This year’s alleged scandal surrounding the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (The Booker) awards was followed by an outcry for reform in the process and the rules by which the jury and arbitration committees work. Hardly a year has passed without hearing dissident voices complaining about nepotism, a lack of professionalism, and injustice done to novelists and the genre of Arabic fiction in general. However, the intensity and the volume of this year’s protests against the awards were louder than previous years. Aside from the justice or injustice of the jury’s verdict, some of the doubts triggered by these decisions demand attention.
Although the committee acted according to the rules of the IPAF, this year’s winner was not an official contender or part of the shortlist. Hoda Barakat, the winner of the award, initially declined to participate in the competition. However, her name was added onto the shortlist at the last minute, allowing her to win this year’s prize ($50,000) for her novel “The Night Mail.” What should have been a moment to celebrate, however, caused a stir among various Arab intellectuals.
Not only was Barakat’s “The Night Mail” added at the last minute, but her victory was unofficially leaked hours before the awarding ceremony in an Independent Arabia article. As expected, some critics suspected that the committee’s decision was intended to please Barakat, who did not make last year’s shortlist. Some even questioned the judging committee’s rationale that none of the shortlist contenders had qualified for the prize, thus calling for the need to bring in a name from the outside.
Some even directed their reservations against “The Night Mail” for being slim compared to previous winners, considering it a novella or a long short story rather than a novel, a criticism Barakat refuted in a recent interview by claiming that novellas as a type of writing do not exist in France. Other critics came to her defense in discounting a novel’s “size” as a basis for the award.
Hoda Barakat is an acclaimed novelist, but unquestionably this year’s controversy casts a shadow on her professional career, claim some critics. Most importantly is the impact of these controversies on the award’s credibility and how the controversy affects current and future fiction talents.
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