first heard about the project to establish The International Prize for Arabic Fiction (the Arabic Booker) at a reception in London a couple of years ago. I was, of course, delighted by the idea, particularly when one of the organizers told me that the winning book would be published throughout the Arab world, and translated outside of it, thus helping the author gain a wider readership. The cash awards ($10,000 for shortlisted authors, $50,000 for the winner) would also give a tremendous boost to authors in a part of the world where it is nearly impossible to live off of one’s writing.
But even then I was under no illusions about the inclusiveness of the prize. The way these things often work is that, despite the richness of the Arabic language and its culture, the attention goes to the Middle East, with Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria dominating. The Maghreb, on the other hand, tends to be forgotten. And sure enough, despite the presence of my illustrious countrymen Mohammed Berrada and Mohammed Bennis on the judging panel, the shortlist included:
June Rain by Jabbour Douaihy (Lebanon)
The Land of Purgatory by Elias Farkouh (Jordan)
In Praise of Hatred by Khaled Khalifa (Syria)
Walking in the Dust by May Menassa (Lebanon)
Swan Song by Mekkaoui Said (Egypt)
Sunset Oasis by Baha Taher (Egypt)
Two Egyptians, two Lebanese, and yet not one Algerian, not one Moroccan, or Libyan or Mauritanian, or Tunisian. Why? There should be more effort to reach out to Arabic-language publishing houses in the Maghreb, and to encourage them to enter their authors in these prizes. And the publishers in the Maghreb need to keep themselves apprised of what is going on in the world of letters outside their borders.