Today in Cairo, the Egyptian Ministry of Culture will celebrate the 80th birthday of Egyptian novelist Bahaa Taher — the inaugural winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction — with an evening conference:
The event’s set to be held at the Supreme Council of Culture (SCC), on the Opera grounds in Zamalek, starting at 6 p.m.
Leading the conference will be current Minister of Culture Gaber Asfour, along with the Secretary General of the SCC. A number of speakers are on the roster, including journalist Abdullah El-Sennawy, poet Ahmed Abdel-Moaty Hegazy, novelist Youssef Al-Qaeed, and scholar Hussein Hammouda.
Taher, whose official birthday was on the thirteenth of the month, is one of Egypt’s most well-known novelists. He was the first-ever winner of the International Prize for Arabic fiction, and also won the Egyptian state Merit Award in 1998 and the Italian Giuseppe Acerbi Prize in 2000.
His translated works include As Doha Said (trans. Peter Daniel), Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery (trans. Barbara Romaine), Love in Exile (trans. Farouk Abdel Wahab), and Sunset Oasis (trans. Humphrey Davies).
Born in 1935, Taher graduated from the University of Cairo, worked in radio, and published his first short story in 1964. His first novel came out in 1985.
Over the years, Taher has had a fraught relationship with the Egyptian state. Banned from writing and publishing in 1975, he left Egypt in 1981 and worked as a translator for the United Nations in Switzerland, an experience that has found its way into his books. The ban on his work was lifted in 1983, and he later returned to Egypt. He later became a part of the state culture apparatus and received the state’s highest award for novelists in 1998. However, he also resigned from the SCC in 2013 during Mohamed Morsi’s tenure as Egyptian president.
Taher has also had a sometimes-difficult relationship with translation and his reception among European and American readers. Although Barbara Romaine’s excellent translation of his strongest novel, Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery, brought Taher a wider audience, and the Italian translation won him the Giuseppe Acerbi Prize, Taher has not always been happy with his translators.
In 2010, he made headlines when he filed a suit against the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press, citing both financial issues and infelicities in translation.
Taher has generally been an advocate of his translators. He said in a 2011 phone interview that he “very much” enjoyed Humphrey Davies’ version of his IPAF-winning novel, Sunset Oasis. Taher added that the translation of Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery, by Barbara Romaine, was “very good; I even took part in it.”
However, Taher said he was never contacted by the translator of his 1985 novel As Doha Said. When the novel was republished in London, Taher said he read it, and, “was very much astonished.”
The eight-year-old author continues to be active; this past fall, he led the International Prize for Arabic Fiction’s literary masterclass in the Emirates.