A cultural evening ( original title : Omsya saqafeya)
First broadcast date
Naguib Mahfouz is the guest of the cultural programme presented by Farouk Choucha. Naguib Mahfouz was born in 1911 in Cairo, he is one of the most famous contemporary writers in Egypt. He was awarded the Nobel Price for literature in1988, mainly for his novel "the trilogy of Cairo", published in 1950.
ERTU - Channel 2
Languages and literatures
Credits / Cast
- Farouk Choucha - Speaker
- Mohamed Ibrahim - Director
- Naguib Mahfouz - Participant
- Egypt - Lower Egypt - Cairo
December 1988: on his television programme Oumsiyya thaqafiyya (Evening of Culture), the Egyptian poet Farouk Shousha talks to Naguib Mahfouz, two months after he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, a first for an Arabic-language writer. The Swedish Academy's choice had huge resonance across the Arab world but particularly in Egypt. But it was first and foremost a surprise to the writer himself, Mahfouz tells us. Belonging to the “founding generation” of the Arab novel (starting in the late 1930's, Mahfouz was probably the first Arab writer to devote himself exclusively to fiction), he felt his mission was to adapt the novel form to Arab culture, not thinking this pioneering work would ever interest anyone else. He never imagined that one day he would see his name “alongside Anatole France, George Bernard Shaw or Thomas Mann.” Beyond the modesty, real or affected, of what he says, we sense an accurate analysis of the way Arab writing is perceived in the bastions of world culture. Literature is the virtual monopoly of certain key countries, and it is significant that the three authors cited by Mahfouz wrote either in English, French or German, for those languages dominate the Swedish Academy's awards. Between 1901, when the award was created, and 2011 only seven of the 110 winners write or wrote in a non-European language. Hence the criticism that the award is Euro-centric – an accusation commonly thrown at the Nobel juries by intellectual circles in the Arab world and indeed by all literary circles outside Europe, and mentioned in this archival footage in less polite terms: “racist”.
The other criticism raised in this programme is more directly political (though in coded language, since not everything can be said on Egyptian television): unlike most of his peers in Egypt and across the Arab world, Mahfouz had publicly endorsed the Camp David peace agreement between Egypt and Israel (1979). So when he was given the Nobel Prize in 1988, many people said the Swedish Academy had chosen a “good Arab”, someone politically acceptable in Western capitals. Whether or not that criticism is true, it highlights another form of domination which the peripheral literary regions have to put up with (in the words of Pascale Casanova): the welcome they receive in the so-called capitals of world literature is determined by politics. During Nasser's time, Egypt got too bad a press in the West for anyone to be interested in the country's literary output, so although Mahfouz had been published in Arabic since the 1940's, his novels had to wait for the 1970's to be translated into English and French.
Anyway, the 1988 Nobel Prize transformed Mahfouz' status, both in his own country and abroad (see the background piece about “The Human Side of Naguib Mahfouz” – BIB00238). His mainly realistic novels lend themselves well to translation, giving the foreign reader insight and information about Egyptian society in a literary form which is familiar. This mainly ethnographic reception is another aspect of the domination that southern literature suffers in what are considered the key countries of world literature. If we add to that his high output (he wrote over fifty novels and collections of stories), we understand why today Mahfouz is the most translated writer in the Arab world.
Richard Jacquemond, Entre scribes et écrivains. Le champ littéraire dans l’Egypte contemporaine, Arles, Actes Sud/Sindbad, 2003
Pascale Casanova, La république mondiale des lettres, Paris, Seuil, 1999