During the 1970s, when my father was in his mid-forties, he announced to me his fear that the numbers of men of religion would diminish. He told me that a day would come, and soon by his own account, when people would no longer find a sheikh or sayed to draw up marriage contracts and bury the dead. My father was not particularly devout; in fact, he did not pray or fast, and so was content to entrust my mother with these duties regularly, five times a day with respect to prayers. As for Ramadan, we seemed to be a pious family outwardly, for we would gather around the table, fasting or not, all waiting to hear the firing of the iftar cannon to begin to eat.
Perhaps he sought to convince me to go to Najaf to return from it seven or eight years later wearing the robe and turban. Not through devoutness, but perhaps because of an early knowledge he had gained that we must continue our education in accordance with the needs of the market. And, if I obeyed him in this, upon graduating, I would be an imam of three or four villages, as long as all the posts were empty.
The picture of a man of religion was not attractive to me. Let us remember the image of the official who performs civil marriages in Egyptian cinema at the time. The world was going in a different direction than the one my father suggested to me. I knew, for example, that many used to go to Najaf and not stay there very long. And that was not new or a result of the first years of the 1970s, but had started decades earlier. Among those who left the robe and turban were those who later became well-known writers and who played roles in secular parties, nationalist and communist.
This was not the case of al-Sayed, the hero of No Road to Paradise. He, who used to dream of studying medicine abroad and used to love Abdel Halim Hafez and recite his songs, was forced to acquiesce, to continue a tradition in his religious family continuing perhaps for hundreds of years. His father, the sayed–sheikh as well, sees that for the family to stop producing men of religion is akin to sterility and the sinking of the line into oblivion.
In that man, who is supposed to be a man of the pulpit and an imam who leads the people, I was given the chance to observe his gradual retreat from everything around him. He was too late in handing the keys of the mosque over to someone else, and when he did, he could not change his religious attire, so he continued to wear it, though he was no longer a man of religion.
Often I imagine him as a body stretched out on that bridge between what the 1970s were and how the situation became thirty years later. I don’t deny that among my reasons for writing the novel is my surprise at that turn in the flow of time, our religious time I mean, and its denial of the context that promised to follow it. I don’t deny my surprise, but I say that what drove me to write the novel was the man himself, his crisis and fragility, his having lived a life he did not wish for and having taken a road it was his desire not to follow, his having been driven to be an imam while he needed the strength to be a father.
I wrote the novel for him and about him first and foremost, not wanting at all to elevate his subject above his personal existence (I mean, to depend on the fact that we are witnessing this dominant presence of religion in order for the novel to be connected with the contemporaneity of his subject). Al-Sayed is who he is and is not identical to similar people. It would not be a novel if its hero was not an individual with full individuality. And this suits me; in fact, I am not good at anything else, and I know about myself that I no longer understand anything about anything from the moment it changes into a general subject.
Thus, with this award, I find myself having bridged another distance from Naguib Mahfouz. I mean Naguib Mahfouz the man who, when we say that the strands of his life were interwoven and intermingled with his novels, we do not mean only what we used to agree upon, that Kamal in the Trilogy is Naguib Mahfouz himself. His novels created our understanding of what it means for life to turn into a novel. All the heroes of the Trilogy, as well as the heroes of The Beginning and the End, Midaq Alley, Autumn Quail, The Beggar, and Adrift on the Nile, are enduring like real people and eternal types, but in a way that does not take away from their living existence. Ahmad Abd al-Jawad lives on, and so do Yassin, and Amina and Hamida and the brothers Hassan and Hussein and Hassanein. We never had enough of reading his novels, and so went on to collect every detail of his life that reached us—from an interview with him in a magazine, from the news about his self-discipline in his writing as well as his life, and from the return of someone who met with him in Egypt. “How is he, where was he sitting, what did he say?” And when I came to Egypt for the first time, a friend pointed out the neighborhoods and buildings and told me: this is Sugar Street, this is Palace Walk, and all of this is al-Gamaliya—and I never stopped wondering: how did Mahfouz call the places by their real names, and why?
My deepest thanks to the American University in Cairo for establishing this annual award to support the contemporary Arabic novel and follow its creativity.
My deepest thanks also to the distinguished committee that selected my novel to be among the novels of the writers who were awarded the prize before me.
Thank you to everyone, writers and friends: your attendance tonight fills me with honor and pride. December 12, 2015