Today, on the 101st anniversary of Naguib Mahfouz’s birth, Egyptian author Ezzat El Kamhawi’s novel بيت الديب (House of al-Deeb) won the 2012 medal given in the Mahfouz’s name.
El Kamhawi, who was born in Sharqiya and currently lives in Qatar, has published several short-story collections and four novels, including City of Delight (1997), A Room Overlooking the Nile (2004), The Guard (2008), and his latest, House of al-Deeb (2010), which was today awarded the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature.
House of al-Deeb is a novel of four generations that interweaves a fictional village with strands of Egyptian history from Napoleon’s nineteenth-century expedition to the 20th century’s Gulf War.
Prize judge Humphrey Davies said, in a prepared statement, that the novel was one of “grandiose sweep that pits the lives of generations of a single rural family against the events of Egypt’s history over the past one hundred years.” And judge Tahia Abdel Nasser added, “In its evocation of imagined history and fictive events, the novel privileges popular memory and invites us to reflect on the boundaries that separate the village from modernity, fiction from history, and art from life.”
In his acceptance speech, El Kamhawi said that he began writing the novel in 1999. “I made good progress, but then I found my path blocked. Instead, a way opened to another book, The Thicket, which I wrote quickly as if it was being dictated to me. And from that date, whenever I tried to complete the novel, another novel or book would come along instead.”
He said he was finally able to return to the novel in 2009, and then in mid-2010, when he was released from his position as editor-in-chief of Akhbar al-Adab, “I was able to hide away in my country house with my mother and father and the characters of The House of al-Deeb.”
El Kamhawi spoke of three concerns that obsessed him as he worked on the novel:
In The House of El Deeb, brevity was my primary concern, to present four generations in a way that could be tolerated by today’s reader. That is what made me cheat on the time of the novel: I shunned the offense of serial history and used arches that allowed for short cuts.
My second concern was the nature of the rural locality and its characters: what hurts me most as a reader who was raised in a village is that country tales seem to be just simple stories isolated from the bigger world, without the existential issues found in a novel of the city.
My third concern was the clear distinction between good and evil in much of what is written about the people of the countryside.
AUC Professor Tahia Abdel Nasser gave the 2012 address, likens the novel to The Odyssey, calling one of the characters “an Odyssean figure,” who “arrives at the village after wandering in the desert during the invasion of Iraq[.]” She also likens him to Mahfouz: “As in Mahfouz’s fiction, El Kamhawi understands the importance of redrawing the lines between fiction and history for political purposes and that understanding history is central to envisioning the future.”
As the winner of the Mahfouz Medal, The House of al-Deeb is scheduled to be published in English translation by the American University in Cairo Press in 2013.
Previous winners have included Miral al-Tahawy’s Brooklyn Heights (also shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction), Bensalem Himmich’s ground-breaking The Polymath, Hoda Barakat’s beautiful The Tiller of Waters, Mourid Barghouti’s moving I Saw Ramallah, and others. As part of the award, winners are published in English and receive the medal and a $1,000 prize.