Palestinian writer Huzama Habayeb prepared an address for the 2017 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature ceremony. It was translated by AUC Press:
First, I would like to extend my thanks to the American University in Cairo and the AUC Press for awarding me the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature. A special thanks is also extended to the judges who selected my novel, Velvet, for this prestigious prize.
While recognizing that the prize is awarded to a particular novel, in one way or another, it extends beyond that for me personally to encompass a continuous journey of writing as a need that is felt most when writing stops or is interrupted in moments of despair, boredom, powerlessness, laziness, or depression. In these cases, the return to Mahfouz’s novels seems persistent in order for me to remember that writing is no longer a choice. Naguib Mahfouz devoted his life almost completely to writing in order to produce a novelistic life as large as life. And I decided a while ago to live writing and live within it, even if I have to seize that life.
Today, I stand here to celebrate with you the story as the most refined and delicate of what the act of writing can be and as the most arduous of what this act entails.
How does the story come to us? How do the people of the story knock on our door? How do the faces, smells, voices, paths, and periods of personal history, the very real, secret history and neglected history, unravel? How do the pages of the narrative endure all that human noise? How can the tale encompass all that great life?
These are questions I don’t remember that I paused at much, perhaps because I lived in the heart of a large story.
Don’t think that this may be considered bragging or making claims. Nothing here calls for boasting; my story rises up on a lofty tower of losses and derives its legitimacy from a staggering legacy of loss, and more loss.
Certainly, it is a precious moment in which the writer can capture the first feeling in a text, and witness the opening of the story, lean towards the flickering idea, and especially if the heart is still under the influence of one of its many defeats, or perhaps in the process of healing from them.
Velvet came to me in the form of a sudden assault on my senses.
One night I slept with a great thirst in my heart, before waking up at dawn to a heady smell. It was the smell of fresh clay, earth that was long patient with the drought and was finally moistened by droplets of rain. In the midst of the cloud of the sensory smell that passed into my dizzy spirit, the face of a woman was suddenly conjured up. . . . She stood there . . . her legs planted in the clay, or perhaps in that moment she was molded, to be sculpted alive from desire.
I watched her with fascination and something of sorrow. Whenever she tried to pluck herself out of the clay, she sank further. I did not want to extend a hand to her. I was sure that a desirable creature like her chose to draw her scene in her own way. All I had to do was collect the feelings overflowing all around her.
In the end, the beautiful woman of clay split the mud, the earth, the water falling from the heavens, the winds in all directions, the drought of the days, and the solitude of the nights. She wove her story from exquisite velvet, conjured up in the inner folds of silk in which there is slumbering warmth and love flavored with deprivation.
My woman opened up for herself a more enduring life in the story. And in the story she lived. 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.”
Let us agree on one thing, which is that we may know how to begin our story, or where, and we might be guided to the beginning of the process of writing, and some of the crossroads and the main turns, and we might be able to craft the first line and come up with opening sentences and incipient feelings. But most likely we do not know where the novel takes us and how it will end. If we allow ourselves to peel off assumptions, biases, “moral lessons,” the sins of ideology, and the lie of the triumph of good and truth over evil and injustice, we will be surprised by the turn of the narrative.
We must trust that the story contains the potential for development in its own way, so that it progresses towards all the possibilities, the unlikely ones before the likely ones, just like life itself; and that the people whom we believed, like arrogant narrators, that we created will split from us once they become flesh and blood on paper, extending beyond the fragility of our imagination.
True we create the characters of the novel, or evoke them in some way, but they quickly break away from our tutelage. It is not in our “powers” to revive them or sentence them to death. The story is what gives life and gives death, and when the people of the story whom we love, those who resemble us, though we do not admit this resemblance plainly, die, we are bereft. Are we sad? Of course! But in the end, that is the nature of life and the nature of narration: that living, like death, is dictated by the logic of the story, not wishes and hopes.
Each time I pen a scene of death that inevitably happens. I am compassionate, tender, with the meager compassion of life; and sometimes I lack mercy, I am cruel like life. In both cases, I hide my tears and my torment.
I wept for all the women of Velvet, the mighty women, who dug their nails in the walls of the days. I wept for my burning women, who are hurt, waiting, patient, withered, stretching the body behind the curtains of the night, concealed from the wind with wind, whispering to the spirit from underneath the veils of the rain.
Every time I said goodbye to one of them, my heart would collapse.
I admit that I feel guilty sometimes, but I also know that I cannot blame myself.
And then who am I to be judged and questioned? I am after all only a storyteller, even if I am not neutral.
Why the story?
I am a woman without a nation. I inherited from my Palestinian father an incomplete story about a house that used to be ours once upon a time. I was born and grew up in a house in exile, a house that we tried to make similar to a house that could have been ours in the nation, a house full of our voices and senses, our whispers, our murmurs, our laughter that hung with the sweat of our palms on the walls, with our low sobs that embroidered the sleeplessness of nights.
Then the house was lost in a war, as usual, of which we were the promised victims. Our walls fell down, and our many things that we thought we needed for our existence were lost.
Everything was lost . . . the wood of memories, the clothes that used to fortuitously stretch on our bodies, almanacs that we preserved for the pictures of sumptuous nature in them, and many unconnected things.
I carried the nation as an idea, the imagined nation, and went about life on a long and exhausting road, crossed days, cities, and thorny maps, shifted the shadows of friends who scattered from me one by one, leaned my tired frame upon the beams of air and dust, and my heart was shattered time and again. On the way I stumbled and got up. On the way, too, I lost many houses, each one of which I tried to make into a nation or something similar, without the nation or anything similar taking root in any of them. Only one thing in the journey of successive loss that I kept . . . one thing I kept back from loss: the story! The story was proof that I existed once. It is the proof that I have lived . . . really lived.
At the crossroads of life, the story rescued me from my self, which often leans toward self-destruction. It took me in, embraced, protected, and preserved me, strengthened my shaken certainty that I have a nation waiting for me to spread along its streets new encounters and memories, and meanwhile reassured me that my “tent” is temporary, and it certainly will be taken down.
Thus I will continue to live. And will continue to write the story. I will go on, as much as I can, on the long road of life, and I might fall on the way. . . . I know that, but I also know that I will rise. I will gather the parts of the days,
the remains of fading faces, the echo of voices, the traces of dispersed emotions, and some of the lessons of wandering and loss, and craft them with the least possible rhetoric into a story that resembles a real nation.
With the story I draw the map of return to my nation, to a house there that was once mine . . . to a house there that will be mine one day.
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.