Egyptian author Reem Bassiouney on her sweet victory in the Sheikh Zayed Book Awards

Her epic novel about a dessert-making family is among the winners of the prestigious honour this year

Bestselling novelist and American University in Cairo linguistics lecturer Reem Bassiouney. Victor Besa / The National
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Success is sweet for Reem Bassiouney.

The Egyptian author won the literature category of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award for her epic Arabic novel about a dessert-making family in Egypt. On Monday, she received a gold medal and Dh750,000 cash prize at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

Released in 2022, Al Halwani...Thulathiyat al-Fatimiyeen’(Al Halwani: The Fatimid Trilogy) has three loosely connected stories set during Egypt’s Fatimid Dynasty with real-life heroes from Egyptian history.

It begins with the tale of Jawhar As Siqilli, the Italian-born military commander who founded Cairo in the 10th century.

This is followed by the story of Badr Al Jamali, the commander restoring order in a politically fractious Cairo near the 11th century and his contributions to the planning of the Egyptian capital, many of which can still be seen today.

The final section belongs to Saladin, the Egyptian sultan reclaiming Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187, thus affirming the rule of his Ayyubid Dynasty over Egypt until 1250.

Tracking those heady periods of political intrigue, societal ruptures and military campaigns are an array of sweets, many of them Arabic staples. Bassiouney fuses the narrative with meditations and recipes, told through generations of sweet makers, including treats such as Qatayef, a stuffed pancake typically filled with sweet cheese and syrup, and Aroosat Al Mawlid, a colourful sweet resembling a bride.

Speaking to The National, Bassiouney stresses the importance of the sweet treats to Egyptian history.

"Creating recipes and passing them forward is a form of legacy," she says. "They have been used by generations for over 1,000 years and what I am trying to argue in the novel is these sweet makers and bakers, who lived through vital historical times, also left their own form of monuments that we cherish today.”

The book also looks at the architectural influence of the Fatimid Dynasty in Cairo. Some of the celebrated buildings standing today include Al Azhar and Al Hakim mosques and Bab Zuweila, a southern gate in Cairo's old city.

"The Fatimid period was a time where there was an attempt to master the carving of wood and stone and it left a big influence on the Mameluke Dynasty who came to Egypt after,” Bassiouney says.

These architectural feats serve as backdrops to the drama on the ground as Al Halwani...Thulathiyat al-Fatimiyeen’ is essentially a fraught multi-generational family saga.

It also reads like a winning recipe for a Ramadan drama series, and Bassiouney confirms plans are underway for an adaptation.

"It will have to be a very big production because of the historical scope of the story, this is why it will take some time for it to start happening," she says. "I don't know how involved I will be with the project but I just hope the series turns out in a way that doesn't go too far away from the novel itself and the main ideas it discusses."

Chances are the book will receive an international translation before heading to the small screen.

Many former Sheikh Zayed Book Awards winning titles have had their international translations released over the years, such as works by Kuwait’s Lateefah Buti, whose 2017 Children’s Literature winner Hatless was translated into English. And Palestinian author Osama Al Eissa, whose 2015 Literature prize-winning novel, The Fools of Bethlehem, was later released in French.

Bassiouney already has three English-translated novels to her credit, including last year’s release Al Qata'i, Ibn Tulun's City Without Walls, and 2016’s Mortal Designs.

A linguistics professor at The American University in Cairo, she says her latest milestone counters the literary criticism Egyptian novelists face today.

"There is a debate going on in Egypt about the literary value of popular novels and its focus on plot rather than prose," she says. "My personal feeling as a writer is you can try your best to achieve both because readers won't just get your book for its language, they need a gripping story.

"Some authors in Egypt don't care about being well-read and make their writing too complicated. I feel that telling a sophisticated story in a simple way is an art."

Born in Alexandria to a family of avid readers, she says she understood the value of an arresting narrative from an early age.

"My father brought home a 30-volume encyclopaedia set and he would encourage me to read it," she recalls. "He would then ask me, occasionally, about what I learnt and I would tell him in the way of stories with these important characters, rather than just simply state the facts."

Indeed, Al Halwani...Thulathiyat al-Fatimiyeen’ is her own way of recalling the history of Cairo.

“Authors need to have their own signature and that comes from living as well as learning,” she says. “I lived and read a lot in my life and that’s what's what we should continue to do. Authors should continue working on themselves because that’s how you get better.”

Updated: May 03, 2024, 6:02 PM