The 2016 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature has just gone to the Egyptian writer Adel Esmat for his novel Hikayat Yusuf Tadrus (The Tales of Yusuf Tadrus):
The Tales of Yusuf Tadrus (Kotob Khan, 2015) is Esmat’s fifth novel. The author, born in Gharbiya in 1959, previously won a State Encouragement Award for his novel Days of the Blue Windows. With this prize, Esmat wins a medal, $1,000, and a contract for translation into English from AUC Press.
Unlike the majority of Egyptian novels, which focus on either Cairo or Alexandria, The Tales of Yusuf Tadrus follows a Coptic man from Tanta. It begins with Tadrus’s discovery of art at the Sacred Book Association for which his mother collects donations, and follows the changes that happen in his art and in the alley where he was born. Judges called the novel “a journey in search of light.”
The award, which comes just a day after a horrific bombing at a Coptic church in Cairo killed 25, addresses the difficult situation of Egypt’s Coptic Christians.
“The candid depiction of the worsening situation of Egyptian Christians and their alienation in their own country is touching and sensitively written,” prize judge Rasheed El-Enany wrote in his remarks.
According to judge Shereen Abouelnaga, the novel also recalls James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, for “just as Stephen Dedalus revolts against his rigid society and announces his complete rejection of all aesthetics and written rules, Yusuf Tadrus refuses all traditions and rules, and just as Dedalus refuses absolute conformity to institutions such as the Church, Yusuf Tadrus does the same…, and just as Dedalus chooses self-imposed exile at the end of the journey, Yusuf chooses to emigrate to his son Michel in America[.]”
The novel, Tahia Abdel Nasser said in her address at the awards ceremony, held at the American University in Cairo’s Tahrir campus, addresses social changes in Egypt from the 1960s to the present: “from the close-knit alley to inflation, overpopulation, emigration, and fundamentalism.”
Esmat, like Naguib Mahfouz, initially studied philosophy, but went on to do a degree in library science, and now works as a library specialist in the Egyptian Ministry of Education. In addition to his five novels, he is also the author of a short-story collection, Qusasat (Cuttings).