Children of Our Alley: Mahfouz Award Fuels Schism in Egyptian Literary Field

Samia Mehrez

In 1959, Naguib Mahfouz published his controversial novel " Awlad Haratina " (Children of Our Alley) on the pages of the Egyptian daily paper Al Ahram. This work represented a clear departure from the historical and realistic modes that dominated Mahfouz's earlier work until the completion of his "Trilogy" on the eve of the 1952 revolution in Egypt . " Awlad Haratina " came after seven years of literary silence most uncharacteristic of the disciplined and prolific Mahfouz. However, it has been repeatedly argued that this silence should have been expected of a writer at the high point of his career while he observed a turning point in the social and political reality that he had been depicting through his novels.

The story of " Awlad Haratina " is told from the point of view of a narrator/writer, himself one of the children of the alley. We first encounter him in the short but intriguing opening section. The narrator is the man entrusted, by the alley, to put into writing its rich history. Unlike all the other characters whose stories he tells, the narrator remains nameless throughout. Given the symbolic nature of the entire work, this opening section merits an attentive reading. Indeed, I will argue that the last two paragraphs that close this iftitahiyya (opening) represent Mahfouz's reading of his own position as a writer within the literary field in Egypt . This role continues to be relevant, in fact, crucial for our understanding of the field today, 50 years after this nameless narrator/writer so eloquently described it in " Awlad Haratina ." The opening chapter closes: "I am the first in the alley to have made a profession of writing, although it earned me a great deal of scorn and sarcasm. My job is to write down the complaints of those who are oppressed or in need. Although many unfortunate people come to me, I have been unable to raise myself above the general level of our beggars; but I have gained a heart-breaking knowledge of many people's secret sorrows. However, I am not writing about myself and my troubles, which is nothing compared with those of the alley."

Not only does this passage encapsulate Mahfouz's own position and history within the field but it also defines the very raison d'être of the writer as the consciousness of the nation and the recorder of its collective memory and underground history. As the scribe of the alley, one among the few who can write, and the first to make of writing a profession, the narrator/author in the passage is entrusted with a formidable task: to set down the story of the alley in a trustworthy book in order to counter the storytellers who twist it in their own way. Not only will the narrator/writer supply the written truth about the complaints of the oppressed but, more importantly, he will be aided with secret information and stories of people's secret sorrows, the unwritten history of the alley. Despite this formidable task, the scribe of the alley is unable to raise himself above the level of its beggars and his chosen job as scribe earns him only great scorn and sarcasm. As he himself admits, this economic and social under-privilege is irrelevant, for the scribe's own troubles are nothing when he compares them to those of the rest of the alley. His material loss is compensated by symbolic gain: his written record is of benefit to the children of his alley.

Almost 50 years later, Mahfouz's opening passage in " Awlad Haratina " continues to represent both the material and symbolic position that characterizes our "alley's" scribes today. This is the hara (alley) that the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press decided to walk into with its Naguib Mahfouz Award.

On December 11, 1996 , Naguib Mahfouz's 85th birthday, the AUC Press inaugurated the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature to "recognize an outstanding contribution to Arabic writing" and to confirm "the AUC Press' continuing and expanding commitment to bring the best Arabic literature to the attention of the widest possible English language audience throughout the Middle East , Europe , and North America ." AUC's commitment to the translation of Arabic works into English is not new: For the past 25 years the AUC Press has contributed quite systematically to the growing number of titles available on the international market. What is new however, is the decision to select one work and to declare it publicly, in a ceremony publicized both nationally and regionally, as the best Arabic literature has to offer.

This declaration of merit is further legitimated through the name of the scribe of the alley, the Nobel Laureate himself. Even though Mahfouz does not attend the ceremony in person, his yearly videotaped messages to the recipients and the audience enforce his position as godfather of the Arabic novel. Further, Mrs. Mahfouz's dedicated presence on this occasion certainly confers upon the evening feelings of family and of genealogy. In its endeavor to select the best texts in Arab literature, the AUC Press is aided by a permanent and distinguished panel of judges who represent both AUC and other national universities and whose contribution to the Arab literary field at large is uncontestable.

Though the award's monetary compensation is largely symbolic ($1000), the AUC Mahfouz medal has become one of the most coveted in the region. The worldwide, cumulative distribution figures of Mahfouz's works, announced yearly by the director of the AUC Press (more than one million copies to date), have elicited dreams of fame and fortune from the truly disadvantaged writers of the Arab World who, since Mahfouz's own description of their status in " Awlad Haratina " almost 45 years ago, still have to contend with the alley's scorn and sarcasm. A glaring example of this situation is the very well-attended award ceremony of 1999, celebrating the decoration of the "phenomenal al-Kharrat," to use one of the jury's descriptions of the renowned recipient, Edwar al-Kharrat.

That year, the AUC Press decided to celebrate the award around an elaborate Ramadan iftar since Mahfouz's birthday coincided with the holy month. After the ceremony, Al Ahram al-Arabi reported sarcastically that Egyptian intellectuals flocked to "the banquet of the All-Merciful" ( ma'idat al-rahman ), now an established tradition of a free iftar provided by the rich for the poor of Egypt during Ramadan, much to the embarrassment of their AUC hosts who had not expected such a large number of "scribes." To make things worse, the yearly guest of honor, Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni, a great fidel to the Mahfouz award ceremony, spent his congratulating words referring to the 75-year-old pioneer of the Egyptian avant-garde as Edwar al-Khayyat rather than Edwar al-Kharrat ( three times) to the embarrassment and dismay of al-Kharrat's fellow scribes.

Not only does the prize bear Naguib Mahfouz's name, but it also comes with the unique opportunity of immediate translation. Given the catastrophic situation with both private and state publishing, the retreat of the literary product, the undeniable absence of readership, and the increased number of crises surrounding freedom of expression, this golden promise of translation and worldwide distribution is both economically and symbolically attractive. The one million copies of Mahfouz's works that have been sold worldwide may not sound impressive in global market terms; however, they are astronomical when compared to sales figures in the Arab world which only in very rare cases exceed 5,000 copies. Somaya Ramadan, the 2001 recipient of the medal, succinctly describes this dismal situation in the following terms: "The creative writer in our societies does not achieve material gain from writing. Some private publishing houses ask the authors to pay for the publication of their work. As for the state-run outlets, writers have to wait their turn, often for four or five years. After all this hardship, they risk being labeled apostates."

Annual Debate

Since its establishment, the AUC award has steadily gained importance, edging closer and closer to the center of the local literary scene and provoking a yearly heated debate. Announcing the name of the winner has systematically become a declaration of war within both the Egyptian and Arab cultural fields. The AUC Mahfouz prize has become an important factor in fueling the schism within Egyptian literary and critical circles and is accused of creating a generation of writers who write with an eye on the West and an eye on translation. Even more contentious is the fact that the AUC Press has assigned itself the duty of presenting the best Arabic literature worldwide, a role that could be discouraging the representation of the modern Arab literary field at large.

Moreover, the fact that the Mahfouz award is given to one work has generated a host of questions concerning literary merit and aesthetic value. Literary awards in general are of two kinds: ones that are given to a lifetime achievement (the Nobel, the Faysal, the Sultan al-'Uways, the Egyptian State Merit Prize) and others that are awarded to a single text (the Booker, the Goncourt, the State Encouragement Prize, the Cairo International Book Fair Prize). Whereas the first category is given to established or senior names in the field, the second is generally intended to draw attention to new talents. The criteria used in the selection process for each type of prize makes the latter a far more controversial one, always open to potential protests. This is the fate of the Mahfouz award.

In 1996, AUC's Ferial Ghazoul, Professor of Comparative Literature and member of the panel of judges of the award, announced that the Naguib Mahfouz medal had an "additional dimension." Not only was it to honor new talents in Arabic literature, but it was to acknowledge and make known established writers whose works have not yet been translated into English-a double-take that was deemed "intelligent" since acknowledging established writers also meant bestowing legitimacy on this newly established prize within the literary field. Hence, over the years, the Mahfouz medal has been awarded to established writers as well as recent names in the field, to texts that are already considered classics as well as works of the avant-garde from the Arab world. To date, the medal has been awarded to Ibrahim Abdel Meguid ("The Other Place") and the late Latifa al-Zayyat ("The Open Door") in 1996; Mourid al-Barghouti ("I Saw Ramallah") and the late Yusuf Idriss ("City of Love and Ashes") in 1997; Ahlam Mosteghanemi ("Memory in the Flesh") and the late Yahya Haqqi ("The Postman") in 1998; Edwar al-Kharrat ("Rama and the Dragon") in 1999; Huda Barakat ("The Tiller of Water") in 2000 and finally to Somaya Ramadan ("Leaves of Narcissus") in 2001. The total of nine recipients includes four women, six Egyptians (three of whom have been awarded it posthumously), one Palestinian, one Lebanese, and one Algerian.

Conferring Legitimacy

By honoring one text, the Mahfouz Award panel of judges not only extended the legitimacy of established writers in the field to the international level but it has conferred legitimacy on new ones. In other words, AUC has taken on the role of identifying and naming the best scribes of the alley. In this minefield, AUC has consistently found itself subject to the rules of the alley and its few scorn-ridden scribes and has recently been described as "represent[ing] a reality of its own making," wrote Sayyed El-Bahrawi in Akhbar Al Adab. El-Bahrawi adds, it is thus deemed "a great danger to the Arab novel" and to the "literary field in the Arab World," indeed the "entire Arab future!"

The initial history of the AUC Mahfouz Award remains an unwritten one. The first award was intended for Sonallah Ibrahim, one of the alley's most prominent and "trustworthy" scribes, in recognition of his highly acclaimed novel " Zaat ." Ibrahim, whose unique autonomous position within the field is an exceptional anomaly and whose relationship with AUC as an American institution is, to say the least, problematic, declined the award arguing that it should go to younger and less established talents.

Ibrahim's discreet and unpublicized refusal of the prize, however, continues to be used in an indiscreet and public war against both the award-conferring institution and the award-winning recipient. These yearly battles have inadvertently exposed the vying scribes and the secrets of the alley. None of the recipients have been spared the firing squads, except perhaps the three posthumously decorated pioneers, Latifa al-Zayyat, Yusuf Idriss, and Yahya Haqqi, whose selections by the AUC judges were deemed acts of "co-option," especially in the case of al-Zayyat, the long- time leftist and activist who had never during her lifetime accepted invitations to AUC.

In the aftermath of the first ceremony, the first recipient, Ibrahim Abdel Maguid, whose novel "The Other Place" was described as the narrative on "the season of migration to the South," was accused of being a peddler who flirts with the West. The distinguished Palestinian poet Mourid al-Barghouti was seen as an intruder into a field already overpopulated with unrecognized scribes. Edwar al-Kharrat's acceptance of the award was read as a betrayal to his life-time commitment to "the new literary sensibility," whose marginal position he defended in the face of more traditional forms represented by the Mahfouzian oeuvre. Huda Barakat's national belonging was put to the test in a statement by four Egyptian intellectuals calling upon her to boycott the Mahfouz award in solidarity with the Al-Aqsa Intifada! In all of these instances, the award recipients are set up to fail Mahfouz's model of the scribe: the trustworthy, selfless son of the alley, recorder of a collective underground reality, whose record is of benefit not to himself, but to all the children of the alley.

Tellingly, the most ruthless attacks were reserved for Ahlam Mosteghanemi and Somaya Ramadan, the most recent arrivals among the children of the alley, whose rites of passage expose not only the sexual and textual battles among the scribes but their class and nationalist defenses as well. Whereas critics declared that Mosteghanemi's best-selling first novel "Memory in the Flesh" belonged to "the popular literature of Mexican soap operas," Ramadan's initially well received "Leaves of Narcissus" suddenly became, upon its nomination to the award, a "national disaster," and the "death certificate of [Mahfouz's] prize!" Mosteghanemi was accused of "falsifying history" by selling herself on the jacket of the book as the first Algerian woman to write in Arabic while Ramadan was accused of writing an "anti-Nasser," "anti-national" novel. Reviewers deemed Mosteghanemi's style melodramatic and laden with antiquated clichés while they labeled Ramadan's text "beginner's literature" replete with "grammatical mistakes" that massacre our "beautiful Arabic language." Both were ostracized for their absences from the alley: Mosteghanemi was made to pay for her life in exile away from Algeria, between France and Beirut, and Ramadan for her years of study in Ireland .

But the onslaught does not stop at the recipients of the Mahfouz award. Members of the panel of judges have also come under increased shelling in recent years. Their role, in the scribes' minds, has come to resemble that of the futuwa ( the chief/authority/bouncer) in Mahfouz's alley. Like the futuwa in " Awlad Haratina ," the panel of judges of the Mahfouz award are accused of unjust and unequal distribution of thewaqf (estate) among the children of the alley.

The scribes have called for "transparency" in the selection process and made accusations of "ineptitude" and "clientalism." They have demanded a change of the panel of judges in order to ensure the representation of the alley's "indigenous" aesthetic values instead of the values of hegemonic cultural institutions.

What seems to emerge as the core of the problem is the dominated situation of the Egyptian literary field or "alley." Because the Egyptian literary field is dominated, it is bound to seek recognition (both material and symbolic) in the "global village" or "international republic of letters." At the same time, the literary field is bound to define itself on a national/nationalist basis. This double bind is simply unsolvable so long as the dominant position of the literary field persists.

So, like Mahfouz's narrator/writer, we can only record "the heart-breaking knowledge of many people's secret sorrows," wait for the announcement of this year's winner, and brace ourselves for yet another battle between the scorn-ridden scribes. As Mahfouz would say, "Amazing little alley, with amazing events."


This article appeared in Al Jadid (Vol. 8, no. 41, Fall 2002).

Copyright © 2002 by Al Jadid.

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