Below is the full text of the speech given by Sudanese writer Hammour Ziada at the Oriental Hall in the American University in Cairo on Friday, after receiving the 2014 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature.
"Herodotus wrote: ‘When you cross that part of the river in forty days, you transfer to another ship that takes you on the water for twelve days, at the end of which you arrive at a great city called Meroe. And it is said to be the capital of the Ethiopians.’
Many centuries ago, the Greeks named this country Ethiopia. It means ‘the men with burnt faces,’ from the darkness of their skin. Then the Arabs came and called it ‘the country of the blacks.’ Maqrizi, an Arab historian who died in 1442, described this country thus: ‘I heard that in its far corners there is a people that lives with its livestock in houses below the ground like cave dwellings by day, on account of the extreme heat of the sun, and wander by night. There are naked people. And there are fine buildings and great houses, and churches full of gold and gardens.’
This country, ladies and gentlemen, is my country.
In the tomes of travellers, there are stories about its gold and its cultivation, and the marvelous habits of its naked, one-eyed people who inhabit the mountains and adorn themselves with silver, and their horses that are a hybrid breed, a cross between a horse that came out of the Nile and a pure filly.
In this country, storytelling is sacred. For our country lies between a forest and a desert. It is weighed down by mountains and moistened by the Nile. Nothing happens in it, and everything happens in it. Its face changes, but it itself does not change. Greeks and Persians come to it, Arabs and Turks, and foreign travelers and armies behind them. Desert storms suffocate it, and the Nile flood bears down on it. It builds pyramids and temples, churches and mosques. Then its people gather to tell stories and narrate tales. If not for tales, we would have been more solitary and more desolate.
The Egyptian writer Yusuf Idris once told my master Tayeb Saleh: ‘When I read your work, Tayeb, I feel companionship.’ Companionship is what breaks our solitude. A heritage accumulated from storytelling, tales, legends, and heavy history. We recount it for companionship. To overcome the sense of loneliness.
So I stand before you today, ladies and gentlemen, and declare that this heritage is what caught the attention of the judges of the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature. Because what the novel Shawq Al-Darwish (The Longings of a Dervish) attempted to present is part of the stories of the country of the men with burnt faces. Stories of their sufferings, dreams, ambitions, defeats, history, and legends.
Our master Naguib Mahfouz, whose eponymous medal I am honoured to be awarded today, in an old article he wrote in 1936, says: ‘The purpose of art is to bring together the sentiments of the individual with the sentiments of the human community in one feeling.’ Shawq Al-Darwish attempts to break the borders of loneliness. To present some companionship to its reader. To bring together our Sudanese sentiments coloured with legends with the sentiments of the human community.
Ladies and gentlemen:
I stand before you full of thanks to the American University in Cairo, the organising committee of the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, and the distinguished committee of judges, for their selection of my novel to join the list of prominent names in Arabic literature that received this award: Yusuf Idris, Khairy Shalaby, Edwar Al-Kharrat, Ibrahim Abdel Meguid, and others in whose company I am honored to be included as the first Sudanese writer.
And thank you all for attending."