In the Republic of Arab Letters, Rule of the Despots

The bleak state of Arab literature in the age of mega-prizes. As Yves Gonzalez-Quijano writes here, the extravagant literary prizes handed out by the despotic lords of the Gulf Arab monarchies have done more than make a few Arab novelists wealthy: they have poisoned the entire confection of Arab literature, shrinking and desiccating the range and style of writing.

The “Arab World” is sinking into a certain amount of chaos once again. So it seems hard to believe that the region was ever able to dance in unison to the tune of its writers-those interpreters of its dreams of independence and progress- since the 19th century ‘renaissance’ (the ‘Nahda‘). In a place where only a decade ago the living voice of Mahmoud Darwish resonated, the silence of the grave now reigns. In a few short years, the petro-monarchies of the Arab Gulf have with their richly endowed prizes bought off what now passes for literary creation.

As Yazan el-Hajj has pointed out, it was at the end of the 1980s that various countries began launching these prestigious competitions. Most of them were purchased readymade from Anglo-American institutions that were only too happy to export their own models without bothering to ask how they would fit into the fabric of local culture.

El Hajj convincingly argues that over the years a falsified map of literary creation has been drawn, a sort of “Arab League of Letters.” In spite of its apparent diversity, with its well remunerated, multinational range of authors, the system has imposed the total domination of the novel format, to the detriment of the short story, the form that is the keystone of modern Arab prose.

But the escalation of literary prizes has had other perverse effects as well. The novelist Khalil Suwayleh has himself been well recompensed with the Naguib Mahfouz prize, organized by the American University in Cairo since 1996, and one of the few accolades with any literary credibility. But in an essay this year Suwayleh wrote bluntly what few are willing to say in public, although it is whispered: that more and more authors are writing within the bounds established by the prize market.

Since the superstars of Arab fiction can oblige their publisher to energetically recommend their books to this or that prize jury, younger novelists–knowing themselves more or less excluded from the game by the system–apply themselves to following to the letter the recipes which lead to success: a terrorist here, a persecuted homosexual there; the ingredients to spice things up are well known!

The protagonists of this degrading auction-fair as the Syrian novelist Khalil al-Neimi accurately describes it, are not only novice writers eager for fame, but established luminaries as well.

The juries are guaranteed to be suspected of flawed impartiality, given the hundreds of novels the contests are expected to judge. Last summer, a Saudi literary critic stirred an enormous controversy when he openly attacked the celebrated International Prize for Arabic Fiction, awarded by Abu Dhabi since 2007.

More widely known as the “Arab Booker,” this prize has become the Holy Grail that all the authors of the region dream of obtaining.

Astutely orchestrated throughout the whole year, with pre-selections, then a short list, and then the grand finale announcement of the prize, the competition offers a fine opportunity for all kinds of backstage manoeuvers and dirty tricks, for intentionally phony statements followed by sensationalist revelations; all of this has little to do with literature but does expose the highly political issues at stake.

In a region where reading statistics are appalling -a quarter of a page per year per inhabitant according to a recent study by the Egyptian Higher Council on Culture-the destructive consequences of the numerous and sumptuous literary prizes are not only literary.

The power ploys behind these prizes are quite evident, as demonstrated by the launch of the latest trophy, the Katara Prize. This most recent of the region’s grand literary prizes throws down on the table some $650,000-“four times more than the prestigious Arab Booker Prize,” as its brief entry in Wikipedia artlessly proclaims.

The Qatari officials behind it barely bother to conceal their aim, their extremely princely munificence is intended to outdo their Arab brothers around the corner, in particular the rulers of the UAE.

Egyptian author and critic Sayyid Mahmood casts an unflattering light on this supposedly literary backroom dealing, with its strong flavors of ‘soft power.’ Despite the fact that it was published a few days before the results were announced, his article revealed most of the winners in the category of “published novels.”

His predictions of the winners were based on an analysis that bothered little with the artistic capabilities of the writers: indeed quite the contrary. Given that the Qataris want to surpass and if possible undermine the success of the literary prize handed out by their Emirati neighbors, Mahmood reasoned that the winners of the Qatari prize would be those who were edged out for the region’s most prestigious literary prizes, starting with those who were on the longlist of the 2014 “Arabic Booker” but who did not win.

Thus he came up with the names of the Algerian Waciny Laredj, the Sudanese Amir Tag Elsir and the Egyptian Ibrahim Abdelmeguid: a list which ended up being precisely confirmed when the prizes were announced last week.

Abdelmeguid, incidentally, is a pitiable and painful example of the kind of bitter pills a novelist must swallow in order to be picked for the prize. Already a prominent writer (his novels widely translated) herald of the Egyptian revolution (though not a hero) Abdelmeguid has allowed himself to be dragged into a political game that reveals itself as nothing more than a transparent charade.

Like all of his peers, he pretends to believe that Qatar’s officials – who do not hesitate to throw their own local poets into prison at the first sign of dissent- are sincerely enamored with works of literary fiction by Arab writers; his $60,000 paycheck depends on this suspension of disbelief after all.

Sayyid Mahmood underlines that it seems to matter little to Abdel Meguid and other writers that Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the greatest financiers of the mercenary militias that are devastating the motherlands of the Arab novel-Syria, Iraq-and only recently it was their generous aid which contributed critically to the success of the counter-revolution in Eygpt.

When you are going to head home with $260,000 in your pocket for the fiction you have laid down on paper, like the Algerian writer Waciny Laredj, why wouldn’t you participate in this hypocritical celebration of an Arab nation honoring its best writers, who will in any case surely find more readers in foreign translations of their works than in their own language?

In sum, after the “Booker Prize for Arab Fiction,” it is the Katara Prize that has finally arrived to put a final and unhappy end to the genuine literary adventure that began more than a century ago among the pioneers of the Arab novel. The overdose of fake prizes has in the end made Arab fiction worthless.

Yves Gonzalez-Quijano Translated from French by International Boulevard

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