Omaima Al-Khamis: ‘Mahfouz is the Sisyphus of the Arabic Novel’

Omaima Al-Khamis, winner of this year’s Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, gave an address before the crowd gathered at the American University in Cairo’s downtown campus. These were her prepared remarks, translated to English by American University in Cairo Press:

Photo courtesy AUC Press.

I read Children of the Alley at quite an early age and, from its pages, two thoughts overtook me: first, why does Gebelawi not respond to the entreaties of the people of his alley? Second, what is the intellectual image of (my namesake) Omaima, Adham Gebelawi’s wife? And it was as though our identical names pulled me to become part of that lofty universal story.

At that time, I would read the novel and be gripped by the magic of the story and by enjoyment of the tale. My young age did not require more than putting in order the chaos of the world around me, and making clear its blind spots, but afterwards, when the aesthetics of the novel started to broaden and weigh upon me and becomeentangled with the world’s existential and philosophical questions, I began to ask for more from the novel. Naguib Mahfouz remained at the top of my reading list, in his realism phase, through his existential philosophical works, and to the Sufi illuminations that appeared in his later works.

Mahfouz is the Sisyphus of the Arabic novel, and that was when Arab taste was imprisoned within its poetic orb, poetry sweeping into court and dominating it. For the poem is not just a linguistic adventure for the Arab, but it is an identity and home, a sacred place between its hemistiches. The poem is a product of lineages and caravans on the way to ‘Aqbar Valley, whispering to it with its ardor, overflowing with its desires.

Within this scene replete with poetry, narrative was relegated to the margins and borders, adaptations, stories of the companions of the court, siras, and parables, and other varieties that the arrogant, classical taste called “low culture” and classified as foreign and hybrid.

In the midst of this climate, Mahfouz took the novel under his wing, soaring with it, even if he was a contemporary of the writer al-Aqqad (who used to set the literary taste at the time), and describing the novel to be “like carob, a measure of wood and a dirham of sweets!”

But he is Mahfouz, our great writer who taught us the magic and craft of the story, who threw his staff so that the simple, the mundane, and the taboo became a drop in the larger universe, and the novel rose like a lofty structure in parallel with official history, which was always preoccupied with the reports of battles and kings. The novel came close to the marginalized, looking for the human in individual heroics, for the struggles with the forces of violence and oppression, and a beleaguered world.

***

I don’t claim to have entered the land of narrative from its open doors, but at the beginning I was enamored with language, and perhaps it was my luck to be born with letters and words around me. A consciousness was shaped by the walls piled high with books, from floor to ceiling, and the flavor of evenings that my father and mother used to spend under the jasmine tree in our house’s garden, absorbed in reviewing a book, my father reading and my mother writing, or my father reading and my mother reviewing. My mother was that pure Palestinian Canaanite, who came to the heart of Najd, and entered the mantle of a man taking upon himself a large dream, so she shared some of it with him.

The book, whether my father’s books or what the world’s presses produced, was a staple of our house. It shared the halls with my siblings and me, along with the daily newspaper al-Jazira that my father established in Riyadh in the mid-1950s. My father used to carry it carefully under his arm when he came home from work and I used to feel that these large newspapers, folded and spread out between his hands, held shimmering fields, blooming gardens, and undiminished joy. Perhaps that was the first well from which I tasted the sacredness of writing, from a few sentences and trembling lines. At the time I didn’t know that that childish play would lead me to the riverbanks of poetry.

But the craft of poetry in a daze was no easy task, for it is a mysterious journey without a woman’s memory or a roadmap, poetry is expression and confession and exposure . . . an intrusion for the one garbed in portliness, and hymns of confession that defy the darkness of the old tent. Except for a few poems, no more than some passing summer clouds, I borrowed the story and narrative from poetry.

In that space I fled to the land of the story. Behind its ways, characters, cities, and halls I will disappear from sight and will let the characters express themselves, the game of words will become more comfortable . . . and I will earn the solitude that makes me tinker again with words in a way that conforms to the rules of magical cities in the suitcase of a legend.

For narrative is a feminine land, and it is a forest . . . hidden behind the likely and the possible.

And there in the land of dreams

The story started with collections of short stories that I now feel finetuned my fictional tools, dim hymns before venturing into the grand symphony . . . the novel.

The novel is the more mature form in the journey of human creativity and the most complex and intricate of all artistic forms, for its resilient structure reduces the recalcitrance of poetry and its incandescent worlds, and follows theatre’s dialogue, philosophy, and drama. Also, the novel invokes modern visual arts through the script, editing, flashbacks, and dialogue. Thus it appears to be the truest to life and it is possible to observe much of the social, political, and historical transformations of peoples through it. And so, the novel has become the collection of poems for the modern age.

The novel is an attempt to recover the original material of the world, to break it down into its smaller parts, reassembling it according to rules that defy nothingness.

I stand here today at this Egyptian pulpit from which mankind spelled out the alphabet of civilization. I can only offer a field of date palms to the judges of the award who still see in literature and art an antidote to this world.

Thank you to Abdallah bin Khamis and Siham Al-Sarhi, my parents who, every morning, opened the door and went out into the field so that I followed them, writing intuitively and spontaneously, as all children follow in the footsteps of their elders.

Special thanks to my companion Dr. Khaled al-Badah, who secured for me a sturdy, safe boat throughout our journey—one that everyone who has suffered the labors of the story, the torments of the narrative, and the impetuosity of characters knows.

My thanks to my sons Fahd and Firas and my dear Buthaina, who gave me the experience of motherhood, the greatest emotional experience that any heart could have.

And finally my thanks to my venerable country, the great Saudi Arabia, that believed in me, as a woman who ushers in the future, and in my pen, and made me a part of everything that has come before.

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