This year’s Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature has been awarded to Syrian novelist Khaled Khalifa for his No Knives in the Kitchens of this City (2013):
Khalifa was unfortunately unable to attend the awards ceremony, which is held every year on December 11 in celebration of Naguib Mahfouz’s birth. Khalifa didn’t receive an Egyptian visa in time to enable him to travel to Cairo, and thus the award was accepted on his behalf by the journalist Sayed Mahmoud. Khalifa now hopes to come in January, according to award organizers.
Khalifa, however, prepared a beautiful address for the evening, which was translated by AUC Press, and opens:
For once, writing stands before itself to answer a critical question about what writing can do when death becomes so abominable, for once I ask in shock about the purpose of writing, and confess that my illusions ended when I discovered that we are so weak, unable to help a child refugee in the camps and return him to the warmth of his house, or the body of a man shot by a sniper for passing wrongly in the wrong place at that wrong time, but, at the same time, it has removed from my eyes a haze I dared not confess before. We work in fragility because we produce beauty, we contribute to making human life less solitary and harsh. We do not grant the oppressed victory but we help the oppressed regain their strength and struggle for their cause. We cannot convince an abandoned woman that solitude is not so unbearable, but we can make her solitude less unendurable. We expose oppressors, opportunists, and murderers, but we are not a court that passes sentences. That is how I see the novel that changed my life, that made me less harsh and more precise in passing sentences that are valuable, unequivocal, and unquestionable, because in the novel everything is subject to question, change, and alternative possibilities, because it is simply a human record that still reiterates its questions about joy, love, and hatred, and still seeks its central question and here I mean the question of death.
No Knives in the Kitchens of this City, Khalifa’s fourth novel, is the acclaimed follow-up to his award-winning In Praise of Hatred (trans. Leri Price), which was shortlisted for the 2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) and longlisted for the 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The title of No Knives comes from a speech made by former Syrian President Amin al-Hafez and follows a middle-class family in Aleppo from the 1960s through 2005. The novel traces the intersecting lives of a family, a city, and a regime in crisis.
As judge Abdo Wazen said in his citation, “against this [the characters’] personal shame, there emerges a political and public shame which is represented in the militarized regime and corrupt intelligence which plays with individuals and fates for its own interests, which are mostly inhuman.”
Like In Praise of Hatred, Khalifa’s 2013 novel is a multilayered look at a complex family, powerful characters, and society that is based in Syria but tied into events elsewhere in the world. Global and local political movements affect the central family, and each member has to make difficult choices. According to judge Shereen Abouelnaga:
…the city of Aleppo stands as a center of all forms of resistance to the process of militarization. However, the shrinking of the lettuce fields and the ruralizing of the city, as metaphors of deterioration, have forced every character to look for a ‘safe’ exit, either by identifying with the military power or fleeing from it or retaliating or falling into the snares of despair or even committing suicide. Through the powerful ambivalent presence of the mother, the reader is alerted to the dilemma: the French Mandate or the military (national) power? The past or the present? Innocence or experience? Painful memory or even more painful oblivion?
This year’s judging committee was made up of Tahia Abdel Nasser, Shereen Abouelnaga, Mona Tolba, Hussein Hammouda, and Abdo Wazen. As in past years, the awards ceremony was held at the American University in Cairo’s downtown Oriental Hall.
Author and academic Tahia Abdel Nasser gave the evening’s address, in which she likened Khalifa’s Aleppo to Mahfouz’s old Cairo. “No Knives in the Kitchens of This City reworks Naguib Mahfouz’s old Cairo through its focus on the city of Aleppo, its squares, mosques, fields, and labyrinthine streets. … In a broad, dense novel in the tradition of Mahfouz, Khalifa explores the tragedy of modern Syria and breaks taboos to cut through the layers of silence.”
No Knives was co-published in Cairo (Dar al-Ain) and Beirut (Dar al-Adab). Khalifa earlier told The Times of Malta that he would prefer to publish in Syria, “but I am deprived of this right. In Praise of Hatred is still banned. I think No Knives in the Kitchens of this City is also barred. I still dream, though — believe that my dream will be realised soon — that my books will be displayed in all Syrian libraries.”
Other previous winners include Bensalem Himmich’s ground-breaking The Polymath, Hoda Barakat’s beautiful The Tiller of Waters, Mourid Barghouti’s moving I Saw Ramallah, among others. Miral al-Tahawy’s Brooklyn Heights, which won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal in 2010, was also shortlisted for the IPAF. One hopes and imagines that No Knives in the Kitchens of this City will also be shortlisted for the prize.
Naguib Mahfouz Medal winners are published in English and receive the medal and a $1,000 prize.
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