In its sixth year, the Sawiris Cultural Award has confirmed its credibility by favouring works that have gained public and critical acclaim, as indicated by the overwhelmingreaction of the audience for the winners during Monday's ceremony at the Opera House. Among the category of senior writers (above 40 years old), the prize of LE100,000 was awarded to Ahmed Sabry Abul-Futuh for his novel The Saraswa Epic: Genesis, Volume 1 (Dar Merit, 2009). Mahmoud El-Wardani took the award for best short stories collection for A Morning Party (Dar El-Mahrousa, 2008).
The youth category fiction award composed of LE40,000 went to Al-Taher Sharkawi for Vanilla (Dar Sharkeyat, 2008), while second place award of LE30,000 was shared between Manal El-Sayed for The Singing of the Crazy (Al-Dar Al-Masreya Al-Lubnaneya, 2009) and Mohamed Maarouf for The Boat Cleopatra (Dar Merit, 2009). The short stories collection award went to Mohamed Abdel-Nabi for Anton Chekov’s Ghost (Dar Fikra, 2009), while second place award was again divided, this time between Mohamed Khair’s collection Ghosts of the Radio (Malamih, 2008) and Ahmed Hemdan's The Delegation (Supreme Council for Culture, 2009).
The judging committee for the senior category included the novelists Ibrahim Aslan, Abul-Maati Abul-Naga, Ezzat El-Kamhawy and Haitham El-Hagg Ali and the journalist Helmi El-Namnam. The youth category was judged by Ambassador Shorky Fouad, writer Sahar El-Mougy, author Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid, critic Said El-Wakeel, and professor of English Literature at Cairo University Amel Abul-Fadl.
Abul-Futuh's book was approved by all but one member of the committee, and was described as "a complete work” even though only one of its five volumes was nominated for the award. “Genesis is in itself a complete work covering an era of Egyptian history from the beginning of the French invasion in 1798 until the era of Mohamed Ali,” said El-Kamhawy.
The novel relates the story of the Saraswa family who flee from Mohamed Ali’s men after killing one of his favorites. Before this novel, Ahmed Sabry Abul-Futuh, a lawyer by profession, published two novels - The Thorn's Bird and Nation of the Earthians, and one short stories collection entitled The Death of Moalem Hanna.
He describes his novel as “a song for Egypt’s early modern age, registering the very beginning of the middle class, proving that power was not the only way to tackle great dangers, but with thinking and determination for life.” The first volume gained interest from critics and the media, reflected by a large number of reviews and articles tackling the topic. It was chosen as one of the best works of fiction in polls conducted by Al-Ahram and Al-Masry Al-Youm newspapers in 2009. Gaber Asfour described the novel as “Mesmerizing … Ahmed Sabry Abul-Futuh gave me sleepless nights with his epic.” While author Khairy Shalaby confirmed that “The Saraswa Epic will leave a great mark on the history of Arabic literature,” while writer Abul-Maati Abul-Naga said it “tells of the great fear and gives a deep insight into life.”
Against the straightforward choice for the winning novel, the short stories collection was far from easy to pick a winner. The judging committee indicated that the works generally were not of high quality with Aslan saying that “they lacked coherence.” A Morning Party was selected from among thirty five nominees and five finalists.
The collection presents a nightmare-fantasy with a close link to reality without mirroring it. The collection is divided into two sections, the first is a series called The Morning Party while the second is unnamed but linked to the first through a story written by the author in 1971. The judging committee praised the collection's for drawing with great talent the misery of the fearful human and the psychology of true fear and delusions against fate.
El-Wardani belongs to the 1970s generation. He published his first collection in the literature supplement of the Masaii newspaper. His best known work is “Walking in the Park at Night” written in 1968 but not published until 1984. His other works include “Taste of Burning”, “Music of the Mall” and “Heads Ripe for Plucking” which was translated into English by AUC press in 2008.
The warm reception of the senior writers' award was matched in the youth category, especially as most of the writers were mentioned by Akhbar El-Adab newspaper last year under the heading “Writers for the New Centennial.” The announcement of Al-Taher Sharkawi’s win was powerfully cheered. His winning book Vanilla is his fifth following The Girl Combing her Hair (2001), The Embrace of Incense (2002), The Sound of the Violin (2004) and The Orange Tree (2005).
In Sharkawi’s novel, the protagonist discovers in his street a sweet shop with a strong aroma of vanilla; chosen as the name of the novel to become a symphony of dreaming, life, loss and death – possibly even the death of the internal emotions. Al-Sharkawi’s language is reminiscent of the late writer’s Yahia Al-Taher Abdalla.
Manal El-Sayed’s The Singing of the Crazy shows a rare talent in tackling the issue of creation, dealing well with the Sufi and Arabic heritage, with its world full of crazy people with all their stories and departures from reality. We never know at any point who is the sane and who is not throughout moments of deep pain. The novel enters the world of hallucination, unexplained actions as if the world has turned into a jumble of lost actions and wasted emotions that are never appreciated due to misunderstanding or even evil intentions.
The judging committee described the novel as “a song composed by the crazy characters attracted to their dreams."
Sharing the same award was The Boat Cleopatra by Mohamed Maarouf, which takes place in the 1930s with three distinctive themes. The first revolves around an Egyptian prince with his party on a hunting trip to Sudan. The second centres on a former Turkish Prince chasing an Armenian trader to Cairo via Jerusalem, Haifa and Aleppo. The final theme is an exchange between British and Soviet Intelligence over receiving a former spy who has been imprisoned for years. The three themes are narrated by different protagonists while the boat sails between Cairo and Aswan. The judging committee commented that “the novel creates a network of destinies artfully intertwined.”
Mohamed Abdel-Nabi’s winning collection “Anton Chekov’s Ghost” was also very well received, not only for the book but also since the author is a prolific novelist and translator who has run workshops including the Story Workshop at Al-Kotob Al- Khan bookstore. His collection is split into two sections: “Our Friends the Months” with twelve stories for the twelve months of the year, and “Our Ancestors” with one story which is “Anton Chekov’s Ghost”, which opposes Chekov’s famous story “Fat and Thin”. He ends the collection with a translation for the story. The judging committee praised the collection for showing “talent in narration and raises questions about the link between the hum and his ego and the world.”
Mohamed Khair and Ahmed Hemdan’s shared second place was also well received, although the earlier is more well-known due to his journalism and poetry. Khair’s winning book “Ghosts of the Radio” received positive feedback from many writers when first published, including critic Mohamed Badawi and writer Mahmoud El-Wardani. The judging committee noted that “the author’s ability to capture the evading moments and turn them into human moments described with a soft narrative tone.”
Ahmed Hemdan’s collection has ten stories, the first, “The Delegation”, was turned into a novel published last week by Al-Dar Al-Masreya Al-Lubnaneya. The collection was described as “fresh in addition to a strong linguistic control.”
The judging committee at the end has requested that the award take into consideration works published within the last two years instead of three years in order to give new works a chance.
The Sawiris Cultural Award was launched six years ago, in 2005, as an award for fiction before comprising an award for screen writers and one for play writers. The judging committee prides itself on its transparent process. This year, 163 works of fiction were presented: 93 novels and 73 collections of short stories.
The Sawiris Foundation which supports the award presented it “with the aim of activating the literary movement in Egypt, encouraging the artistic creativity of its writers and improving the chances of the emergence of new talents.”