At its core, The Longing of the Dervish tells the story of two enslaved lovers — a Sudanese man and a Greek woman — who are thrown together and torn apart by the first victories of the 1881 Mahdi uprising.
The Mahdist uprising began after cleric Muhammad Ahmad proclaimed himself Mahdi, or the promised redeemer, and led an assault on the Egyptian administration in the Sudan. This later grew into a battle between the Mahdists and British colonial forces.
The novel opens with the fall of Khartoum, the defeat of the Mahdist army, and the release of the slave Bekhit Mandil from prison. Mandil, who we learn has been a fighter in the Mahdist army and then the lover of the Greek slave Theodora, prepares to avenge his beloved, who died fleeing the country. According to Naguib Mahfouz prize judge Tahia Abdel Nasser, the novel “reconstructs the story of the Mahdist movement from numerous sources.”
Judge Rasheed El-Enany said, in a prepared statement, that he sees parallels between the “fanatical, extremist, and violent” Mahdi uprising and similar religious movements today. Also, El-Enany said, the novel illustrates “the corruption and brutality of the government of the day as well as the hypocrisy of the colonialist west and its missionary work in creating the conditions for the Mahdi movement to flourish.”
Ziada (@), born in Umm Durman, Sudan in 1977, studied computer science, but worked as a human rights researcher and a journalist before moving to Cairo in 2009. The Longing of the Dervish is his second novel, and he has also published two previous short-story collections and has been an active blogger who was involved in protests against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.
In his address upon accepting the award, Ziada quoted a 1936 article by Naguib Mahfouz, in which the Egyptian Nobel laureate wrote, “The purpose of art is to bring together the sentiments of the individual with the sentiments of the human community in one feeling.”
“Shawq al-darwish attempts to break the borders of loneliness,” Ziada said. “To present some companionship to its reader. To bring together our Sudanese sentiments colored with legends with the sentiments of the human community.”
This year’s Mahfouz Medal judging committee was made up of writers, translators, and academics: Tahia Abdel Nasser, Shereen Abouelnaga, Mona Tolba, Humphrey Davies, and Rasheed El-Enany.
The award, announced each year on Mahfouz’s birthday, was first given in 1996.
Previous winners include celebrated authors from across the region, including Egyptian Yusuf Idris, Moroccan Bensalem Himmich, Lebanese Hoda Barakat, Palestinian Mourid Barghouti, and Syrian Khaled Khalifa, who won last year’s prize.
Naguib Mahfouz Medal winners receive the medal and a $1,000 prize. They’re also offered a contract for translation with AUC Press.
Quotes from the judges:
Mona Tolba: “Shawq al-darwish is characterized by an epic richness that courses through the narrative, not only on the level of the complexity of the character of the tragic hero, but also on the level of the multiplicity of the modes of discourse: marvelously and richly alternating between narrative, poetry, songs, folklore, historical documents, Sufi and church hymns, Quranic and Biblical verses, and even writing about writing.”
Humphrey Davies: “Shawq al-darwish is an historical novel of epic scope that uses a dramatically colored and wide-ranging palette of characters and events to paint a convincingly atmospheric portrait of a period and a place little-known to most readers. An English audience may find interesting parallels between the evocation of a multifaceted culture besieged, destroyed, and recreated, and current events.”
Shereen Abouelnaga: “Though the narrative focuses on the historical, it succeeds in imagining a novelistic world full of characters that are almost models of love, corruption, collusion, and greed. Shawq al-darwish is not just a novel about the Mahdi revolution, it is a marginalized and dark novel about the path and the fate of that revolution.”
Rasheed El-Enany: “Belief in love is offered as a redeeming, if not necessarily triumphant, alternative force for the hate and cruelty of fanatical religious faith.”
Tahia Abdel Nasser: “It gestures to a new Sudanese literature with its intricately woven history, exploration of race, and its richly layered intertexts. Not only is it a love story woven through the story of war, violence, fanaticism, and slavery, but it is also a timeless evocation of oppression everywhere.”