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On Tuesday night, judges announced that Egyptian author Ezzat al-Kamhawi’s generational novel “Bayt al-Deeb” (“House of al-Deeb”) had won the 2012 Naguib Mahfouz Medal. The ceremony was held as scheduled, at the American University in Cairo’s Zamalek dormitory, on the 101st anniversary of Mahfouz’s birth.
Kamhawi, who was born in Sharqiya and currently lives in Qatar, has published several short-story collections and four novels. These include “City of Delight” (1997), “A Room Overlooking the Nile” (2004), “The Guard” (2008), and his latest, “House of al-Deeb” (2010).
“House of al-Deeb” is a novel that spans four generations, interweaving a fictional village with strands of Egyptian history from Napoleon’s 19th century expedition to the 20th century’s Gulf War.
Prize judge Humphrey Davies said, in a prepared statement, that the novel was one of “grandiose sweep that pits the lives of generations of a single rural family against the events of Egypt’s history over the past one hundred years.” And AUC Professor and judge Tahia Abdel Nasser added, ”In its evocation of imagined history and fictive events, the novel privileges popular memory and invites us to reflect on the boundaries that separate the village from modernity, fiction from history, and art from life.”
In his acceptance speech, Kamhawi said that he began writing the novel in 1999. “I made good progress, but then I found my path blocked. Instead, a way opened to another book, ‘The Thicket,’ which I wrote quickly as if it was being dictated to me. And from that date, whenever I tried to complete the novel, another novel or book would come along instead.”
He said he was finally able to return to the novel in 2009, and then in mid-2010, when he was released from his position as editor-in-chief of the cultural journal Akhbar al-Adab. “I was able to hide away in my country house with my mother and father and the characters of ‘The House of al-Deeb,’” he said.
Kamhawi added that, while writing a novel with such epic historical sweep, “brevity was my primary concern.” He wanted to present the four generations, and their lives, “in a way that could be tolerated by today’s reader.” He also was interested in writing a novel set in the countryside that wasn’t just a “country tale,” and wanted to include all the existential issues that one finds in a novel of the city.
Abdel Nasser gave the 2012 address. She likened the novel to “The Odyssey,” calling one of the characters “an Odyssean figure,” who “arrives at the village after wandering in the desert during the invasion of Iraq[.]” She also likened Kamhawi’s work to that of the medal’s sponsor: “As in Mahfouz’s fiction, Kamhawi understands the importance of redrawing the lines between fiction and history for political purposes and that understanding history is central to envisioning the future.”
As the winner of the Mahfouz Medal, “The House of al-Deeb” is scheduled to be published in English translation by the American University in Cairo Press in 2013.
Previous winners have included Miral al-Tahawy’s “Brooklyn Heights” (also shortlisted for the 2010 International Prize for Arabic Fiction), Bensalem Himmich’s ground-breaking “The Polymath,” Hoda Barakat’s beautiful “The Tiller of Waters,” Mourid Barghouti’s moving “I Saw Ramallah,” and others. As part of the award, winners are published in English, receive the medal, and are given a US$1,000 prize.