Egyptian writer Fatma Qandil has been awarded the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature by the American University in Cairo Press for her first novel, Aqfas Farigha (Empty Cages).
The award, presented annually on the Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s birthday on December 11, is in its 25th year. A committee selects the best contemporary novel published in Arabic in the previous two years and the prize consists of a silver medal, translation into English, publication under the AUC Press’s fiction imprint Hoopoe and $5,000 in cash.
“This is the first time in my life that I’ve ever received a prize,” Qandil, 64, said in Arabic at the ceremony at AUC on Sunday evening.
“The joy of writing has always been enough for me, but it seems that prizes are delightful in their own way and I’m getting to experience that for the first time.”
Qandil is a retired associate professor in the Arabic department at Helwan University in Cairo and deputy editor-in-chief of Fusul, a magazine of literary criticism. She has published numerous collections of poetry, works of literary criticism and translations into Arabic.
“I was part of the generation that grew up with Mahfouz, from The Cairo Trilogy to The Harafish,” Qandil told The National. “It is impossible to choose a favourite.”
Mahfouz, who died in 2006 aged 94, wrote dozens of novels, short stories, plays and screenplays over his 70-year career.
The Cairo Trilogy, published in 1956, follows an Egyptian family across three generations from the 1920s.
He was propelled to international fame in 1988, when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is the only Arab writer to have won the award.
When Qandil was 16, in 1974, she wrote a letter to Mahfouz at Al Ahram newspaper, to which he contributed op-ed columns and short stories.
“Back then all the girls were crazy about Hussein Fahmy, the star of the film Watch out for Zouzou,” Qandil said in her speech on Sunday. “When I wrote to Naguib Mahfouz … I said, ‘Hussein Fahmy may be the man of every girl’s dreams, but not mine. You are’.”
She never received a response as a teenager, but said, “I guess he was waiting to make sure I was serious — to make sure I would become a writer — and now he has finally agreed to share the spotlight with me.
“Thank you, sir, and happy birthday,” Qandil added.
The selection panel for the prize was chaired by Shereen Abouelnaga, professor of English and comparative literature at Cairo University, and included: Thaer Deeb, a writer, translator and critic; Adam Talib, associate professor of classical Arabic literature at AUC; Hussein Hammouda, professor of Arabic literature at Cairo University; and Dina Heshmat, an assistant professor of Arabic and Islamic civilisations at AUC.
The panel selected Empty Cages, a work that mixes autobiography with fiction, out of 153 submissions.
“The author draws on difficult life experiences throughout Empty Cages, but by rejecting the memoir form, she is able to excavate the deep wounds of her past through narrative,” Deeb wrote in the judges’ citations.
“This is a work in which boundaries disappear: the boundary between fiction and social biography, between discourse and representation, between life, testament and art.”
Qandil told The National she wrote Empty Cages following the death of her brother, one of her last remaining family members.
“It was a kind of therapy when I found myself sitting with my memories,” she said.
Qandil dedicated the award to Arab women writers and “young women, including those who are still navigating their own way to the magical world we call writing”.
“Perhaps this prize will show them that recognition always comes in the end,” she said.
The AUC Press has been the primary publisher of Mahfouz’s English-language editions for more than 30 years. It has also been responsible for the publication of about 600 foreign-language editions of his works in more than 40 languages around the world since 1988.
At the awards ceremony on Sunday, the AUC Press also celebrated the publication of the English translation of the 2021 prize winner, The Disappearance of Mr Nobody by Ahmed Taibaoui, translated by Jonathan Wright.
The Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature has been won by 10 women and 15 men since its inception. The full list of past winners can be found at aucpress.com.
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