It was December 1996 when the American University in Cairo Press (AUCP) first presented the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature. The first award went to two Egyptians: Latifa al-Zayyat, for her classic The Open Door, and Ibrahim Abdel Meguid, for his exploration of Egyptian migrant workers’ lives in The Other Place.
Like the newer and glossier International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), the Mahfouz Medal aims to recognize great works of Arabic literature and present them to a global audience. In the last 15 years, the award has brought some great books to English-language readers, including Mourid Barghouti’s gorgeous and lyrical I Saw Ramallah, Bensalem Himmich’s philosophical The Polymath, and Hoda Barakat’s dark and richly tapestried The Tiller of Waters.
But the Mahfouz Medal, now in its fifteenth year, has maintained a much lower profile than the so-called “Arabic Booker.” This is in part because the purse is smaller ($1,000 vs. $50,000), but also because the AUCP puts less emphasis on international promotion.
It’s possible that this will be the year the Mahfouz medal is noticed. According to committee chair Dr. Samia Mehrez, this year’s ceremony will be different. The 2011 award aims to address the uprisings of 2011 and thus, “I really think that this year will be a surprise.”
“It will be a rather special award,” Dr. Mehrez said. “It's going to be an award that tries to…address everything that has been happening around us.”
Despite its generally quieter nature, the Mahfouz award has not been without its controversies: Egyptian novelist Ibrahim Farghali has criticized the prize for catering to western literary tastes. He and others have complained that the judging panel has remained too static. And Algerian novelist Ahlam Mostaghnemi has complained about AUCP’s translation and treatment of her award-winning Memory in the Flesh.
However, AUCP’s Neil Hewison noted, “Nobody has so far asked not to be translated and published, just as nobody has declined the $1,000 or the medal.”
The medal has traditionally been awarded on Mahfouz’s birthday, December 11, at the AUC’s Tahrir campus. The award is still set for December 11 this year, circumstances permitting.
After that, it’s possible that the Mahfouz medal committee will re-examine their goals.
“Given what has happened, not just in Egypt but in the entire region…perhaps this is a moment when we can all sit together and re-think the committee,” Dr. Mehrez said. “It's a moment when everybody is re-thinking many things.” The committee thus might take “this opportunity to re-think and re-conceive perhaps many of the things that we do with the award.”
The process for the 2011 award began as protests swelled in Tunisia. “Normally, the deadline is the 30th of November, and authors are asked to submit 5 copies,” Dr. Mehrez said. “Those reach us in person by mail. But also members of the committee are encouraged to suggest names, recommend works.” They also receive recommendations from “colleagues outside the committee.”
The Mahfouz Medal doesn’t collect as many submissions as the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, which has annually pulled in more than a hundred nominees.
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But “we really sometimes have piles of things,” Dr. Mehrez said. “No less than 50, 60 ...depending on the years.”
“Of course some are eliminated immediately, because some are not novels.” Others are eliminated because they are not of sufficient stature. “We are an award that is…meant to celebrate a work that has already been recognized in its own context. We require a CV and reviews along with the submitted work.”
Last year’s winner, for instance, was Miral al-Tahawy’s Brooklyn Heights. Al-Tahawy has three other acclaimed novels, and this one was named to the IPAF’s 2011 shortlist.
The Mahfouz Medal differs from the IPAF in that they don’t publicly declare a longlist or shortlist. The lists also vary in length from year to year.
“It's not a supermarket, at the end of the day,” Dr. Mehrez said. “It depends on what's been submitted. Sometimes, the shortlist might be eight, and sometimes it might be five.”
Thus far, the committee has managed to settle on a winner without major public controversy or anyone storming out the door. “We've never really had major disagreements. We've always managed, at the end of the day, to reach some kind of consensus,” Dr. Mehrez said. “Even when one person is not terribly enthused by the majority vote.”
Over the years, the committee -- which now includes Dr. Abdel Moneim Talima, Dr. Hoda Wasfi, Fakhry Saleh, Dr. Gaber Asfour, Dr. Mohamed Berrada, Dr. Samia Mehrez, and Mark Linz -- has changed. But some members have remained the same. For instance, Dr. Wasfi has been a member since the first Medal was granted.
There has been an effort to “gradually” change the committee, Dr. Mehrez said.
Another thing that’s very different between the IPAF and the Mahfouz medal is that the Mahfouz medal has achieved a surprising gender balance. Of the 17 winners, 8 have been women and 9 men. Dr. Mehrez said this was not a goal of the award.
“I don't think that the members of the committee have ever…done a count of the male awardees and the female awardees. I don't think this is a concern. What is a concern…is to see a relatively fair representation of outstanding works from the region.”
However, in this respect, the award is not balanced: Egyptian writers have claimed 10 of the 17 medals.
Dr. Mehrez: “Egypt produces a tremendous lot, whether we like it or not. A lot of what Egypt produces is work that should be considered. We really cannot weigh all of the countries at the same level. Whether we like it or not.”