Publishing houses rushed from the beginning of July until August 11 this year to enter their new publications in the competition for the Sawiris Cultural Award. The award, which started in 2005 and is awarded by the Sawiris Foundation, aims at “activating the literary movement in Egypt, encouraging the artistic creativity of its writers and improving the chances of the emergence of new talents.”
Ibrahim Aslan, the renown Egyptian writer, was among the winners in the senior writers category in 2006, and has also served on the judging committee for two consecutive years. He pointed that this award is one of the most important literary awards in Egypt and attributes that to the complete independence of the judging committee and its good reputation. Aslan insisted that this year's committee names would remain a secret until the hour the award is announced, to ensure total objectivity.
According to Aslan, this kind of award gives a great push to writers to improve their work, as well as encouragement to readers to discover new styles. Mahmoud El-Wardani won the prize in 2010 for his short stories collection, and he himself had previously been on the judging committee. "What is most unique about this prize is really how it is managed. The board of trustees of the prize includes various people from very diverse backgrounds, including professors and doctors, and they all volunteer for the task. This board selects the judging committee for each section of the award, and changes the committee every year."
El-Wardani asserted that keeping the names of judges completely confidential gives credibility to the award. The board of trustees includes Ismail Serag El-Din, head of Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Gaber Asfour, ex-minister of culture, Zahi Hawas, ex-minister of antiquities, Salama Ahmed Salama, editorial manager for Shorouk newspaper, Essam El-Maghraby, theatre director, Sham El-Etreby, owner of a factory producing traditional clothing and artefacts, Hoda El-Sadda, professor at Manchester University, and finally Mona Zulfiqar, businesswoman.
On the financial front, the award for senior writers of LE 100,000 (approximately $ 17,000), though a significant sum by Egyptian standards (the minimum wage proposed by the government is LE 700 per month for a teacher or worker), is actually still less than the National Appreciation Award which is double this amount.
"The real value of this award is its literary value not the financial value," El-Wardani explained.
To give a flavour of how these committees are comprised, a sample from last year's members reads as follows: the judging committee for the senior category included the novelists Ibrahim Aslan, Abul-Maati Abul-Naga, Ezzat El-Kamhawy, 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.
This diversity of judges is something everyone values. Basma Abdel-Aziz, a young author and researcher, was the winner in 2009 for her collection, So That God May Ease the Situation, and she explained that she fully trusts the judging committee to be unbiased. "They have not chosen the big writers' names, but have many times given prizes to unknown authors."
But the real merit of this award is that it is sponsored by an Egyptian business, and the fact that Naguib Sawiris plays a role in encouraging cultural creations is seen as an encouragement to other businessmen to follow suit. "Awards should not be monopolised by state organizations only, especially during these times," Abdel-Aziz explained. "The role these awards play may not be so obvious to the average person, but it has great influence on intellectuals and readers."
Another winner from 2007, Amina Zeidan, finds that, "Any effort to support culture is very worthy of appreciation, especially from a businessman who is not expected to play such role. The general public don't really observe the effort put forward by the writer, sometimes considering them just a seeker of money or fame."
Zeidan's only concern this year is the probability of bias towards books written about the revolution at the expense of other more worthy books, "especially as we're living difficult times where there's hunger for anything written about the revolution, though most of these recent publications are full of structural as well as linguistic mistakes that could be picked up by any student."
According to Zeidan, this tendency will push writers to finish their books and submit them quickly to catch the deadline, not paying much attention to such drastic issues. "It's not the award's mistake, of course, but rather that of authors hunting for awards." For this new season, the award ceremony and announcement of results is likely to come very close to the first annual celebration of the January 25 Revolution, and it remains to be seen how the events have influenced the decision.