February 8, 2019

Women dominate the International Prize for Arabic Fiction shortlist – for the first time ever


Sometimes referred to as the ‘”Arabic Booker,” The International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) is the most prestigious literary prize in the Arab world. Launched in Abu Dhabi in April 2007, each author who makes the shortlist receives $10,000 and the winner an additional prize of $50,000.

The 2019 shortlist was announced this week at a press conference held at the Palestinian National Theatre in Jerusalem, and for the first time ever, four out of the six authors shortlisted are women: Hoda Barakat for The Night Mail, Inaam Kachachi for The Outcast, Shahla Ujayli for Summer with the Enemy, and Kafa Al-Zou’bi for Cold White Sun. They are joined by male authors Adel Esmat for The Commandments and Mohammed Al-Maazuz for What Sin Caused her to Die?

Perhaps this has something to do with the judging panel. Three out of five judges this year are women: Saudi Arabian poet, writer, and academic Fowziyah Abu Khalid; Jordanian poet, columnist, human rights and women’s rights activist Zulaikha Aburisha; and Chinese academic, translator, and researcher Zhang Hong Yi. The male judges completing the panel are Lebanese academic and literary critic Latif Zeitouni, and the Chair of the panel Charafdin Majdolin, a Moroccan critic and academic.

On the panel selection, the IPAF websites states:

The judges may be literary critics, writers and academics from the Arab world and beyond. To underline the international dimension of the Prize, one judge is always a non Arab, who is not necessarily a fluent speaker and sophisticated reader of Arabic…

The judges can have no regard to external influences and opinions, nor to issues of nationality, religion, politics, gender or age. But with only these essential parameters, once appointed the judges are free to make their decisions as to what should be recognised as “the best” as they see fit. This independence and integrity of the judging process is of fundamental importance for the Prize.

Interesting to note, then, that the only woman to ever have won the prize is Raja Alem for The Dove’s Necklace in 2011, and in fact she wasn’t the outright winner. The prize was jointly awarded that year and also went to Mohammed Achaari for The Arch and the Butterfly. Of this year’s shortlisters, Kachachi has been shortlisted twice before, Ujayli once and Barakat has been previously longlisted. So this year, can a woman finally clinch the sole prize for herself and her achievements?

At the press conference, as reported by Heloise Wood at The Bookseller, Chair of the Board of Trustees Yasir Suleiman said:

The fact that four out of the six shortlisted authors are women is a first in the history of the prize. On this occasion, Jerusalem, a city steeped in Arab literary culture, provides a fitting scene for announcing the shortlist. Thank you to all our partners who made it possible….

Readers will enjoy the linguistic virtuosity and technical accomplishments displayed in the shortlisted works, as well as exquisite narration that carries the reader effortlessly through to the end.

Majdolin said on this year’s shortlisted books at the conference:

The six novels chosen are very different in their subject matter, styles and aesthetic choices. They can be described as novels about family, memory, disappointment, exile and migration and they reflect varied local environments, coming as they do from different Arabic countries.  These novels convey deep, mature and powerful visions of the current Arab reality, while also employing brilliant narrative forms that will resonate with readers and professional critics alike.

In celebration of the shortlist, the IPAF has been hosting events across Palestine in partnership with the British Council and The Educational Bookshop this week. The winner won’t be be announced until the eve of the Abu Dhabi International on 23rd April, but, as an opinion piece written for The National succinctly puts it:

There is already one clearly emerging winner, however—the writing of women … Turkish-British novelist Elif Shafak once wrote: “Male writers are thought of as ‘writers’ first and then ‘men’. As for female writers, they are first ‘female’ and only then ‘writers.'” With the odds firmly in favour of a woman winning the Ipaf prize this year, we have edged a step closer to male and female writers being appreciated on an equal footing.

Will the prize truly break boundaries this year? We have to wait until April to find out.



Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.