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Dubai and Mahfouz
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 14 - 02 - 2019

I have just returned from the UAE where I had the honour to have been invited to deliver a lecture on the life and works of the great Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz at the fifth Nobel Museum Exhibition in Dubai. An annual cultural event organised by the Mohamed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum Knowledge Foundation (MBRF) in collaboration with the International Nobel Foundation, the Nobel exhibition aims to pay tribute to this prestigious international award and raise awareness about its history and its laureates in diverse fields. Every year, a Nobel Prize laureate in the relevant field is invited to deliver a lecture and present a workshop for students focussing on the relationship between the award and our daily lives in the category he/she represents.
This year's edition was dedicated to literature and in my lecture I discussed Naguib Mahfouz's selection for the Nobel Prize and how his acceptance of this award was an affirmation of its credibility. For some time, a cloud of suspicion had been gathered around the selection process because, until that point, it had totally ignored Arabic literature since the prize was first inaugurated in 1901. How was it possible to overlook one of the most important corpuses of world literature that stretches back to the pre-Islamic era?
Other participants in this year included the Swedish cultural historian Gustav Källstrand; Ebba Holmberg, a literature expert at the Nobel Prize Museum in Stockholm; and Kristian Fredén, an author, literary critic and librarian at the Nobel Library in Stockholm. The first of these delivered a lecture on the history of the Nobel Prize in literature while Holmberg, in her workshop, discussed some of the works of Nobel laureates in literature such Naguib Mahfouz, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, William Golding, Toni Morrison and Albert Camus. Midaq Alley was the work she chose for Mahfouz. As for Fredén's workshop, it was on ‘How do you write like a Nobel laureate?' Both Holmberg's and Fredén's workshops were attended by a number of aspiring young writers keen to hone their talents.
I was pleasantly surprised by the Nobel exhibition. I had not expected this annual event to rival other international exhibitions and I was heartened by how well-attended it was by both Arabs and foreigners and, above all, by a large number of young university and secondary school students. I spent quite a bit of time in the Nobel exhibition's library which housed a large number of works by Nobel Prize winners, some in their original languages and others in Arabic translation. One item that drew my attention was a book published by the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm containing the speeches delivered by Nobel laureates upon receiving their awards. The book has been translated into Arabic.
The Nobel Prize in Literature has been bestowed 110 times to 114 people (it was shared four times: in 1904, 1917, 1966 and 1974). It was declined, in 1964, by the French philosopher and writer Jean Paul Sartre on the grounds that prizes shackle the recipient and, in 1958, by the Russian poet and novelist Boris Pasternak who lived in the Soviet Union and feared the repercussions from accepting a Western award. The Nobel was declined by four other recipients in other categories.
Alfred Nobel, the Swedish scientist and businessman who is also known as the inventor of dynamite, bequeathed the main portion of this wealth to the establishment of the award in his name. In his last will and testament, which he wrote in 1895, he designates the provisions he made for relatives and others and then states:
“All of my remaining realisable assets are to be disbursed as follows: the capital, converted to safe securities by my executors, is to constitute a fund, the interest on which is to be distributed annually as prizes to those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind. The interest is to be divided into five equal parts and distributed as follows: one part to the person who made the most important discovery or invention in the field of physics; one part to the person who made the most important chemical discovery or improvement; one part to the person who made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine; one part to the person who, in the field of literature, produced the most outstanding work in an idealistic direction; and one part to the person who has done the most or best to advance fellowship among nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and the establishment and promotion of peace congresses. The prizes for physics and chemistry are to be awarded by the Swedish Academy of Sciences; that for physiological or medical achievements by the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm; that for literature by the academy in Stockholm; and that for champions of peace by a committee of five persons to be selected by the Norwegian Storting. It is my express wish that when awarding the prizes, no consideration be given to nationality, but that the prize be awarded to the worthiest person, whether or not they are Scandinavian.”
Interestingly, in the first Nobel Prize award ceremony in Stockholm in 1901, King Oscar II refused to present the awards because he objected to presenting a Swedish award to non-Swedish individuals who owed no allegiance to Sweden. The following year he changed his mind and presented the awards personally because he realised what good publicity the award made for Sweden.
The delight I felt from what I saw and experienced in that annual event in Dubai made me all the sadder about the embarrassing standstill that continues to plague the Naguib Mahfouz Museum project, which was first announced following the famous novelist's death in 2006. A special committee, on which I had the honour to serve, was formed to establish the museum. A perfect location was chosen in Fatimid Cairo where Naguib Mahfouz was born. Mahfouz's close friend, the filmmaker Tawfik Saleh, was selected to direct the museum. After numerous meetings, the committee designed an activities programme that would enable the museum to become a centre for cultural illumination throughout the year. Shamefully, 12 years later, the museum has yet to see the light of day.


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