Little would Naguib Mahfouz have imagined that the year of his centennial would witness one of Egypt’s greatest historical events in decades, the January 25 Revolution. It was no surprise that the ‘Revolutionary Creativity of the Egyptian People’ would be awarded the 16th Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature for 2011.
“In recognition of the newfound freedom of cultural expression that has characterised the popular uprising in Egypt, 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.”
Emad Abou-Ghazi expressed it very eloquently, “The fact that the revolution happening during the year of his centennial adds yet another medal of honour to this great Egyptian.”
The annual AUC Press celebration of Mahfouz took on a different flavour this year. It was hosted at El Sawy Culture Wheel in Zamalek and hosted a unique round table of previous Medal winners and other prominent figures. The celebration started with an announcement by Mark Lindz of the publication of the Naguib Mahfouz Centennial Library, a special limited edition of 20 hardbound volumes of all the Nobel laureate’s works translated into English. Two additional publications are the new translations of Midaq Alley and The Wisdom of Naguib Mahfouz, translated by Humphrey Davis. Mrs Mahfouz honoured the event by attending and receiving a set of the Centennial Library housed in a special handcrafted wooden display shelf.
Samia Mehrez, coordinator of the Award Committee, spoke on behalf of the committee that included Hoda Wasfy, Fakhri Saleh, Gaber Asfour, Mohamed Berrada and Mark Lindz. Her speech focused on the great creative transformation witnessed during the January 25 Revolution; masses of Egyptians revolted over oppression and authoritarian regimes, taking over the public space and using it to express their anger in a mix of written humour, performances and other cultural practices, to the extent that qualified Egypt’s revolution as “the laughing revolution.”
Following these words, a roundtable discussion began on Naguib Mahfouz and revolutionary literature. Emad Abou-Ghazi, a former minister of culture, started by referring to Mahfouz’s works which documented Egyptian revolutions with great accuracy and literary talent, including Thebes at War and Palace Walk. According to Abou-Ghazi, Mahfouz’s own beliefs, standing for democracy and human rights and freedoms, featured at every aspect of his work.
Hala El-Badry saw the revolutionary spirit aired most in Mahfouz’s Children of the Alley, representing rebellion on faith itself. She stressed that many other works by the author bear that spirit too, uncovering societal ills in motion.
Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid, the author and winner of the very first Medal for Literature in 1996, paused at the fact that Mahfouz had stopped writing for nearly 6 years, following the 1952 Free Officers coup. According to him, the pause was a preparation for another revolution in writing, heralding a new ‘philosophical phase’ when his literature took on a different dimension and a whole new layer of questions. “The true revolution was led by Naguib Mahfouz in his 1961 novel, The Thief and The Dogs, taking the novel into a new phase altogether,” Abdel-Meguid explained, stressing that Mahfouz was forward-looking to the extent that his last work, Dreams of Departure, with its brief abrupt sentences is closest to today’s very-short stories – nearly like tweets.
Davis, a prominet translator of Mahfouz, reflected on Mahfouz’s record of the 1919 revolution in Midaq Alley. He recalls the violent and condemned character, Moalem Kirsha, which Mahfouz positions to be highly involved in the revolution, bringing the impression that Mahfouz was against violent practices in the revolution. Yet, the other dimension of this appears in the quiet, simple character, Abbas El-Helw, who is later killed by the British, this time Mahfouz distances himself from the rulers and stands with the simple people.
The panel speakers agreed that the creativity witnessed during the revolution through statements invented by revolutionaries and carried around the squares was just the first glimpse of a whole new line of creativity about to show itself, though it is bound to be sometime till this new revolution is taken in and understood more fully by writers themselves.
A short movie was later presented, showing Mahfouz in conversation with some of the Medal winners, including Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid, and Mourid Barghouti, during the 1990s, thanking the AUC Press for encouraging the spread of good literature in translation to spread throughout the world.
The evening was completed with a musical performance of songs from films based on Mahfouz’s works.