Monday,18 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1249, (4 - 10 June 2015)
Monday,18 December, 2017
Issue 1249, (4 - 10 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

A prize with a view

New support for literature or oil-driven PR? Talking to novelist Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid, Nourhan Tewfik sums up the debate surrounding Qatar’s new literary prize

A prize with a view
A prize with a view
Al-Ahram Weekly

On 20 May the first Katara Prize for the Arabic Novel was awarded to, among other books, Adagio by the established Egyptian novelist Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid, setting off an intense debate in Cairo literary circles. While much of the discourse has focused on Egypt’s soured relations with Qatar – with Abdel-Meguid’s detractors questioning his patriotism and his supporters insisting that cultural exchange should not be politicised, drawing on pan-Arab sentiment for good measure – what is really at stake is the role of Gulf oil money in Arabic literature.
 
With the Booker Foundation label and an administrative structure modelled on the Man Booker’s, Abu Dhabi’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) had been subjected to similar criticism. It promised transparency, fairness and the literary equivalent of due process, but while building up a largely ceremonial scene of its own, the IPAF has since borne the brunt of various charges beyond the occasional accusation of a prearranged shortlist or winner. Some argue that the prize replicates the commercial focus of western publishing in the absence of a readership to support it, and does not reflect a coherent sense of literary quality nor any vision for readership development across Arab borders.
 
No doubt to one-up “the Arabic Booker”, the new prize was established in 2014 by the Katara Cultural Village (in line with he Qatari government’s “National Vision 2030”, which was backed by an agreement with UNESCO in 2011). It is worth a staggering US $750,000 in total. It includes “drama” categories in which the winning works are guaranteed film adaptations. The main category provides provisions for translation into Spanish, Hindi and Chinese as well as English and French. Alongside Sudanese novelist Amir Tag Al-Sir, Bahraini novelist Mounira Sawar, Iraqi novelist Nasira Al-Saadoun and Algerian novelist Wasiny Al-Aaraj, Abdel-Meguid was one of five finalists to win $60,000 each.
But the prize’s high monetary value is not among the “good reasons” the author cites for letting his publisher, Al Dar Al Misriyah Al Lubnaniah, nominate the book for Katara.
 
“It is an Arab prize,” Abdel-Meguid said over the phone, “and it is not presented by the Qatari Ministry of Culture. One of its sponsors is UNESCO. More importantly, the winning novels will be translated into five languages. This is more than the number of translated languages provided by any other Arab award. So if you have ten winners annually,” he went on, “in ten years’ time that’s 100 Arabic novels in five different languages. This is a huge window onto the Arab world, which I believe is a very good opportunity for providing the world with a view of Arabic literature.”

However, some critics believe that this may have more to do with bolstering up the prestige of an oil-rich country and the geopolitical exercise of soft power than spreading Arabic literature. Regardless of the possible political underpinnings of such prize, Katara has been subject to criticism, with literary figures taking issue with its mysterious selection mechanisms and the anonymity of the juries.
 
For Abdel-Meguid, however, critics of the award take issue with anonymity because it cuts short their ability to influence the judging process to their own ends.  “In my opinion,” he says, “what brings about an award’s failure is announcing its jury.” Rather than an expression of genuine concern, it is frustration with their failure to “dominate the scene”.
Likewise “our naive preconceptions regarding Gulf countries”, according to Abdel-Meguid: “Some of the most important and widespread Arab magazines come out of the Gulf. And many Egyptian writers work for Gulf newspapers and magazines through their Cairo-based offices. Publishers participate in the Doha International Book Fair...” It is an encounter, he says, that has been uninterrupted since the 1970s. Awards and fairs sponsored by Abu Dhabi and Dubai, he argues, demonstrate an interest in Arabic literature.
 
Nor is this the first time Ibrahim has been criticised for receiving an award.

“In 1996,” he says, “I won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature from AUC. At the time, the committee was also anonymous and there was no application process. I was awarded the prize without applying. But the same debate ensued, because I was the first to receive the it. People argued that I was a foreign agent.

At the time, my response was: ‘An agent for $1000? Come on, $2000 would have been more realistic!” I remember how Naguib Mahfouz defended me at the time, and the same people who attacked me later had their own books translated and published by AUC. At the end of the day,” Abdel-Meguid concluded, “these awards are far fewer than the number of existing Arab artists, and I hope to see more awards in poetry, theatre and cinema.”

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