Controversy and the International Prize for Arabic Fiction

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One of the shortlisted authors for the new but prestigious International Prize for Arabic Fiction, Egyptian Youssef Ziedan, has caused a stir with his novel ‘Beelzebub.’ Ziedan and the other nominees -- Mohammad Al-Bisatie (Egypt), Fawwaz Haddad (Syria), Inaam Kachachi (Iraq), Ibrahim Nasrallah (Jordan-Palestine) and Habib Selmi (Tunisia) -- expect to hear who will take the prize on Monday.

Blogging for Babylon and Beyond, Noah El-Hennawy writes:


The novel features a 5th century Egyptian monk in Alexandria and delves into the history of divisions among fathers of the church over the nature of Christ. The work sympathizes with sects that challenged the divine nature of Christ, and it quickly ignited fury within the Coptic Church, which has about 10 million followers in Egypt.

While tackling the Coptic Church in particular, Ziedan goes further in interviews to question the world’s major, monotheistic religions. ‘The substance is the same,’ he told the L.A. Times. ‘It is based on the superiority of oneself over others under the pretext of possessing a god who owns the truth. This element of superiority is the same in all three religions, which gives rise to violence. As long as religions last, violence will persist.’

Another shortlisted author, Nasrallah, has also been the focus of controversy. While his nominated book, ‘Time of White Horses,’ has not attracted negative attention, a 1984 collection of poems was, in 2006, suddenly banned in his native Jordan. ‘Arab writers have always suffered from authority because of a trinity of taboos: sex, politics and religion,’ Nasrallah told the Guardian in 2007, which explained, ‘He expects trouble, whenever he writes.’

The prize was established by the Booker Prize Foundation, the Emirates Foundation and the Weidenfeld Institute for Strategic Dialogue to help bring Arabic fiction to a wider audience. Announcing the shortlist in December, the prize’s board of trustees chair Jonathan Taylor said, ‘Perhaps in a way [the prize] contributes a bit to understanding that the Arabic world isn’t just Islamic fundamentalists, but is a culture and civilization which goes back for centuries and centuries.’ The first winner, ‘Sunset Oasis’ by Bahaa Taher, is being published in seven languages, including English.

Each of the shortlisted authors receives $10,000; the winner will get an additional $50,000. The awards ceremony takes place Monday in Abu Dhabi, immediately before the Abu Dhabi Book Fair.

-- Carolyn Kellogg