One prize without a fuss
Even though the politicization of literary and artistic prizes is a familiar phenomenon in Egypt, writer Eltayeb Sallah, who won the Supreme Council for Culture's Novelist of the Year award, doesn't want to reject the honor or the money.
"Among us, awards are associated with the man, not his creations. Who remembers, for example, what Ahmed Zawil won the Nobel Prize for? [He won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1999 - Z.B.]. In the West, unlike here, they remember the work, the invention." Mahmoud Amin al-Alam, one of Egypt's most prolific writers, himself the winner of many awards for his creative efforts, wrote these bittersweet lines in reaction to another writer winning an award for Arabic literature. This year, the Egyptian Supreme Council for Literature awarded its prize to the veteran and not so prolific Sudanese writer, Eltayeb Sallah.
Sallah, 76, has written a total of five novels. The most well-known of them is "The Northern Migration" (published in Hebrew by Am Oved) from 1971, which gained him international publicity. Another of his novels, "Mating Species," was translated into Hebrew by Rachel Halabeh and published by Andalus Press.
Sallah's storytelling style, the simplicity of his descriptions and his use of a popular idiom that closely resembles street language, replete with curses, are the secret of this author who has spent most of his life in Britain, where he studied and worked as a broadcaster for the BBC.
The prize he won this month is no small thing. The prize council awarded him 100,000 Egyptian pounds (approximately $17,000). Sallah said at the award ceremony held at the Cairo Opera, "A prize is a matter of bestowing honor and one cannot reject an honor that is given to you."
His statement was not polite nonsense like that often offered by prizewinners. It was carefully aimed at another winner of the same prize two years ago - Sonallah Ibrahim. Then, Ibrahim, a celebrated contemporary Egyptian writer, was announced as the winner (Sallah was a member of the selection committee). Ibrahim caused a scandal when he refused the prize, sparking protest among Egyptian and other Arab intellectuals.
Ibrahim said he refused the prize by saying, "As we gather here, the Israeli army is invading what is left of the Palestinians' territory, killing children and pregnant women and uprooting thousands from their homes - but the leaders of the Arabs receive Israeli leaders warmly, and a few blocks away from here, the American Ambassador has taken over an entire neighborhood while his soldiers are deployed in every corner of the world that was once Arab."
"I have no doubt that every Egyptian here is aware of the extent of the catastrophe facing our country. It's not just the genuine Israeli military threat to our eastern borders, the American dictates or the weakness showing in our government's foreign policy - it's all aspects of life. We no longer have theater, cinema or scientific research; we just have festivals, conferences and fraudulent funds. We don't have industry, agriculture, health or justice. Corruption and pillage abounds," Ibrahim said.
"In such a reality, a writer cannot close his eyes or remain silent. He cannot absolve himself of his responsibility - all that's left for me is to thank those who chose me for this prize, but to say that I won't be accepting it because it is from a government that, in my opinion, does not possess the credibility to grant it," said.
Sallah has more modest ambitions. He is "just" a writer. But just like two years ago, the award ceremony raised some old questions about the meaning of creative prizes in Arab countries, especially about the role politics plays.
The politicization of literary and artistic prizes is more open in Egypt than in Western countries. Recently, Mohammed Abd al-Wahad wrote a hefty tome called "Intellectuals on Demand" in which he describes in detail the actions of Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosni and the way in which honorary posts in his ministry are sold to writers, filmmakers and playwrights. Wahad was Hosni's assistant for information and public relations, and it seems that he knows what he's writing about. He had to publish his book at his own expense after most publishers in Egypt refused to cross the longtime culture minister (Hosni has been in his post for more than 18 years). The cover of the book features a drawing of Hosni conducting an orchestra of four faceless heads.
An article published in a Gulf newspaper after Sallah received the prize said that initially they had wanted to award the prize to Egyptian writer Edouard Harat, but it turned out that he was a judge on the committee. Then the head of the Supreme Literature Council, Jabar Asfur, suggested awarding the prize to the writer Jamal Alritani, editor of the important Egyptian literary weekly, Akhbar al-Adab. Alritani, who two years ago supported Ibrahim's position on the award, rejected the offer.
It seems that this horse-trading was nothing new for Egyptian intellectuals. In an interview with Akbar al-Adab, Ibrahim said that unlike in Western countries, where winning a literary prize significantly increases sales of a literary work, it does not work that way in Egypt. He said the reason is that Egyptians "believe that the choice of the prize recipient was made `with the consent of the higher ups,' with no connection to the quality of the work, and therefore there is no rush to buy the books."
Sallah did not go as far, and did not settle accounts with Ibrahim or the Supreme Literature Council. He said he would enjoy the prize and that it was important to him, financially speaking.
He may see things differently. In his novel, "Wad Mohammed's Silent Palm," a foreign visitor to a small, neglected Sudanese village explains that it is possible to both read a palm for cures and also to adopt Western innovations, such as a port or a water pump. This approach is certainly not acceptable to Ibrahim, who in 2001 did not hesitate to accept the Ibn Rushd Center's prize for social and democratic society and at the same time, attack the United States for its cultural invasion of the Middle East. It's no wonder that Sallah was not the first choice of the Egyptian literary elite, which is having a hard time adjusting to the fact that it is not the one determining the limits of what is permissible and prohibited in its country's relationship with the West.