Transnational Maghreb and the International Prize for Arabic Fiction: Pluralism, inclusiveness, and peaceful coexistence in the contemporary Maghrebi novel

TRANSECT: The Project

Diversity has always played a crucial role in the modern nation-building processes, since it “contributes to defining the paths, spheres and limits for associating and dividing as well as integrating or excluding people and communities dwelling within the same territory, polity and society” (Maggiolini 2018: 55). As claimed by philosopher of religion Peter Byrne (1995), pluralism is an intellectual response to religious and cultural diversity. Such a response seems to be continuously challenged by the resurfacing of extremist identity-related ideologies on the one hand, and violent and disruptive events (sectarian conflicts, the disintegration of nation-States, etc.) that question the viability of pluralism on the other. What does today’s literature tell us about the pluralist response to diversity? As Ronen Zeidel (2020: 8) argues, “national identity is given, it exists, but it is also an ongoing project in which novels and novelists take an active part”, reimagining their national identity in a more inclusive way. TRANSECT is a research project aiming to explore how the cultural and religious pluralism of the Maghreb is represented in the contemporary Maghrebi novel in Arabic and disseminated globally by means of the International Prize of Arabic Fiction (IPAF). The definition of Maghreb adopted by TRANSECT is a restricted one, only including Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, the three States which were encompassed by the French colonial project.

The IPAF is a literary prize founded in 2009 by the Emirates Foundation in Abu Dhabi and awarded annually with the aim of promoting translation and international dissemination of the contemporary Arabic novel. As Anne-Marie McManus (2016: 219) points out, it is necessary to implement “a resituation of national frames, institutionally and hermeneutically, within the nodal relation the IPAF represents”. TRANSECT understands nation building as an ongoing process, in accordance with the concept of “elastic nation” proposed by Joseph A. Massad, who defines the nation as “an elastic entity expanding and contracting while maintaining a central territorial core […] and a central demographic core” (Massad 2001: 47). Drawing from such arguments, TRANSECT aims to explore the ways in which countries of the Maghreb represent themselves in their transnational literary products, favouring an inclusive national narrative which is situated in between the local and the global. Polyphonic by its very nature, in fact, the novel can be seen as “a literary analogue to the syncretic social and political project of nationalism” (Selim 2003: 60). If the nation is a device for the inclusion of a plurality of ethnic, linguistic, religious and social entities that are considered as belonging to the same “imagined community” (Anderson 2006: 5-6; Bhabha 1990: 1-7), the novel is not only its literary expression par excellence, but also one of its propulsive forces. Facing the national space, the novel proves to be able to read and re-encode it so that it is not only understandable to the reading public, but it also educates the latter to conceive the nation as a collective space within which the reader-citizen can move according to a series of implicit rules that are common knowledge.

TRANSECT aims to explore the ways in which the national and regional identity of the Maghrebi countries has been re-constructed into multi-faceted paradigms, codes and modes of literary production. The scope of the research has been narrowed to a coherent and homogeneous corpus of selected novels drawn from the longlists of the IPAF from 2009 to 2020. The common thread of interest among these novels is both geographic and thematic, since they are all centred around the themes of inter- and intra-religious dialogue, peaceful coexistence and pluralism in the Maghreb.  TRANSECT addresses two clusters of questions:

  1. Which idea of the Maghreb is shaped by the novels longlisted at IPAF and sold by Abu Dhabi? How is this “Maghreb pluriel” (Khatibi 1983) appropriated and marketed by the Emirati cultural policymakers? Which purposes of cultural diplomacy does it serve?
  2. To what extent and how do these novels address national issues before aspiring to become pieces of World literature? How do they contribute to reposition the image of the Maghreb within the Arab region? How does this literature dialogue with national reconciliation processes, contributing to cultural peacebuilding through the construction of a non-exclusionary national identity?


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Bhabha, H. K. (1990). “Introduction: Narrating the Nation”. In Nation and Narration. London and New York: Routledge.

Byrne, P. (1995). Prolegomena to Religious Pluralism: Reference and Realism in Religion. London: Palgrave MacMillan.

Khatibi, A. (1983). Maghreb pluriel. Paris: Denoël.

Maggiolini, P. (2018). “State- and nation-building processes in the Middle East. What role for diversity in contemporary Iraq?” In: Demichelis, M. Religious Violence, Political Ends: Nationalism, Citizenship and Radicalizations in the Middle East and Europe. Georg Olms Verlag: Hildesheim.

Massad, J. A. (2001). Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan. New York: Columbia University Press.

McManus, A. M. (2016). “Scale in the Balance: Reading with the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (“The Arabic Booker”)”. International Journal of Middle East Studies, 48:2.

Selim, S. (2003). “The Narrative Craft: Realism and Fiction in the Arabic Canon”. Edebiyat, 1:2.

Zeidel, R. (2020). Pluralism in the Iraqi Novel After 2003: Literature and the Recovery of National Identity. Lanham: Lexington.