As is traditional, the awards ceremony was held in downtown Cairo on December 11, the anniversary of Mahfouz’s birth. The award brings with it a $1000 prize and a publishing contract with American University in Cairo Press.
Voyage of the Cranes tells the story of itinerant eleventh-century bookseller Mazid al-Hanafi as he travels from Baghdad to Jerusalem, Cairo to Kairouan, and on to Cordoba and Granada. As al-Hanafi passes through each city, according to judge Tahia Abdel Nasser, “he is besotted with its cultural history and beset with fear in a climate where books and libraries are burned[.]”
The novel plays with the tradition of Arabic travel literature as penned by such scholar-travelers as Ibn Fadlan and Ibn Battuta. According to judge Mona Tolba, the narrator is modeled on the Arab hero who “recites poetry, anecdotes, sayings from the Hadith, and verses, displaying the sciences of the age.” Yet, she adds, “unlike most travel literature [it] focuses on the role of women in this age: as scholar, scientist, and imam of a mosque.”
In an interview with Ahlam Alaki published earlier this year, al-Khamis spoke about the importance of writing women into history:
Certainly, yet giving a woman back her voice isn’t enough; it is her presence as an active agent in the text that is crucial for the paradigm. A woman used to exist on the margins of texts: words were fed into her mouth; opinions and decisions were said “about her” on behalf of her. The social anxiety of the presence of women hushed their literary expression, expelling them out of the text, into the obscure periphery where they resided: mute and incognito. Women had succumbed to social and hierarchical norms that centralized patriarchal authority, depriving the other half of the human population from communicating the experience of their existence. This prolonged silence, which has been shared by, and imposed upon, many women around the world, was reflected on their presence in texts. Texts often filled the void created by women’s absence with myths and legends, and – not surprisingly in a world dominated by male writers and speakers – with female images embodying all that is repellent, profane, wicked, satanic, and lowly. Therefore, the return of women to the text is one of the greatest evolutions in the history of women.
Yet, while clearly pushing for social change, al-Khamis has also been a careful writer. As Alaki wrote in “Pen Against the Grain,” the author’s work generally avoids red lines: “Al-Khamis diplomatically avoids direct clashes with the ‘taboos,’ whether social, religious, or state enforced.”
The fictional journey in Voyage of the Cranes is reminiscent of Saudi novelist Mohamed Hassan Alwan’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction-winning novel A Small Death, which follows peripatetic twelfth-century scholar and poet Ibn ‘Arabi. As in Alwan’s book, Voyage of the Cranes is, in the words of judge Rasheed El-Enany: “more of an intellectual journey than a geographic one, interested in portraying the intellectual, especially religious, debates of its day and their effect on the development of the protagonist-narrator.”
Al-Khamis told Alaki the novel is about “the struggle between two cultures: that of reasoning and that of copying information[.]” She also spoke with Alaki about the process of discovering the book’s protagonist:
One morning, I woke up perplexed, asking my husband: “Who is Mazeed? Have you spoken to me yesterday about a person called Mazeed? Is this why I woke up obsessed with this name?” When he answered negatively, I realized that Mazeed is one of the fictional characters that leaped out of my unconsciousness into the space of existence.
The winner was chosen from among an unspecified number of submissions sent to AUC Press. In addition to Abdel Nasser, Tolba, and El-Enany, the year’s two other judges were Shereen Abouelnaga and Humphrey Davies. Abdel Nasser gave the judges’ address Tuesday night.
Al-Khamis (@omaimakhamis) was born in Riyadh to a family of writers — her mother was the first woman to write in Al-Jazirah newspaper — and studied at both King Saud and Washington universities. She spent ten years as director of educational media in the Saudi Ministry of Education, and her twitter account suggests she is a strong supporter of the government. She published a number of short-story collections and children’s books before her first novel, Sailors, appeared in 2006. Her sophomore novel, The Leafy Tree (2008), was longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2010, and her third novel, Ziarat Saja, appeared in 2013.
You can order an e-book version of مسرى الغرانيق في مدن العقيق or wait for a translation, likely forthcoming in 2020, from AUC Press.
Read the full interview with Ahlam Alaki: A Pen against the Paper Grain: Interview with the Saudi Writer Omaima Al-Khamis