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Mahfouz literary award given to the January uprising - Daily News Egypt

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Mahfouz literary award given to the January uprising

For the past fourteen years, the American University in Cairo Press has given the Naguib Mahfouz medal, named for Egypt’s most internationally known novelist, to a younger talent, to “recognize an outstanding contribution to Arabic writing.” This year, which is also the 100th anniversary of Mahfouz’s birth, the AUC Press instead decided to give the …


For the past fourteen years, the American University in Cairo Press has given the Naguib Mahfouz medal, named for Egypt’s most internationally known novelist, to a younger talent, to “recognize an outstanding contribution to Arabic writing.”

This year, which is also the 100th anniversary of Mahfouz’s birth, the AUC Press instead decided to give the award to the “revolutionary literary creativity of the Egyptian people during the popular uprising that began on 25 January 2011.”

“In recognition of the newfound freedom of cultural expression that has characterized the popular uprisings in Egypt,” announced the judges, “the American University in Cairo will erect a memorial engraving at the entrance of its Tahrir Square Campus as a permanent record of this historic celebration.”

Director of AUC Press Mark Linz explained that the press would be putting LE 100,000 into a translation fund instead of an individual.

The decision to give the award to an idea, rather than a person, fit in with a broader trend of recognizing collective action rather than individual achievement in the context of the Arab Spring at the end of the year. Time Magazine recently announced that its “Person of the Year” would be “The Protester.” Foreign Policy Magazine, compiling the “Top 100 Global Thinkers” of 2011, handed the number one spot to “The Arab Revolutionaries,” a large group including activist Wael Ghonim, writer Alaa Al-Aswany, and political figure Mohamed ElBaradei.

“Poetic,” wrote poet Abdel Hamid Taha on Twitter after the Mahfouz award announcement, “but not sure it is productive.”

After the award ceremony Sunday night at El-Sawy Culture Wheel in Zamalek, a roundtable discussed the “revolutionary” aspects of Mahfouz’s writing. The participants, including former Minister of Culture Emad Abu Ghazi, novelists Hala Al-Badry, Ibrahim Abdel Meguid, Hamdy Al-Gazzar and Bahaa Abdel Meguid, and translator Humphrey Davies, discussed how Mahfouz’s works tackled this issue of revolution. Mahfouz was eight years old during the 1919 revolution, and many of his later works reflected the formative experience of watching Egyptians rise up to protest British rule.

Throughout the rest of his life, the participants seemed to agree, Mahfouz consistently sided against violence and unjust regimes, and with the popular classes. Novelist Ibrahim Abdel Meguid, who won the first award in 1996, focused on Mahfouz’s hiatus from writing after the 1952 revolution, and his subsequent reinvention of his style in a more “philosophical” direction.

The Naguib Mahfouz Medal, like most literary awards, has a history full of debate.

According to AUC professor Samia Mehrez, the judges picked novelist Sonallah Ibrahim to accept the first award and he declined with a “discreet and unpublicized refusal.” Over the next few years, Mehrez explains in a 1999 Al Jadid Magazine article, “announcing the name of the winner” had “systematically become a declaration of war within both the Egyptian and Arab cultural fields.”

The crux of the problem, she suggested, is the way each winner is open to criticism that he or she is influenced by the West or another non-local tradition. Egypt’s literary field must seek both to achieve “recognition” internationally, as well as “define itself” nationally, she wrote, so “this double bind is simply unsolvable.”

On Sunday, after the roundtable discussion and before a short concert of songs from Mahfouz film adaptations, attendants watched a short documentary about the award. Due to his old age, Mahfouz was not able to attend the award ceremonies during his lifetime, so he offered comments and met with winners on film.

The film, a celebratory biography followed by footage of Mahfouz talking to former winners, added gravity to the moment. Where I was unconvinced by the roundtable that Mahfouz’s work had anything particularly meaningful to do with the 2011 revolution, I found myself imagining his comments about the award as if they were about contemporary events, a message in a bottle for posterity. “I wish I were with you today on this happy occasion,” he says in a slow cadence that makes even simple phrases revelatory.

He thanks the AUC Press for using the award in his name to promote “the translation of the winning novel into English, thus paving the way for its dissemination world-wide.”

The worldwide dissemination of this year’s winner is certainly not in doubt, particularly on the political front. It will still be years before we see the effect on literature.

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Naguib Mahfouz’s daughters Fatma and Oum Khalthoum stand with AUC Press Director Mark Linz during the award ceremony in front of images of the Nobel Laureate. (Photo Courtesy of AUC Press)

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