Egyptian novelist and short-story writer Bahaa Taher, winner of the inaugural International Prize for Arabic Fiction, died on Thursday at the age of 87.
Taher, who was born in Cairo in 1935, had roots in Upper Egypt, to which he often returned in his writing. He began his career as a translator for State Information Services, and then moved to radio. He published his first story in 1964, with his first collection appearing in 1972.
Active in left-wing and avant-garde literary circles in the 1960s, Taher was part of the Gallery 68 movement. He lost his job in radio broadcasting and was prevented from publishing in the mid 1970s in Sadat’s Egypt. However, in a 2008 interview with Maya Jaggi, he said, “I was freed, not fired.”
Taher started working outside Egypt off and on in the mid-seventies before settling in Geneva to work as a translator for the United Nations between 1981 and 1995. Yet he continued to publish a number of his best-loved novels and short-story collections while he lived abroad. He then returned to Cairo in the mid-90s.
In a 2010 interview, Taher explained: “You see this place?—with all its faults and problems? I can’t leave it.”
Although he later became known for his acclaimed and well-loved novels, he told journalist Mohga Hassib that the short story is “the highest form of narrative and is closest in its narrative to poetry. Because it requires the same intensification as poetry and the same talent as poetry in order to say a lot of things in a very limited timeline.”
Still, it was through his novels that Taher became one of the most widely read authors of his generation. In 1998, he received the Egyptian State Award of Merit in Literature, and in 2000 he was awarded the prestigious Italian Guiseppe Acerbi prize for his widely acclaimed Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery. In 2008, he won the first-ever International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his Sunset Oasis.
Several of his novels have been translated to English. Taher, who is fluent in English, said he “very much” enjoyed Humphrey Davies’ version of Sunset Oasis, adding that the translation of his engaging Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery, by Barbara Romaine, was “very good; I even took part in it.” His Love in Exile is also available in a strong translation by Farouk Abdel Wahab.
As Egyptian writer and critic Mansoura Ezz Eldin wrote on Twitter, “With the passing of Bahaa Taher, the world lost a great writer and an exceptional person. There is much more to be said and written, but this is not the time for me to speak or write, but to mourn.”