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Saudi writer Omaima Al-Khamis wins 2018 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature

The judges described Al-Khamis' novel as a serious work that speaks to our time through history, taking the form of a journey from Arabia northwards and westwards to Andalusia in the 11th century

Mohammed Saad , Tuesday 11 Dec 2018
Omaima Al-Khamis
Saudi Writer, Omaima Al-Khamis

Saudi writer Omaima Al-Khamis has been awarded the 2018 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature for her novel Masra al-Gharaniq fi Mudun al-‘Aqiq (Voyage of the Cranes in the Cities of Agate).

The announcement took place at an event at the Oriental Hall at the American University in Cairo's Tahrir Campus on Tuesday,  which marked the anniversary of the Egyptian Nobel laureate’s birth in 1911.

The panel of judges for this year’s Medal includes Tahiya Abdel-Nasser, assistant professor of English and comparative literature, AUC; Shereen Aboulnaga, professor of English literature, Cairo University; Mona Tolba, associate professor of Arabic literature, Ain Shams University; Humphrey Davies, renowned translator of Arabic fiction, historical and classical texts; and Rasheed El-Enany, emeritus professor of modern Arabic literature, University of Exeter.

In their citation for the award, the judges described Masra al-Gharaniq fi Mudun al-Aqiq as “a serious novel that speaks to our time through history… [the story] takes the form of a journey from Arabia northwards and westwards to Andalusia, through the great cities of the Arab world in the 11th century during the rule of the weakened Abbasids in Baghdad, the Fatimids in Cairo, and the warring factions of Islamic rule in Spain.”

The panel added that “Al-Khamis’s language exquisitely traces a route through beleaguered cities in a novel that speaks to the importance of culture, imbuing them instead with rare and precious knowledge... Omaima Al-Khamis has succeeded in capturing the essence of cultural and religious diversity in the Arab world between 402 and 405 Hijri.”

Al-Khamis, born in 1966 in Riyadh, studied Arabic Literature at the King Saud University and was longlisted for the Arabic Booker Prize in 2010.

In her acceptance speech, Al-Khamis began by paying tribute to Naguib Mahfouz, describing him as “our great writer who taught us the magic and craft of the story.”

She also thanked her parents for shaping her consciousness. 

“The book was… a staple of our home,” said Al-Khamis, reminiscing about the piles of books that surrounded her when she was growing up. 

“From the start I was enamoured with language, and perhaps it was my luck to be born with letters and words around me.” 

She recalled “the flavour of evenings that my father and mother used to spend under the jasmine tree in our house’s garden, absorbed in reviewing a book, my father reading and my mother writing, or my father writing and my mother reviewing.”

“The novel is the more mature form in the journey of human creativity and the most complex and intricate of all artistic forms,” said Al-Khamis. “[It is] an attempt to recover the original material of the world, to break it down into its smaller parts,” she added.

Since 1996, the Mahfouz Medal has been awarded every year by a distinguished panel of judges. It consists of a silver medal, a cash prize of $1,000 and an English translation and publication of the winning novel by the AUC Press in Cairo and worldwide.

The Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature is sponsored by the AUC Press, which is the publisher of over 50 English-language editions of Naguib Mahfouz's works, and has contracted more than 600 other foreign-language editions in 40 languages.

As the region’s leading English-language publisher, the AUC Press issues up to 50 new books annually and carries around 800 titles in print, including some 200 works of translated Arabic literature.

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