On February 8, 2021, for the first time since the award was established, the American University in Cairo Press announced a shortlist for the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature.
The six shortlisted titles were chosen from 270 novels submitted from across the Arab world and diaspora.
The shortlisted novels
Ahmed Taibaoui – The Disappearance of Mr. Nobody
(Editions Difaf, Editions el-Ikhtilef, 2019)
The novel’s main protagonist escapes his everyday life to find himself caring for an old man suffering from Alzheimer’s. The old man dies, and an officer begins investigating the circumstances of his demise only to find that the man cannot be identified—that there is no trace of Mr. Nobody. The officer’s search leads him to those whose paths once crossed Mr. Nobody’s, and he finds in each of them a reflection of the man he is looking for.
Ahmed Taibaoui is a professor at the Faculty of Economics, Business, and Management Sciences at the University of Bouira in Algeria. He was awarded the Tayeb Salih International Prize for Written Creativity (2014) for his novel Mawt na‘im, as well as the President of the Republic Award for Young Innovators (2011) for his nobel al-Maqam al-‘ali.
Amal Radwan – In The Dust Cities
(ElAin Publishing, 2019)
In the Dust Cities is a polyphonic narrative in which different female characters are endowed with a voice. The main protagonist is an Egyptian who is trying to help Syrian refugees in al-Zaatari camp in Jordan. Through the identity crisis of her coworker Elma and stories of the women refugees who suffer the trauma of rape and torture, the misery of humanity and the pointlessness of international aid are revealed. Driven by the thoughts and life stories of the mainly female characters, this novel will convince readers that solidarity and hope are all that remain from these dust cities.
Amal Radwan was born in Cairo. She has a BA in English Literature and an MA in Interpretation, and is currently employed as an interpreter at the United Nations. She is the author of two collections of short stories: al-Bait Alawalani (2014/2018), which was awarded first prize by the Sawiris Cultural Award for Mature Writers, and Shikulata Sawda’ (2017), which was longlisted for al-Multaqa Prize for the Arabic Short Story in Kuwait.
Algarby Omran – The Fort of al-Zidi
Set in the communities of Yemen’s mountainous countryside that surrounds the cities of Sanaa and Aden, The Fort al-Zidi explores questions of class and social conflict instigated by authoritarian sheikhs and tribal leaders who exploit their power over the vulnerable and dispossessed. Starting at the end of British rule, in the 1960s, this novel tells the story of the Akhdam, or slaves of the land, who rebelled against their oppressive reality.
This novel sheds light on the battles that ensued, as well as on today’s ongoing and the forces that perpetually fuel war.
Algarby Omran is a Yemeni short story writer and novelist, known in particular for his controversial novel Mushaf Ahmar. He has published five short stories and six novels.
Maha Hassan – The Neighborhood of Wonder
(Mamdouh Adwan Publishing House, 2018)
“Wonder is a hidden treasure in Aleppo.” Maha Hassan brings to life this sense of wonder through her writing: exploring the memories of older inhabitants and their neighborhoods, redrawing the rituals of their lives and the simplicity of the people and their humble dreams. Before the war came and destroyed it all.
The residents of Hayy al-Dahsha—“the neighborhood of wonder”—tell their stories: tales of love, childhood, death, and the role of literature in their lives.
Maha Hassan is a Syrian novelist, based in France. Two of her novels have been longlisted for the Booker Prize for Arabic fiction: Habl suri (2011) and al-Rawiyat (2014). She was also longlisted for the Sheikh Zayed Prize for Literature for her novel Metro Halab (2017) and Amat sabahan ayatuha al-harb (2018). She has contributed to many literary forums in European universities in Brussels, Frankfurt, Strasbourg, Rennes, and Copenhagen, as well as in seminars, bookfairs, and cultural events hosted across the Arab world. Hassan also participated in the Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature, Dubai, in 2018.
Mohammad Aly Ibrahim – The Stone in Khallaf’s House
(AlMothaqaf Publishing House, 2018)
Set in the marginalized region of Upper Egypt, The Stone in Khallaf’s House is the story of a young boy who is sexually assaulted by a cemetery guard, with the permission of his father who wishes to excavate a tomb in search of antiquities. This novel takes the reader into the murky world of antiquities dealers and drug dealers, exploring how these businesses have spread through the conservative society of southern Egypt.
Mohammad Aly Ibrahim is an Egyptian writer who has published numerous books, as a novelist, poet, short story writer. He is also an engineer.
Omar Taher – Kohl and Cardamom
(Al-Karma Publishers, 2018)
Unfolding over five days, the two narrators in this book are both Abdullah: as a child living in Aswan, desperately hoping his strict father will allow him to go to a Mohamed Mounir concert, and as an adult, living and working in Cairo as a journalist who cannot help falling in love.
Kohl and Cardamom explores the pleasures of using food and scent to write the life story of an ordinary man. Adolescence, love, alienation, loneliness, marriage, friends, success, and failure . . . there is always a taste and an aroma.
Omar Taher was born in Upper Egypt in the mid-1970s. Kohl and Cardamom is his first novel, but he has written many successful non-fiction books, screenplays, and poetry collections, as well as songs for popular singers, such as Asala, Cairokee, Souad Massi, Ahmed Saad. Taher has won several awards, including the Best Essay Writer Award for the year 2015 in the Youth Magazine poll and the Best Book Award 2015 in the Libraries and Readers’ poll. He has written for many Egyptian newspapers and magazines, and currently writes a weekly article for Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper.
The judges of this year’s Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature are Shereen Abouelnaga (chair), literary critic and professor of English and comparative literature at Cairo University; Humphrey Davies, award-winning translator of Arabic literature into English; Thaer Deeb, translator, writer, and critic; Samah Selim, translator and associate professor of Arabic language and literature at Rutgers University in the US; and Hebba Sherif, writer, literary critic, and cultural consultant.
The winner of the medal was announced on March 31, 2021. Ahmed Taibaoui won for his novel The Disappearance of Mr. Nobody (Ikhtifa’ al-Sayyid La Ahad).
The Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature was established by the American University in Cairo Press in 1996 and is awarded to the best contemporary novel published in Arabic in the previous two years.
The winning novel is selected by the five jury members who make up the Mahfouz Award Committee.
The award, recognized as a major contribution in support of contemporary Arabic literature in translation, consists of a cash prize of $5,000, as well as translation into English and publication under AUC Press’s fiction imprint Hoopoe.
Shereen Abouelnaga (chair) is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Cairo University and a literary critic. She has published several books, works of literary criticism, and articles in scholarly journals, with a special focus on gender. She writes in both Arabic and English and, aware of her position in the so-called ‘third world,’ she views her research through the lens of a socialist feminist. Her work focuses on inter/transcultural encounters in literature and the arts, at the peak of the era of globalization, and reflects her engagement with cultural and gender studies. Her Arabic books include: A Passion of Difference: Readings in Selected Feminist Texts; Feminist or Womanist?; and Nation in the Narration of Arab Women Writers. Her English books include: Women in Revolutionary Egypt: Gender and the New Geographics of Identity.
Humphrey Davies is an award-winning translator of Arabic literature into English. He received First Class honors in Arabic at Cambridge University and holds a doctorate in Near East Studies from the University of California at Berkeley. His translations range from the Fatimid period to the present day and include Leg Over Leg by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz, I Was Born There, I Was Born Here by Mourid Barghouti, Sunset Oasis by Bahaa Taher, and The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al-Aswany. He has won and been shortlisted for numerous literary prizes, and has twice been awarded the prestigious Saif Ghobash–Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation: in 2006, for his translation of Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun, and in 2010, for his translation of Elias Khoury’s Yalo. He lives in Cairo, Egypt, and is affiliated with the American University in Cairo.
Thaer Deeb is a writer, translator, and critic based in Lattakia, Syria. He is deputy head of the Book Translation Unit of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Lebanon, as well as being a member of their advisory committee. He has served on numerous cultural and literary boards, including the advisory committee of the Bahraini Transfer of Knowledge Project, and has worked in editorial roles for a number of cultural magazines, such as editor-in-chief for Jussur and managing editor for Tabayyun. He has written and translated dozens of articles and books and his translations from English into Arabic include: Reflections on Exile by Edward Said, The Idea of Culture by Terry Eagleton, Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson, and The Rise of the novel by Ian Watt.
Samah Selim is an associate professor in the Department of African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian Languages and Literatures at Rutgers University in the US. Her research focuses include modern Arabic literature, with a particular interest in narrative genres like the novel and short story, and she is the author of Popular Fiction, Translation, and the Nahda in Egypt. She has also won prizes for her literary translations: Yahya Taher Abdallah’s The Collar and the Bracelet won the 2009 Saif Ghobash–Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation and in 2011 she was awarded the University of Arkansas Press Award for Arabic Literature in Translation for Jurji Zaydan’s Tree of Pearls, Queen of Egypt. In 2018 she was the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts translation award for Ghalib Halasa’s 1987 novel Sultana.
Hebba Sherif is a writer, literary critic, and cultural management and studies consultant. She holds a PhD in comparative literature from Cairo University, where she was formerly an associate professor in the Faculty of Arts. She has headed the Swiss Arts Council in Cairo (Pro Helvetia) and writes in both German and Arabic about cultural interaction and comparative literature. She is a translator from German into Arabic, and her translations include the works of Christa Wolf and Uwe Timm. For the year 2004/2005, she was selected as a jury member for Litrix.de, an online translation program, and in 2010, she was chosen as a member of the consulting board of the National Centre of Translation in Cairo. She has published two books in Arabic and is based in Cairo, Egypt.