Fatma Qandil’s ‘Empty Cages’ Wins 2022 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature

DECEMBER 11, 2022 —The American University in Cairo Press today announced the winner of the 2022 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature; it is Egyptian writer Fatma Qandi,l for her novel أقفاص فارغة (Empty Cages).

Qandil has long been a widely admired poet. Born in Cairo in 1958, Qandil has worked as editor-in-chief of the magazine Fusul while publishing numerous renowned poetry collections, including Questions Hanging Like Slaughtered Animals and My House Has Two Doors. The genre-encompassing Empty Cages is her first novel.

Surprisingly, Qandil said at the Mahfouz Medal ceremony: “This is the first time in my life that I’ve ever received a prize!”

Photo courtesy AUC Press

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In prepared statements, the 2022 Mahfouz Medal’s five judges — Shereen Abouelnaga, Thaer Deeb, Hussein Hammouda, Dina Heshmat, and Adam Talib — noted the book’s focus on life-writing and its defiance of genre norms. In her statement, judge Shereen Abouelnaga quoted the author’s own aims for the book, to be “simple and keen like a leaf.”

Qandil has long been a beloved poet. Syrian poet-translator Golan Haji has said of her work: “The range of her poems and of their mood is as admirable as that of style. Despite all shifts in attention and approach, she builds a stable familiar vision made of poems that are intensely personal.”

Her Mahfouz Medal-winning novel, Empty Cages, is also an intensely personal work. As Heshmat noted in her statement, the novel gives an “unflinchingly honest portrayal of the relationships of violence that lie beneath the surface of an ordinary middle-class Egyptian family; relationships of gendered power.” And as Talib wrote, “Novels are called brave or bold when they engage unflinchingly with the content of our private lives, so this is a brave novel. But there is fragility here, too, and for that more than anything, it is a pleasure to give this beautiful work the recognition it deserves.”

In her charming statement, Qandil acknowledged echoes of Naguib Mahfouz’s writing in her work: “of Nafisa in The Beginning and the End and Zohra in Miramar, echoes of the Trilogy’s epic ambition and echoes of the Echoes of an Autobiography.”

She also said, with a wry, self-implicating humor:

I’m also very grateful to Naguib Mahfouz for getting back to me finally. I can still clearly remember the letter I wrote to him when I was sixteen years old. Back then all the girls were crazy about Hussein Fahmy, the star of the film “Watch out for Zouzou,” so when I wrote to Naguib Mahfouz at al-Ahram Newspaper, I said, “Hussein Fahmy may be the man of every girl’s dreams, but not mine. You are.” The great writer didn’t write back to me when I was a teenager. I guess he was waiting to make sure I was serious—to make sure I would become a writer—and now he has finally agreed to share the spotlight with me. Thank you, sir, and happy birthday.

Qandil, who dedicated the award to Arab women writers, said that winning this prize proves that her long journey with writing “was not in vain.” She went on:

I must also dedicate it to young women, including those who are still navigating their own way to the magical world we call writing. I know they have a lot to say about the unsaid. They have many battles that they are destined to take up. Against themselves, against the world, against their texts. Perhaps this prize will show them that recognition always comes in the end. This celebration is the true compensation for the price that we, women writers in this part of the world, have chosen to pay for the sake of the euphoria of writing and nothing else.

Organizers said that Empty Cages was chosen from among 153 submissions. At the award ceremony, the AUC Press also celebrated the publication of the English translation of the 2021 winner of the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, Ahmed Taibaoui’sThe Disappearance of Mr. Nobody, ferried to English by Jonathan Wright.

Qandil in English translation:

Keys,” tr. Josh Beirich

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