Boyd Tonkin: Reality intrudes at the Arabic Booker prize

The week in books

His orange beret pulled rakishly to one side, Iraqi poet and novelist Fadhil al-Azzawi brought a touch of guerrilla chic to the awards ceremony for the fourth International Prize for Arabic Fiction – the "Arabic Booker" - in Abu Dhabi this week. Chair of this year's judging panel, al-Azzawi kept up the militant note when he welcomed the liberating tempest that has burst across the Arab world this spring. "It is a storm that could never have happened were it not for the work of hundreds of writers throughout the decades," he said. It's a plain enough point, but one lost on feverish Western commentators who have never read a modern Arab book and somehow imagine that Facebook and Twitter instantly implanted a longing for freedom in millions of minds.

I know from limb-numbing previous experience that cultural rituals in the Gulf tend to be long on gravitas and short on spontaneity. Yet even here, under the obligatory tank-sized chandeliers of a hotel ballroom and with local dignitaries aplenty in the audience, the unsettling new realities could hardly be left outside. Whenever a speaker mentioned the Arab democratic spring, a gunshot crackle of applause rippled through the hall. As Mohammed Achaari, one of this year's winners, put it, "A beautiful storm has swept through the Arab world." In keeping with the mutinous mood of the season, this year's Arabic Booker judges even refused to pick a single victor and – after a deadlocked ten-hour meeting – honoured two writers instead.

Achaari, a former minister of culture in Morocco and (before his own nation's liberalisation) a political detainee as well, won for The Arch and the Butterfly: a novel that investigates the roots of jihadi terrorism as a secular, left-wing father discovers that his son has died fighting for the Taliban. He shared the $50,000 award with Raja Alem from Saudi Arabia: the prize's first women laureate. Her novel The Doves' Necklace aims to celebrate the traditional life and legends of Mecca, her home city, as crooked and ruthless development sweep them clean away. Last year's Saudi winner of this prize – Abdo Khal, also a critic of corrupt modernisation – saw his book effectively banned in the Kingdom after a brief window of availability. Will Alem's novel remain visible at home? Spring may take longer to arrive in some countries.

For Alem, mass tourism has opened the myth-spangled Mecca of her childhood to all the bleakest symptoms of a blind rush into modernity. These evils range from religious extremism to the sheer criminality of construction mafias. "My grandfather's house overlooked the Holy Mosque," she tells me, "and we could see thousands of people of all colours and all customs right under the window." Now this sense of a cosmopolitan community of believers has been buried under high-rises. "Mountains are being razed and replaced by skyscrapers of steel and glass – foreign materials for Mecca."

In Mohammed Achaari's novel, pathological modernity takes the form of terrorism: a "special ideology" that feeds on itself. Even if dictatorship and poverty may light the original spark, "this hatred develops in an illogical way". When suicide bombings struck Casablanca in 2003, it gave Morocco "a huge shock", because "this savagery came from among us". Hence Achaari's delight at this year's home-grown Arab movement, devoted entirely to "peaceful resistance" against tyranny. Yet he has no illusions about the size of the institution-building task ahead for Arab democrats: "I'm extremely happy about what has happened. But I know that a hard time awaits us."

Meanwhile, Achaari has a timely warning for those of us who might expect too much of Arab authors as the pathfinders for a new era of liberty: "We must not ask writers to do something that exceeds their capacity as human beings." Instead, they should nurture their own particular art. When we talk on the day after his victory, he reminds me of what Dostoyevsky once wrote: "Beauty will rescue the world."

British no-show bar a boy wizard

This year's Abu Dhabi Book Fair crams almost 900 exhibitors from across the world into the hulking hangars of the National Exhibition Centre. Yet, once again, many major British publishers are conspicuous by their absence. Whereas the French and Germans take the trouble to design smart collective areas for their imprints, the big UK players seem to sit on their Anglophone backsides. Do they assume that the pull of English-language books means they don't need to drum up business this far away from home? One exception is Bloomsbury which, thanks to its recent deal with Qatar, has made a modest splash – Harry Potter sets included.

Dishevelled hero in fine form

He had only just got a visa. He hadn't booked a bed for the night. His company had no stand arranged. Tousled as ever, he turned up in a donkey jacket and faded jeans among the spotless white robes of the Emiratis. Yet the rumpled figure in the Book Fair corridors is a real hero of the Arab spring. Mohamed Hashem, publisher of Dar Merit in Cairo, has over the years, and in the teeth of censorship and lawsuits, brought to Egyptian and other Arab readers the works that helped to make the change. (He was first to publish Alaa Al-Aswany.) I ask him if his business has been harmed by the past seven weeks of turmoil. Of course, he says, but it doesn't matter. Freedom has dawned, and he can now operate without state intrusion and corruption. Western politicians make endless cost-free speeches about the value to us all of free expression and democratic rights in the Arab world. Hashem, and others like him, have lived the struggle, and paid its price. I think we owe them.

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

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