Arabic sci-fi and other literary revolutions

Once a tiny minority in Arabic literature, science fiction, horror and thrillers are getting a boost.

The winner of IPAF was announced on the eve of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair [AFP]

At the end of April, the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) turned seven years old. That’s when the prize named its eighth winner: the acclaimed Frankenstein in Baghdad, by Iraqi author Ahmed Saadawi.

As is tradition, Saadawi’s win was announced on the eve of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, which ran from April 29-May 5. This year’s announcement was met by cheers in the Hilton ballroom and echoing delight across social media. Saadawi was the first Iraqi to take the prize and fellow Iraqis were particularly happy. When the fair opened the next morning, copies of the winning novel sold briskly.

But copies of the IPAF-shortlisted No Knives in the Kitchens of This City, which didn’t win the prize, began to sell perhaps even more briskly. That’s after rumours that Khaled Khalifa’s novel, which was available for purchase at the fair, had been banned from further sale in the UAE.

Khalifa’s Egypt-based publisher, Fatma al-Boudy, confirmed that copies of No Knives could not be sold in the Emirates.

This underlines the uncertain space in which the IPAF operates. In just seven years, the IPAF has become broadly influential. Its affiliation with the English Booker provided initial credibility, lending the prize its “Arabic Booker” nickname. The prize’s practise of releasing a longlist and shortlist attracted further attention, as has the fact that organisers make the judges available for interrogation.

Judges’ autonomy

The prize’s funding has led to some questions. Its money comes from the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, and that organisation helps oversee the selection of each year’s judges. But after that, the judges are supposed to be fully independent. There have been doubts, but the banning of Khalifa’s book seems to underline the judges’ autonomy.

Before the 2014 prize was announced, one of the year’s five judges, the Turkish academic Mehmet Hakki Sucin, talked about the prize’s “red lines”.

A shortlisting can trigger sales, and the prize has created a global audience for books that might otherwise have remained unknown outside their own countries.

“I can’t take the fame of the writer into account, or the author’s sex, or the publisher,” Sucin said via email. “This is a red line in the evaluation of the novels for the IPAF. Except for this, it is left to each member of the jury to establish his own red lines.”

Any restrictions on the prize’s freedom are significant, as the prize has been affecting Arabic literature, as well as its place within translated world literature.

The IPAF hasn’t taken this spot by offering authors the largest purse. The Sheikh Zayed Book Award’s literary prize, which this year went to Abdel Rasheed Mahmoudi’s After Coffee, will earn its winner 750,000 AED ($204,000). That’s four times more than the IPAF’s $50,000. Qatar’s proposed “Katara” prize promises to bring its winner an eye-popping $200,000.

But the Katara prize is untested, and this year’s Sheikh Zayed award hardly launched a tweet. Meanwhile, the IPAF sparked an avalanche of social-media zaghrutas and attendant speculation by authors and publishers.

It wasn’t just Iraqis who were delighted. This was also the first time the prize went to a work that hopped the track of literary realism. Saadawi’s compelling novel tells the story of Hadi Al-Attag, “a rag-and-bone man” who haunts the streets of Baghdad, searching for fresh human body parts to stitch together a human corpse. Once completed, the patchwork Frankenstein, or “what’s-its-name”, stumbles off on a journey of revenge.

Science fiction, horror, thrillers, and other “genre” novels have been a tiny minority in Arabic literature, and have hardly been considered part of the serious canon. But on this year’s IPAF shortlist, there was not just Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, but also Ahmed Mourad’s popular psychological thriller, Blue Elephant.

Indeed, the 2014 shortlist included a wide range of books, from magical-realist prison literature (Youssef Fadel’s A Rare Blue Bird that Flies with Me), to historically minded travel literature (Abdelrahim Lahbibi’s The Journeys of Abdi), to a grim literary realism (Inaam Kachachi’s Tashari and Khaled Khalifa’s No Knives).

Triggering sales

This list will certainly be examined by publishers. A shortlisting can trigger sales and the prize has created a global audience for books that might otherwise have remained unknown outside their own countries. In just seven years, more than two dozen IPAF-longlisted or -shortlisted titles have been translated into other languages. The prize’s 2008 winner, Azazeel, has been translated into 15 different tongues.

There’s no indication that the prize has changed the way authors write. But there is every indication that publishers have changed how they work. Since each publisher gets only three nominations, as well as a free pass for any previously shortlisted author, these few slots are coveted. Authors have been known to leave publishing houses if they weren’t promised a nomination.

Yet publishers are still unsure what makes for an IPAF-winning novel.

The publisher of Salim Barakat’s The Mermaid and Her Daughters said after this year’s announcement, that he did not nominate Barakat’s novel for the 2014 prize. This wasn’t because he thought it wasn’t worthy, but because he’d previously nominated Barakat’s acclaimed experimental work, and it “hadn’t even been longlisted”. Novels by august authors like Elias Khoury and Hoda Barakat missed the shortlist in 2013 while Ibrahim Eissa’s popular Our Master moved ahead.

This has left some publishers scratching their heads: Is the awards committee looking for the best novel of the year, or a novel that might be a best-seller?

While the English-language “Booker novel” has been criticised for becoming its own insular genre, rewarding the same sort of novel year after year, the IPAF is still defining itself. With a completely different set of judges each year, hopefully the prize will do an even better job of baffling publishers next year, and selecting very different – but excellent – novels.

M. Lynx Qualey writes about Arabic literature and literary translation for a number of publications. She blogs daily at