Eyes on the Prize

The Arab world's most prestigious literary award is thriving; whether anyone's actually reading the shortlisted books is another matter.

A Frankensteinian monster stalks the streets of Baghdad, looking for vengeance; a family's dreams are stifled across generations in Aleppo; a tormented psychiatrist investigates a murder in Mubarak-era Cairo; three Iraqi siblings, striving for stability, find new lives abroad; a Moroccan woman searches for her Air Force pilot husband, who disappeared decades ago. These stories, which have been selected as contenders for the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) are a diverse cross-section of contemporary Arabic literature. The shortlist was announced on Feb. 10 to a packed news conference in Amman, Jordan, and the winner will be declared on April 29, on the eve of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

The issues of the rights of women, political freedoms, and corruption are playing out in Arabic literature, just as they are in cities across the Middle East. Awards such as the IPAF bring together literature from Morocco to Lebanon to Saudi Arabia that speaks to these debates, grappling with many of the same questions raised by the "Arab Spring." In the IPAF, authors around the region now have a shared platform to debate the qualities of the "Great Arabic Novel" and vie for a prize that's new to the region.

The IPAF -- popularly known as the "Arabic Booker" (after Britain's prestigious Man Booker prize) and funded by the United Arab Emirates -- is only in its seventh year, but has already exerted wide influence over the production, publication, and distribution of Arabic novels. It is not the first pan-Arab prize, nor does it offer the largest purse: The Sheikh Zayed Book Award, also sponsored by the UAE, offers a total of nearly $2 million to winners in various categories. This sort of soft power has not gone unnoticed, and neighboring Qatar has decided to get in on the lit-prize action: Doha's Katara Cultural Village announced last month that the organization was set to launch a $200,000 award for Arabic novels. The Katara prize also promises to offer both translation into English and to film or stage, although logistical details are still thin.

Why has the IPAF had such an effect on Arabic literature? It's been seven years since the organization handed out its first prize, to Bahaa Taher's Sunset Oasis. When it was unveiled in 2008, the prize was strongly allied with the English Booker award and touted as very different from previous pan-Arab literary prizes. Although it is sponsored by Abu Dhabi's Tourism and Culture Authority, the IPAF is not explicitly allied with the government, and prize organizers regularly underscore the judges' independence. The award, organizers say, does not exist to promote Emirati or government-approved literature.

Each year, the IPAF has been a different experience. In 2013, the shortlist was a surprise: A number of internationally acclaimed authors, such as Lebanese novelists Elias Khoury, Hoda Barakat, and Rabee Jaber were on the longlist, but didn't make the shortlist of six. Instead, the judges chose several emerging authors, creating an exceptionally young list. Last year's prize also had two "celebrity" judges, the Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat and the economist and memoirist Galal Amin. This year's judging panel, perhaps in reaction to criticism, was much more orthodox: It included Saad Albazei, an academic and member of Saudi Arabia's Shura Council, and Abdullah Ibrahim, who won the 2014 King Faisal Prize for his work on Arabic literature and is also a cultural advisor at the Qatari emir's court.

The prize also makes a thrust at transparency, though it sometimes falls short. Some aspects of the selection process remain a mystery: As with the English Booker, we don't know which 156 novels were submitted for the 2014 prize. Thus, we can't say whether Salim Barakat's most recent novel, The Mermaid and her Daughters, was not on the longlist because it's too controversial (the novel is banned in Jordan), because it's too experimental, because the judges found it wanting, or because the publisher didn't submit it for the prize. The same is true of Nael al-Toukhy's Women of Karantina and Sawsan Jamil Hassan's Nabbashun.

But reporters are able to grill the judges about their decisions, which some years seem stranger than others. In 2010, for example, the names of the judges were leaked before the shortlist announcement, and rumors of judge-tampering were rampant. Rumors that the UAE directs judging decisions from behind the curtain also have been persistent, but have become more muted.

This year's shortlist comprises a broad range of novels, from historical fictions to magical realism to a psychological thriller. As expected, it includes the acclaimed Syrian novelist Khaled Khalifa's No Knives in the Kitchens of This City, a novel that already won the 2013 Naguib Mahfouz medal. The novel follows an ordinary Syrian family as they try to survive the aftermath of their country's Baathist coup, exploring the deep roots of Syria's current despair and depicting a devastated and deteriorating Aleppo. (Khalifa, the favorite for the prize, was shortlisted for the inaugural IPAF for his dense, gripping In Praise of Hatred, a novel of Marquezian scope that was published in English in 2012.)

Egyptian crime novelist Ahmed Mourad's third novel, The Blue Elephant, also made the list, to the delight of his fans and consternation of literary purists. Mourad burst onto the novel-writing scene in 2007 with Vertigo, which appeared in English in 2011. The former official photographer to Hosni Mubarak grabbed fans' attention with his page-turning plot twists, but also with his wit and daring portraits of a corrupt Egyptian elite. In Blue Elephant, a novel full of sex, drugs, and earthy language, Mourad explores the line between fantasy and reality.

Although Mourad's inclusion in a prize for "high literature" was a surprise to some, the prize's seventh year has brought comparatively little drama. The remaining four shortlisted novels included submissions by two Moroccans, Youssef Fadel and Abdelrahim Lahbibi, and two Iraqis, Inaam Kachachi and Ahmed Saadawi. Despite the novels' variety, judging chair Saad Albazei noted that "fragmentation" was a theme that resonated through all six. This can be seen in the familial destruction of Kachachi's Tashari, the crumbling of Syrian society in Khalifa's No Knives, and the literal fragmentation in Saadawi's compelling Frankenstein in Baghdad, where the monster is built from a variety of Iraqi corpses.

Prize judge Zhor Gourram said that, much like last year, the judges saw a number of "Arab Spring novels," as well as those where authors attempted to reconcile their characters with their nations' pasts. But while the turmoil in the Middle East may have been an inspiration for writers, it has also dealt a blow to the region's publishing business -- the industry has recently been struggling with low sales and increased production costs. Even publishers in countries that have not seen major political turmoil rely on book-buyers in Egypt and Syria. One Lebanese publisher told the industry publication Book Brunch that his sales to Egypt had dropped 40 percent, and sales to Syria had dropped by 90 percent.

The IPAF, however, has retained its status as the premier literary prize in the Arab world. Sherif Bakr, director of Egypt's al-Arabi publishing house, said that many publishers now build part of their catalog around the prize. Since each publishing house is allowed just three submissions to the IPAF and a "get-in free" card for any previously shortlisted author, Bakr said that the prize has also shifted the literary landscape to the benefit of smaller publishers. Some Arab authors will now sign on with a smaller house on the condition that their book is submitted for the prize.

Indeed, despite the continued difficulties in the publishing industry, the IPAF continues to thrive. There were a record 156 submissions for the award this year, a marked increase from 133 submissions last year and 101 submissions in 2012. While there were just 68 separate publishers submitting in 2013, this year saw 86.

Still, Bakr said, the publishers aren't altogether sure what to submit. Because the criteria aren't stated, and seem to shift from year to year based on the judges, the standards for recognition remain hard to decipher. "We don't understand," said Bakr. "What type of a prize is it?"

For this reason, publishers have become keen IPAF-watchers. After prize organizers encouraged more submissions from female authors in 2010, there was near gender equity on the longlist and shortlist in 2011. However, female authors' presence on the longlist quickly shrank back to just one or two each year after that. Libyan novelist Ahmed al-Faitouri, one of the judges, said that in 2014 there were many submissions by young women writers, but only two were found worthy of the 16-strong longlist and just one made the shortlist, Inaam Kachachi.

Gender imbalance has been a recurring criticism of the award. This year, the chair of the IPAF's board of trustees said at the news conference that gender representation was a factor in choosing judges. As 7iber magazine's editor-in-chief Lina Ejeilat commented on Twitter, this wasn't exactly in evidence: "Result: one token woman and four men."

However, the award also offers numerous upsides for readers and writers. Beyond the obvious financial benefits, it also helps Arab authors expand their audience beyond their national borders. This is particularly important in a book industry that has become atomized because of problems with censorship and distribution, which make it difficult to move books across national borders.

The IPAF also has had an effect beyond Arabic literature, as it deserves at least some credit for an uptick in novels translated from Arabic into other languages. Certainly, award organizers can take credit for bringing shortlisted authors to a number of global literary festivals. A number of the books have also gone on to win awards in translation, such as Youssef Ziedan's Azazeel, Khaled Khalifa's In Praise of Hatred, and Jabbour Douaihy's Vagrant. Azazeel, which was a best-seller in Arabic, has been translated into 14 languages.

In most Arab cities, however, you won't find anyone cracking open Khalifa's No Knives or Saadawi's Frankenstein in Baghdad on the subway. For the time being, Arabic literature and its prizes remains a sport for a select few. But the IPAF is turning Arabic literature, at a moment when it needs a helping hand, into a sport -- with large prizes, authors to watch, and benefits for the fans.



The Taliban Are Winning the War on Polio

A nearly eradicated disease has cropped up everywhere from Jerusalem to Kabul. You can thank Pakistani terrorists for that.

This week's tragic reappearance of polio in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, after 13 years, poses serious questions about the future of health in the country following the scheduled withdrawal of United States military personnel at the end of 2014. Without their military escorts and protection, humanitarian and non-governmental aid organizations are expected to draw down foreign personnel as well.

Although the polio vaccine is safe, vaccination remains a sensitive topic in the region and aid workers face a mounting wave of cultural challenges. Some militants believe the common misconception that vaccinations are against Islamic law or are administered as part of a broader American plot to sterilize children or infect them with HIV. Taliban in Pakistan have been attacking polio workers and their security teams since it was revealed in 2011 the CIA used a fake Hepatitis B vaccine campaign in Abbottabad as part of an attempt to obtain blood samples from Osama bin Laden's children in order to confirm the al Qaeda chief's location.

Despite the Pakistani government's efforts to provide police protection, at least 31 polio vaccination workers have been killed in Pakistan since July 2012. (Police and security personnel working with them have also been shot at, wounded, and killed.) These attacks, unfortunately, have had their desired effect. Along with systemic problems in supply chains and personnel management, the intimidation and violence have increasingly led mothers to opt out of all kinds of vaccines, and have stymied health efforts; outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, such as measles, have increased. And as a result, polio remains unchecked in several provinces, particularly in the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan.

The 3-year-old Afghan girl named Sakina who was diagnosed with polio in Kabul comes from one of these tribal communities, the Kuchi nomadic tribe. Although her family currently resides in east Kabul, they regularly cross the border between the two countries. According to Kaneshka Baktash, a spokesman for Afghanistan's Ministry of Public Health, it is likely that Sakina contracted the virus while in Pakistan. The strain of polio she has is identical to the one circulating in Pakistan, further evidence that the case was imported. Sakina is paralyzed as a result of the disease; her family brought her to Pakistan where she is receiving treatment.

The family's nomadic lifestyle may have played a role in the young girl's illness. Baktash suggested the family may have been away from home when vaccination teams visited their neighborhood in Kabul. The Kuchis in Kabul, such as Sakina's family, live in a poorer district of the capital where there is no running water. The polio virus can live in the human gastrointestinal (GI) tract without causing disease, and is primarily spread via feces. This means that the disease can be passed through sewers, polluted drinking water, and unclean hands. Oral administration of polio vaccine is the only way to ensure immunization of the entire GI tract; it is therefore preferred to use drops, versus polio shots. Although shots do give a stronger immunity to the individual child, the oral vaccine protects the public. Even though Kabul has the best sewage and water systems in the country, when a sewage system is contaminated, the only option to prevent outbreaks is mass vaccinations, and mass vaccination campaigns require a strong, well-coordinated public health response.

When Israel found samples of live polio virus after routine sewage tests in May 2013, authorities quickly launched a comprehensive response. The strain, originally discovered in Rahat, also matched the strain currently circulating in Pakistan, demonstrating how easily the disease can spread across borders. Subsequent tests showed polio in the sewer systems in several parts of the country including Jerusalem as recently as September 2013. But starting in August 2013, the oral polio vaccine was administered to 980,000 Israeli children under 9 years old, or 79 percent of the children in that age group. Because of this seven-month coordinated public health effort, there were no human cases of the disease, and recent samples from the same sewage treatment plant have tested negative for polio.

The ongoing outbreak of polio in Syria, on the other hand, demonstrates how quickly polio, measles, and other vaccine-preventable disease can make comebacks when routine vaccinations are disrupted. Despite not reporting a single case since 1999, Syria recorded 17 cases of polio in October 2013; this strain is also closely related to the one found in Pakistan. International organizations have been trying to reach and vaccinate these vulnerable populations in Syria, but their efforts have been continuously stymied. Just last month, the World Health Organization and UNICEF condemned fighting in the city of al-Raqaa for interrupting a polio immunization campaign. Conflict zones in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa are rife with vaccination disruptions and outbreaks that are impeding global progress toward eradication.

The global health community is focused on polio because it is possible to eradicate the virus -- an achievement reached for only one human pathogen to date: smallpox. But the campaign to eliminate polio is revealing larger health system issues that exist worldwide. The infrastructure and funding behind the global polio effort far exceeds that supporting any other childhood contagious disease -- save, perhaps, HIV in Africa. Where polio efforts can fail, all of the less well-funded, weaker achievements in health are also in peril.

Time will tell if this case of polio in Kabul is a harbinger of grim times ahead. Achievements in health have been made in Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. The total number of polio cases dropped from 120 in 2000, to just 14 in 2013. Other health indicators have also been improving, in no small part because of huge U.S. investment in the country. USAID has spent approximately $15 billion in Afghanistan since 2002, and $113.9 million on improving health outcomes in 2011 alone. The results speak for themselves: Between 2004 and 2010, the infant mortality rate fell from 115 deaths per 1,000 live births to 77 deaths per 1,000 live births, and the estimated life expectancy rose from 42 years to 62 years.

But these advances in health outcomes are fragile, and continued investment is needed to keep up these gains. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative estimates that $156.82 million in funding is needed between 2013 and 2015 to eradicate the disease from Afghanistan alone. Maintaining forward movement in the improvement of health must be a key part of all agreements related to the withdrawal of U.S. military and government personnel, United Nations agencies, and NGOs. Otherwise, there is the real possibility that Taliban plots to obstruct polio vaccinations could derail many hard-fought gains in global health and development. The children of Afghanistan must not pay the price for political squabbles both between Kabul and Washington, D.C., and inside the country itself.

Paul Watson/Toronto Star via Getty Images