"Arab Booker" winner defends Arab Gulf arts drive

ABU DHABI (Reuters Life!) - An Egyptian novelist who won the “Arab Booker prize” this month defended the kind of lavish spending on the arts in Gulf Arab countries that has also drawn criticism internationally and in the Arab world.

Writer and scholar Youssef Ziedan won the “International Prize for Arabic Fiction,” a prize offered by a United Arab Emirates government body in association with Britain’s Booker Prize Foundation which operates the award process.

Dubbed the “Arabic Booker,” the $50,000 prize has established itself in only its second year as one of the major literary awards in the Arab world, competing with a number of others funded by governments or wealthy individuals which are often accused of skewed and biased judging criteria.

It comes amid a flurry of cultural activity in recent years as Gulf countries with extra cash to burn because of oil and gas revenues seek to put themselves on the global arts map with prestigious museums, festivals and exhibitions.

“The Gulf has started to play its natural role as a part of the Arab region and it’s an appropriate role to play since they are Arabs,” Ziedan said on the sidelines of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, where he received his prize.

Egypt, with the largest population in the Arab world, has long been considered the cultural motor of the region but has ceded ground since the 1970s to the Arabian Peninsula, often depicted as a cultural backwater.

The wealth of Gulf governments and ruling families has helped draw many Arab nationals seeking a better life and make the Gulf a center for Arab television and entertainment, rivaling traditional centers like Cairo and Beirut.

“The concentration of culture in Egypt was a mistake in itself, we have to share this role. Egypt should not be the official spokesperson for Arab culture,” said Ziedan, who won the prize for his historical novel “Azazeel” (Beelzebub).

“If you look at the map of production, Egypt is still number one. It produces three times more literature than is produced in any other part of the Arab world and 60 percent of literary prizes go to Egyptians.”


Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates capital, plans to have spin-offs from the Louvre in Paris and New York’s Guggenheim has agreed to an offshoot museum. They will be located in the ambitious city’s planned Cultural District, along with other buildings designed by internationally renowned architects.

A petition led by French curators protested the Louvre plan as selling France’s soul for profit. Qatar recently opened a major Islamic art museum, staking its own claim to the turf.

Dubai this month exhibited the prestigious Farjam Collection of Islamic artifacts. Curator Aydin Aghdashloo described the collection as “one of the most important in the Middle East.”

The Abu Dhabi book fair attracted literary luminaries such as Amitav Ghosh, who praised the Gulf as a cultural crossroads. He said Arabic novelists had been among the first to tackle issues of social and economic migration, back in the 1980s.

“Arab writing had a such a powerful influence on me ... because the issues they were discussing you didn’t see reflected in English or Indian writing,” he told an audience, citing the work of Sudanese author Tayeb Salih, who died last month.

“The whole transformation that happened when cities in the Gulf became an important place for migrants to come to -- all of that was not written about in India, even though so many millions of Indians were here,” Ghosh said.

International rights groups have complained that Asian laborers who built the modern cities of today are treated badly with low wages and bad housing.

Ziedan, whose focus in “Azazeel” on Christianity in pre-Islamic Egypt angered Egypt’s Coptic Christian church, said the UAE was helping promote Arabic literature internationally.

Arab governments are often accused of hypocrisy through promoting culture via literary prizes on the one hand, but enforcing censorship on the other. Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim famously rejected a government prize in 2003 saying the authorities were not serious about freedom of expression.

Ziedan’s prize includes translation into English, which is likely to bring in far more revenue than sales in Arabic. Arabic novels have not generally done well internationally, despite Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz’s Nobel literature prize in 1978.

“The world has to know about us and we have to know about the world,” Ziedan said.

Editing by Paul Casciato