The great Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz accepted the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature with a joke. “I was told by a foreign correspondent in Cairo that the moment my name was mentioned in connection with the prize, silence fell and many wondered who I was.”
As the author of 34 novels and hundreds of short stories, there was no doubt that Mahfouz was a worthy winner.
“I would like you to accept my talk with tolerance, for it comes in a language unknown to many of you. But it is the real winner of the prize. It is, therefore, meant that its melodies should float for the first time into your oasis of culture and civilisation,” he told the audience in Stockholm.
“I have great hopes that this will not be the last time either, and that literary writers of my nation will have the pleasure to sit with full merit among your international writers who have spread the fragrance of joy and wisdom in this grief-ridden world of ours.”
Over a quarter of a century later, Mahfouz’s hopes are yet to be realised. He remains the only Arab to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, the sole representative of a rich language spoken by more than 340 million people.
Controversy at the Nobel prizes is nothing new, beginning with the fact that the man who founded them, Alfred Nobel, made his fortune from inventing dynamite.
So if last week’s awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet was unexpected, then at least it was met with general approval.
It was also good news in another way. It increased the number of Arabs who have won a Nobel prize by two thirds in a single day.
In announcing the award, the judges hailed the three men and a woman for their “decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011”.
“We did it together, the four of us,” said Wided Bouchamaoui, president of the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts.
Ms Bouchamaoui said the prize meant a lot. “The Tunisian experience is very important. We succeed with dialogue, together”.
The quartet joined a roll call of Arab winners to receive the Peace prize. They include Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1978, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 1994, Egyptian politician Mohammed ElBaradei in 2005, and Yemen’s Tawakkol Karman, the first Arab woman to win, in 2011.
Sadat and Arafat received their awards jointly with Israeli leaders.
In 1999, the Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to the Egyptian American Ahmed Zewail “for his studies of the transition states of chemical reactions using femtosecond spectroscopy”.
In total, 10 Arabs have won Nobel prizes since they were instituted in 1901.
Sometimes Arab winners are compiled with Muslim winners, taking the total to 16.
Peace prize winners include the Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi and Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani woman shot in the head by the Taliban for promoting education for girls, last year.
Turkey’s Orhan Pamuk won the literature prize in 2006, Pakistan’s Mohammed Abdus Salam the prize for physics in 1979, while this year’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry was won by a team that included the US-based Turkish scientist Aziz Sancar.
One theme that emerges in looking at Arab and Muslim winners is that their recognition often came in the face of great adversary at home, with turmoil, uncertainty and constant threats that have sometimes turned deadly.
Mahfouz survived a stabbing attack by Islamic fundamentalists who accused him of blasphemy, near his home in 1994.
In 1981, Sadat was assassinated by extremists during a military parade commemorating the 1973 October War. Malala was shot in 2012 on her way home from school but recovered to become an even stronger voice for her cause.
Given the small numbers, how long is it likely to be before Mahfouz’s hope for more Arab winners for literature is realised?
“For an Arab writer to win, his or her work must become famous in the West first, since the prize is judged by an overwhelmingly western circle of jurors,” said Zaki Nusseibeh, cultural adviser at the UAE Ministry of Presidential Affairs.
He is also a member of the Permanent Higher Executive Committee of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award and the Board of Trustees of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.
“One way that can happen is for a good translation of their works to reach the West.
“Book awards, like the Sheikh Zayed Book Award and the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, known as the Arabic Booker, help to highlight some of the new great Arab writing from across the region.
“Only one Arab writer has won, but there have been talks of giving it to [Syrian writer and poet] Adonis, to [Palestinian poet] Mahmoud Darwish and Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf,” said Mr Nusseibeh, who has published translations of Gulf and Arab poetry.
In a career spanning six decades, Adonis, which is a pen name for the Syrian poet, has been a perennial nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature but never a winner, much to the chagrin of his followers and literary critics over the world.
Known as one of the “greatest living Arab poets” and described by the literary theorist Edward Said as “today’s most provocative and daring Arab poet”, his contribution to Arabic poetry has been compared with that made to English poetry by T S Eliot.
“Part of the reason why some Arab works have not been recognised so far is because of the lack of good translation from Arabic, as opposed, for instance, to the translation of Spanish literature from South America,” said Mr Nusseibeh.
“Fortunately, that has been changing lately with more and more good books being translated into English and into other foreign languages.
“It is a western award, and so the work has to be recognised and famous there. They know a lot about our classics, our ancient Arabic literary heritage, Islamic and pre-Islamic, but not much about modern and contemporary Arab literature.”
One of history’s first novels, the 1001 Arabian Nights, was born in the Middle East, Mr Nusseibeh pointed out.
“But the genre of modern novel writing is fairly recent in the Arab world. Today it has become a predominant feature of the Arab literary heritage and has superseded the genre of poetry writing, which was classically the greatest Arab literary form.
“I am confident that with time, effort and proper awareness and promotion we can regain that honour of the world recognising the greatness of some of our contemporary novelists and poets.”
But in the fields of science and medicine, the Middle East still has a long way to go.
“One of the biggest issues actually starts with us. We don’t promote our own work properly,” said Dr Najat Rashid, a senior consultant in clinical biochemistry and molecular biology, and director of the Ministry of Health’s medical laboratories and blood banks.
The Emirati scientist has written and published five books but said she was known for them by western colleagues rather than those here.
“Things to do with science are not a hit in the Middle East, which is a shame given our amazing history in research, innovation and technology,” she said.
“We are not aware of how to get noticed, what awards are out there, and the steps we have to take to market and perfect our work so that it is recognised internationally.
“We don’t know what it takes to get nominated. We do our work, and then continue to new work, not realising that 50 per cent of the work happens after it is done. We just move on to the next project.
“Many great minds go abroad and get noticed and recognised there, and then they are welcomed back home as heroes and pioneers.”
Arab institutions also often fall short of international centres in terms of creation and innovation.
“Within the fields of science and medicine, it is a great challenge for Arab scientists to win the Nobel prize unless working in western institutions that have superior funding, better exposure and a wider network of scientific research hubs that supports innovation and discovery,” Mr Nusseibeh said.
“Those institutions understand the process involved in getting noticed by these kinds of big international awards.”
He said those that do have a strong history of research and development in the Middle East, such as the older universities of Egypt, Iraq and Syria, have fallen on hard times and struggle with political and social instability, and a lack of funding for development and research.
“The GCC centres of research are getting better and they have partnered with western international counterparts and universities, and so I believe in a few years we can start to see the GCC countries like the UAE getting noticed for their advanced work within the science field,” he said.
For the Nobel Peace Prize, which holds the largest numbers of Arab winners, there is no doubt in Mr Nusseibeh’s mind who should have won over the ages.
“The late Sheikh Zayed should have won the Nobel Prize for Peace ahead of all others and should be put up posthumously,” he said. “Sheikh Zayed dedicated his life to serving humanity.
“He consolidated the foundations for stability and security in the Gulf, led an active Arab and international foreign policy that promoted conciliation and solidarity between all, and allocated a large percentage of his country’s revenues to help and assist nations and individuals on a global scale.
“He acted always in harmony with his deeply held humanist ideology, which preached that all men and women are born equal as members of the same family regardless of religion or race, and that they are destined to work together for creating a better future for all.”