Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature to Huzama Habayeb for ‘A New Kind of Palestinian Novel’

Celebrated Palestinian poet, short-story writer, and novelist Huzama Habayeb has been named the 2017 winner of the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature for her Velvet (Mukhmal), which judges called ‘a new kind of Palestinian novel’:

Photo courtesy AUC Press.

Velvet is Habayeb’s third novel, and it depicts life in al-Baq’a Palestinian refugee camp in Amman, Jordan in the 1960s/70s. According to a review in Al Ghad, it’s a novel “devoid of ethical theorization, shunning spurious ideals and clichéd principles” that tells the story of Hawwa.

The prize was awarded on the evening of Monday, December 11 at the American University in Cairo’s downtown campus. Most years since its launch in 1996, the prize has been presented on December 11, the anniversary of the birth of Egypt’s only Nobel literature laureate.

In the words of judge Rasheed El-Enany, this novel:

…is not about the political cause, the resistance, the dream of return. It is rather about ordinary Palestinians, whose life goes on meanwhile, unnoticed and unrecorded, in the background, while the high dramas of politics occupy center-stage. And more particularly, it is about the life of the brutally repressed women in the camps, and the heroic life and savage death of one particular woman, in what society would label a ‘crime of honor.’ The fabric of her life was made of the coarsest material imaginable, but she always hankered for the soft touch of ‘velvet’, the Mukhmal of the title.

Several of the judges praised the book’s prose, including Humphrey Davies, who wrote that “Habayeb’s text is as sensuous, smooth, and strong as the fabric that gives it its title.”

And judge Tahia Abdel Nasser said of the novel in her talk Monday night:

Habayeb’s novel is centered on Hawwa and her family in a modest house in the refugee camp and occasionally moves beyond that to the city to focus on characters with whom they are interconnected. Early in the novel, Hawwa travels through the furrowed alley to take the cramped bus from the camp to the workshop of the beautiful Syrian seamstress Qamar in the city. Velvet begins with Hawwa crossing a narrow street, entering a narrower alley, and turning into countless others. As she passes through the alleys she knows by heart, she ruminates on her family and her frequent trips to the seamstress’s house where she works and has found refuge from the harshness of the refugee camp.

The novel tells the story not just of Hawwa, but of other women in the camp, such as the fruit-seller’s wife Dorrat al-‘Ayn and Qamar, who makes dresses for the women in the camp. Then, in September 1970, a Palestinian freedom fighter takes refuge in
Qamar’s house from the pursuing Jordanian army.

Judge Shereen Abouelnaga likened it to Hoda Barakat’s Tiller of Waters, another novel with fabric as a central motif, writing that, “velvet becomes a goal, a dream, a means, a vision, a history, and a place to live, dream, and hope.”

This year’s five judges were Abouelnaga, Davies, El-Enany, Abdel Nasser, and Mona Tolba.

Wikipedia offers an uncredited excerpt in English translation:

In the remarks Habayeb prepared for Monday night’s event, she wrote:

Velvet is the novel of women, loved and beloved, the women who, though exhausted by injustice, bitterness, the rugged alleys of life, and the oppression of men who have been eaten away by the defeats of history, is skillful at fashioning love and living love and death for love. The women of Velvet are able to capture joy in the midst of oppression; and they desire food and sumptuous fabrics and wait for only one man even within a wide space of misery, violation, and repression called “the camp.”

She ended her address by saying:

I am Huzama Habayeb, the daughter of a Palestinian refugee, Hamed Mohamed Habayeb, who left his Palestinian village when he was a seven-year-old boy, holding his mother’s hand, oblivious to what was happening to the country and the people of the country, unaware that it had become a symbol of the greatest Nakba of the age. . . . I am Huzama Habayeb, who only returns the country and the people of the country with the story.

In each story, I return to my nation. I might not be victorious . . . but surely I am less defeated. For long live the story, long live the story.

Habayeb was born in Kuwait and graduated with a degree in English literature. She worked in Kuwait until she was forced to leave, at the outbreak of the Gulf War. After that, Habayeb moved to Jordan, where she published her first short-story collection, The Man Who Is Repeated, in 1992, for which she won a short-story prize for young writers. Her first novel, Root of Passion, came out in 2007, and her sole poetry collection, Begging, in 2009. It was with her second novel, Before the Queen Falls Asleep (2011), that Habayeb reached a wider audience and broad critical acclaim.

Critic Sabry Hafez called Before the Queen Falls Asleep a “truly important novel, perhaps the most important, Palestinian novel by the second generation of Palestine’s writers after the major Palestinian novels by Ghassan Kanafani, Emile Habibi, and Jabra Ibrahim Jabra” and novelist Ahdaf Soueif named it one of her favorites of 2012, saying it was a “brilliant novel of the Palestinian diaspora. Funny and gritty, and bursting with life and humour.”

No book-length work of Habayeb’s has yet been published in English, although her translated stories and novel excerpts have appeared in Banipal and Qissat: Short Stories by Palestinian Women.

Habayeb also is known for a boycott she organized against a University of Texas Press anthology in which she was originally meant to be included, but was also to include Israeli writers.

The Mahfouz Prize brings with it a medal, a $1000 cash prize, and publication in English from AUC Press. Last year’s winner, Adel Esmat’s Tales of Yusuf Tadros, is set to be released by Hoopoe Fiction in Mandy McClure’s translation in April 2018.

More of Habayeb’s work tomorrow on ArabLit.