The Egyptian writer Adel Esmat was awarded the 2016 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature for his novel Hikayât Yûsuf Tadrus (The Tales of Yusuf Tadrus). Born in the Gharbiya Governorate of Egypt in 1959, he graduated in philosophy from the Faculty of Arts of Cairo’s Ain Shams University in 1984. He holds a higher degree in library science from the University of Tanta and works as a library specialist in the Egyptian Ministry of Education.
In his moving acceptance address on 12 December Esmat told the audience of distinguished guests at the Mahfouz award ceremony: “Writing became an essential exercise.”
In this interview he shares some thoughts on his numerous imaginary conversations with Naguib Mahfouz, his sources of creativity, and his convictions.
What does it mean to you to have won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature?
The significance of the medal is huge for me and my address expresses just how and why it is so important. To have my name associated with the Egyptian Nobel laureate is beyond great.
Tell us about your winning novel Tale of Yusuf Tadros: what is the story about?
The novel, narrated like an autobiography, is a self-portrait of a young Egyptian man who lives in a small city. It is told starting from when he first becomes aware and fascinated with light, up to when he begins to play with it in his own paintings. The story also reveals multiple aspects of society and the relations existing within, until the protagonist eventually finds inner peace.
To use your words, “writing is a tool of understanding and contemplation.” You studied philosophy at university. Does this influence the way you write?
It is difficult for a writer to precisely assess how external things affect his writings and what exactly influences him when it comes to big questions such as “what is love?” or “what is life?” But I can say that philosophy for me and for our country is a very important field. Lots of problems emerge from not giving enough attention to the discipline.
Philosophy is important because it is about learning to question and remove all the noise to reach the heart of things. Studying philosophy inspires a person to contemplate, or rather, the people who like philosophy are originally contemplators and deep thinkers.
You never met Naguib Mahfouz but you say you have had many imaginary conversations with him. If he had been at your award ceremony, what would you have told him?
We would have gone to the ahwa (the coffee shop) and talked about whatever we had on our minds. I value him immensely and converse with him inside my head because he is the only one who allows for an open dialogue. During my years at the University of Tanta, I used to have mental conversations with Mahfouz about the streets, Sayed el-Badawy, almost everything. But we never met in real life.
You received the Mahfouz award for a novel about the struggles of a Coptic man’s life just a day after the deadly bombing of the Coptic Church in Cairo’s Abbasiya neighborhood. How did you react to that attack?
Death pains me. I strongly dislike the public display of death and the appropriation of death in media coverage and pictures…. In Egypt our cultural life and traditions as Muslims and Christians are the samecelebrations, rituals, marriage, death…. Everything is the same, only our names are different. We all come from the same place: Masr al Qadima.