The only Arabophone author we’re sure was nominated for the Nobel — well, outside of Naguib Mahfouz — is Taha Hussein, born on this day in 1889:
The author, sometimes called the “Dean of Arabic Literature,” was first nominated for the Nobel Prize in his sixtieth year, 1949. He died on October 28, 1973.
Although Hussein’s works continue to be read and loved forty-odd years after his death, only a small corner of his broad oeuvre has been translated to English. Among his most well-known works is his autobiography, The Days, which was apparently a model for Naguib Mahfouz’s first literary work; Mahfouz said of it that “When I read Taha Hussein’s The Days, I wrote a booklet, or a book as I called it then, in which I narrated the story of my life in the manner of Taha Hussein.”
The Days was originally serialized in Hilal and then published as a three-part book. Unlike Hussein’s novels, The Days — a landmark of Arabic autobiographical writing — is Hussein’s only work to be widely available in English. It was published as a single volume, translated by E.H. Paxton, Hilary Wayment, and Kenneth Cragg.
Several of Hussein’s books have been published in translation by the Egyptian General Book Authority, such as The Curlew’s Prayer and Tree of Misery, both translated by A. B. As-Safi, and The Fulfilled Promise, translated by Dr. Mohammad Enani. These are difficult to obtain beyond GEBO’s official shops and annual Cairo book-fair stand.
Hussein’s legacy includes scholarship, literature, politics, and advocacy for the blind. Hussein lost his eyesight at the age of three, but went on to earn his PhD in 1914 with a focus on the poetry of the also-blind al-Maari. He worked as a professor of Arabic literature and was later Egypt’s Minister of Education.
Helen Keller wrote of visiting Hussein in Egypt in 1952:
For years I had read about Taha Hussein Pasha, and I cannot express my delight one day when he visited me at the Semiramis Hotel, bringing his wife and son, and stayed a whole hour. I was privileged to touch his face, and how handsome, scholarly and full of inward light it was! His responsive tenderness warmed my heart, and I felt as if I had known him always. We discussed many topics — Homer, Aeschylus, Euripides, Plato and Socrates, the liberating power of philosophy, Taha Hussein’s studies of the great blind Arab philosopher of the tenth century [al-Maari] and his work for the blind.
It is hard to say whether charming, popular novels such as The Curlew’s Prayer would resonate with English-language audiences all these years later, although it would be wonderful to have a fresh, literary translation and see. Indeed, the novel has just been released in Greek translation by Gutenberg Publications, and will be launched on December 10 at the National Translation Organization in Cairo, in the Taha Hussein Hall, along with a translation of Sonallah Ibrahim’s The Committee. Persa Κoumoutsi has translated both novels.
Five in English:
The Days, translated by E.H. Paxton, Hilary Wayment, Kenneth Cragg
The Curlew’s Prayer, translated by A. B. As-Safi.
Tree of Misery, translated by A. B. As-Safi.