Happy Birthday, Naguib Mahfouz: The Laureate Reflects on His Anniversary and His Life

Tonight, AUC Press will celebrate the life and writings of Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz by presenting the annual Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature.

Past winners have included Palestinian poet and memoirist Mourid Barghouti, for his I Saw Ramallah (1997), an award he shared with the then-deceased Yusuf Idris, for City of Love and Ashes; recently, Amina Zaydan has won for her Red Wine (2007), which is out this month in English; Hamdi Abu Golayyel won for his innovative but oddly titled A Dog With No Tail (2008) and Khalil Sweilah for his The Scribe of Love (2009).

Most of the winners have been Egyptians (9), although the Press notes that 2 Palestinians, 1 Algerian, 1 Lebanese, 1 Moroccan, 1 Syrian, and 1 Iraqi have also taken the prize. According to AUC Press, the medal is awarded

for the best contemporary novel published in Arabic (but not yet in English) and is selected every fall by the Mahfouz Award Committee, which includes Dr. Abdel Moneim Talima, Dr. Hoda Wasfi, Mr. Mr. Fakhry Saleh, Dr. Gaber Asfour, Dr. Mohamed Berrada, Dr. Samia Mehrez, and Mr. Mark Linz, Director of the AUC Press.

There is no shortlist, so it’s anyone’s guess who will take it this year.

The Google Doodle created for Mahfouz's birthday in 2009.

I would like to be able to say something about Mahfouz, on the anniversary of his birth, but the scope of his life and work is so large that I don’t think a blog post would suffice. AUC Press has put together a short page about Mahfouz; pioneer translator Denys Johnson-Davies wrote an obituary for Mahfouz in the Guardian, BBC had a piece about Mahfouz’s literary diwans; you can also visit Mahfouz’s official website, put together by Egyptian publishing house Dar el Shorouk.

Then: Buy one of his books! Bake him a cake! Light a candle!

I also wanted to share Mahfouz’s own recollections on birthdays, from his Sidi Gaber: Reflections of a Nobel laureate, 1994-2001: From Conversations with Mohamed Salmawy.

When people inquire how I celebrate my birthday, I say that as a child, growing up in al-Husayn, birthdays were never celebrated. Only in later life did I come to realize that they could be a cause for celebration.

I cannot remember a single birthday celebration as I was growing up, and did not even know the birth dates of either of my parents or of my brothers or sisters. Only religious celebrations, such as Mulid al-Nabi and Ashura, were marked in our household.

Later, among the regulars at the Harafish meetings, we decided that whenever a birthday coincided with the weekly get-together, then that get-together should be a sort of a celebration. This was the idea of the satirist Muhammad Afifi. We celebrated, among others, the birthdays of Ahmad Baha al-Din and Salah Jahin. And well after I had passed my half century, we celebrated my birthday for the first time.

Today, on the occasion of my birthday, I look back over the years that have passed and cannot help but feel that they stretch perhaps a little too far. But when I examine the past I am happy to report that hard work and perseverance have indeed furnished results. My labors have brought fruits alongside catastrophes that stem from the same efforts. Yet I remain content in the knowledge that the past has been fated, and if I were to compile a balance sheet I feel, in all honesty, that the gains would outweigh the losses.

December 5, 1996.

In other Naguib Mahfouz-related news:

Egypt denies re-entry to Mahfouz translator Raymond Stock No official reason has been given (surprise), although the suggestion is that it could be for his criticism of Culture Minister Farouk Hosni.