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A moment of silence in memory of Ibrahim Aslan opened the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) press conference on Wednesday morning, before this year’s judges — hitherto kept secret — introduced the prize’s shortlist of six.
The shortlisted novels were by Egyptians Ezzedine Choukri Fishere (“Embrace at the Brooklyn Bridge”) and Nasser Iraq (“The Unemployed”), Lebanese writers Jabbour Douaihy (“The Vagrant”) and Rabee Jaber (“The Druze of Belgrade”), Algerian Bashir Mufti (“Toy of Fire”) and Tunisian Habib Selmi (“The Women of al-Basatin”). Three of the authors — Douaihy, Jaber, and Selmi — had been previously shortlisted for the prize, while Choukri Fishere had been longlisted for his 2008 novel “Intensive Care.”
Thirteen novels had made the IPAF’s 2012 longlist. The five judges met in Cairo this week to narrow the list to six.
Judge Dr. Gonzalo Fernandez Parrilla, a Spanish academic and translator, said that the judges had agreed quickly and easily on 90 percent of the shortlist. Judge Maudie Bitar, a Lebanese journalist and literary critic, said that “one or two” of her favored novels didn’t make the shortlist, but “that’s the democratic system.”
Chair of the judges, the esteemed Syrian author Georges Tarabichi, addressed in his talk the issue of gender and regional disparities. He added that the IPAF has no gender, ideological, or regional quotas, and that all the novels “could be from Egypt or all from Lebanon or all from Algeria.”
None of the shortlisted six had subject matter directly addressing the popular uprisings that began in Tunisia in December of 2010, but Selmi’s novel, set in Tunis, was particularly noted as foreshadowing events to come. Many of the novels, Tarabichi said, gave “premonitions of the current people’s movements, displayed by the concentration on corruption and tyranny.”
The novels also address sectarian conflict, as in Douaihy’s “The Vagrant,” the clash of religious and secular beliefs, as in Selmi’s “The Women of al-Basatin,” and emigration, in “Embrace at the Brooklyn Bridge” and “The Unemployed.” Tarabichi commended the novels’ “innovative use of new styles.”
Each of the five judges brought their particular lens to the process, with their individual values and tastes. Tarabichi, Fernandez Parrilla and Bitar were joined on the jury by Egyptian academic Dr. Hoda Elsadda and Qatari writer Dr. Huda al-Naimi.
But Bitar said that, despite the judges’ differences, she felt they “have a lot in common. We’re all looking to enjoy a novel.” Bitar said she wasn’t looking for a “feel-good” novel. She likes dark and complex stories. But, in essence, “That’s what I’m looking for, a novel that’s enjoyable.”
There were more than 100 novels in contention from 15 countries, which judges had to read over the course of three months. “I got a twitch in my eye,” Bitar said.
The judges might already have favorites in mind for the next round of judging, set to take place at the end of March. But Fernandez Parrilla said that the judges’ “responsibility is to read them again” and let themselves be “exposed to the novels anew.”
Bitar said that she had three novels particularly in mind. “Maybe I have to select one of these three.”
The audience at Wednesday’s press conference seemed largely satisfied with the list, outside of novelist Youssef Ziedan, who took up the microphone to defend his “The Nabataen,” which made the IPAF longlist but not the shortlist.
Former Egyptian culture minister Emad Abou Ghazi, who was at the conference, said that he was “very pleased for Ezzedine Choukri Fishere.”
The winner — or co-winners — of the prize will be announced at an awards ceremony in Abu Dhabi on March 27. Previous winners have been Bahaa Taher’s “Sunset Oasis,” (2008) Youssef Ziedan’s “Azazel” (2009), Abdo Khal’s “She Throws Sparks” (2010) and a dual prize for Raja Alem’s “The Doves’ Necklace” and Mohammed Achaari’s “The Arch and the Butterfly” (2011).