Every December 11, on the anniversary of Naguib Mahfouz's birth, a literary medal is given out in the Egyptian Nobel laureate's name for the best novel written in Arabic. The book is then translated into English by the prize's organiser, the American University of Cairo. There have been many emotional award nights and a number of heartfelt speeches given since the award was first presented in 1996. But this year's, in downtown Cairo, may have been the most affecting yet.
The prize went to Palestinian novelist Huzama Habayeb for her 2016 novel Velvet. When she finished giving her address, the audience rose to their feet, some in tears. American University in Cairo Press's Trevor Naylor called it "the most passionate acceptance speech ever".
In her talk, Habayeb spoke about her father, who left his Palestinian village when he was 7 years old. "I choked in particular when I mentioned the full name of my father," Habayeb admits. "I nearly sobbed. 'What's in a name?' they would say. Well, everything. It is my history, my love, and my loss."
By the time Habayeb was born, her father had moved to Kuwait, where she was born and raised. In 1990, during the Iraqi invasion, she had to leave. After that, Habayeb moved to Jordan, and later to Dubai, where she now lives. Habayeb didn't publish her debut short-story collection, The Man Who Is Repeated (1992), until she was living in Jordan. But she began writing while still a student in Kuwait.
"I think it blossomed somewhat unconsciously," Habayeb says. Writing was a way to get at her feelings of "deprivation, uneasiness, entrenched pain, the shakiness of the land beneath my feet, the vulnerability of the self, my self indeed. And the persistent sense of defeat – especially since I grew up fully aware that I belonged to a homeland that was bequeathed to me in the form of an open wound, bleeding everlastingly."
Habayeb describes her childhood home in Kuwait as a place where she was constantly reminded of her Palestinian identity. This wasn’t through lectures on politics, she says, but through food, dress, songs, stories and hearing the Palestinian dialect. Her father was the first to encourage her to read, because as a young girl she stuttered. “He told me: ‘Read loud. Listen to the words.’”
At first, Habayeb was fascinated with the Hans Christian Andersen stories that were loosely translated into Arabic. "It didn't take long before I discovered Agatha Christie and Maurice Leblanc's Arsene Lupin, as well as much-needed 'quick' reads. Yet something was missing in these unrefined, kitsch-like works."
What was missing was passion, Habayeb says. This was something she discovered in her teens, "in the works of Naguib Mahfouz, Youssef Idris and Tawfiq Al-Hakim, among others". Later, in her early 20s, Habayeb came across many great Palestinian authors. She picks out Ghassan Kanafani, Emile Habibi, Samira Azzam, Mahmoud Shukair, and "Mahmoud Darwish, whose poetry provided me, as a passionate young reader, with an appreciation for a refined, personalised and sensitively coined lexicon". Yet it was in Kanafani's Men in the Sun, Habayeb says, that she found what it meant to be a Palestinian. "I cried because of this discovery," she recalls.
There are a number of books to which Habayeb returns again and again. "The first and most important is One Thousand and One Nights." She adds that she re-reads the stories "to remind myself of the true purpose of storytelling – what's it about".
And what is storytelling about? “Well, it’s about joy. Writing is a painful and emotionally draining process,” she says, but it is “meant in the end to produce the joy of reading”.
The process of writing the Mahfouz Medal-winning Velvet, the main characters of which are struggling refugees and migrants in Jordan, must have been particularly draining. The deeply moving Velvet is Habayeb's third novel. Her first was Root of Passion (2007) and her second was the critically acclaimed Before the Queen Falls Asleep (2011). Habayeb also published four short-story collections and a collection of poetry, Begging, in 2009.
Although Habayeb’s most recent books have been novels, she hasn’t given up the short-story form. She gravitated toward the novel, she said, as “a matter of necessity more than any other thing. I needed a bigger frame or structure that could accommodate my vision, horizontally and vertically. In a short story, one tends to manage strict control over ideas, people and emotions. A great deal of ‘economy’ is at stake here.”
But while her recent projects have been novels, if some day she feels the urge to return to the short story, “surely I will”. All these forms of writing, Habayeb says, have “become a dedication and sometimes a salvation. It gives me a reason to live, to cling to love, to endure all the pains and hardships of life. And to stand less shaken and less doubtful, and more importantly, to be true to myself and everything I believe in.”
The language and vision of Velvet were praised by the five Mahfouz Medal judges, who called it a "new kind of Palestinian novel". The action is set in and around a refugee camp in Amman, and it foregrounds the events of Black September in 1970.
The central character Hawwa, or Eve, works for a Syrian seamstress in the city, and travels back and forth between the camp and workshop, shuttling between different sectors of the city. But Habayeb doesn't see Velvet as a political book. "Velvet is a love story," Habayeb says. It's about "love that is lived and its consequences suffered or paid for by women – women who are so passionate, who yearn for the unattainable, and who know how to walk through the muddy alleys of life to preserve their love".
Indeed, Habayeb says it is important for her, as a Palestinian novelist, not to write political allegory, but to write real, fully dimensional characters. “I do not write politics. The Palestinian question for me is more of the people – those forgotten – whose untold stories, pains and sufferings need to be unravelled,” she says.
There are some Palestinian narratives, she says, that aim to elevate the Palestinian to a superhero. “We have long presented the Palestinian persona in elongated heroism that produced a sort of legendaria, diminishing the true men and women within, making them more of a troubled shadow than a concrete flesh and blood. I make sure to celebrate their passion, fragility and weaknesses as humans, first and foremost.”
One of the charms of Habayeb's writing is her characters' big appetites for life. In her Mahfouz Medal talk, she spoke about the art of surprise, and how she is sometimes surprised by her characters' actions. She later expands on this idea over email. Her role as a writer, she says, is to follow the novel's logic "with more passion maybe than wisdom, with more acceptance than resistance, and with more willingness to allow the characters to grow and lead their paths in life, than trying to twist their fates or harness their wills and emotions. It is always fascinating to watch your characters who you created – or planted the seeds of their existence – choose a very different path than the one you planned for them or thought they would take."
Part of the joy of writing is to follow these characters, Habayeb says, even though the surprises can be painful. “In the end, the fact that I am surprised makes the whole experience of writing a novel an adventure that is worth living, regardless of the final outcome, which is sometimes, I admit, so heartbreaking, and so crushing to me.”
Along with a cash prize and medal, the Mahfouz Medal also guarantees translation of the winning book into English. An excerpt of Habayeb's previous novel, and some of her short stories, have previously been translated, but Velvet will be her first full-length work to appear in English. Through translation, she hopes to reach not just Palestinians and diaspora Arabs, but a wide range of English-language readers.
The characters struggle “not only because they are Palestinians in diaspora, but also because they are humans with torn hearts and defeated souls”, she says. “Their stories are there for everyone to share, and I do look forward to sharing them with as many readers as possible.”