Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 December 2003
Issue No. 669
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Plain Talk

By Mursi Saad El-Din

Mursi Saad El-Din This is the first time I have missed the award ceremony for the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature organised by the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press. The celebration is held annually on the Nobel Laureate's birthday and is attended by the minister of culture, the AUC president, and Mark Linz, AUC Press director. The celebration has become a kind of literary festival to which leading literary figures and academics flock.

Every year a committee composed of academics and critics plough through the previous twelve month's production of fiction to select the winner. Earlier winners have been drawn from both established and less well- known authors. While there is a financial award the real relevance of the prize to the winner is, I think, the translation of the winning work into English and, as a consequence, its availability in the English-speaking world. This, to my mind, is one of the greatest services AUC Press is offering to modern Egyptian literature.

For too many years contemporary Egyptian writers were absent from the international book market. Denys Johnson-Davies translated a collection of Mahmoud Teymour's short stories back in the 1940s; I produced a collection of translated short stories by a number of Egyptian writers which was published with an introduction by Professor Arberry; Desmond Stewart translated Fathi Ghanem's The Man who Lost his Shadow. But that was about all.

There are, of course, the English translations published by the Egyptian Book Organisation, edited by Mohamed Enani. What the AUC Press has done is to start a movement, on-going and uninterrupted, of presenting modern Egyptian literature to the world. I say to the world since the works of Naguib Mahfouz, for instance, have been translated into many languages through the medium of the AUC Press English translation.

Fiction aside, the achievements of the AUC Press, under director Mark Linz, have widened to cover many fields. There seems to be a definite strategy for the publication of books on Egypt, dealing with the Pharaonic, Coptic, Islamic and modern eras. But maybe it is the Pharaonic period that makes for some of the Press's most impressive publications.

There are a host of remarkable titles -- grand, beautifully illustrated coffee table books produced by AUC Press -- on our ancient history. Here I will single out just a brief selection, including The Atlas of Ancient Egypt, Ramses the Great, Hidden Treasures of the Egyptian Museum, Treasures of the Valley of the Kings and Artists in the Valley of the Kings.

The activities of AUC Press were the subject of a discussion I had with the late Edward Said during one of his visits to Cairo. The conversation revolved around those publications, written by specialists genuinely interested in the field, that are published by the AUC Press and which are devoid of the colonial motives of the 18th and 19th century orientalism expounded by Said in his justly celebrated best-seller.

Most of the books on Pharaonic Egypt have been written by Egyptologists who have undertaken extensive fieldwork. So too the books on Coptic, Islamic and modern Egypt. Going through these books I could find no trace of the arrogance or the patronising attitude of the traditional orientalists. The reader can feel the affection which the writers so palpably feel for their subjects.

There are many other facets of the work of the AUC Press, for example the books they have produced on Gazbia Sirry, Margot Veillon and Hoda Shaarawi. One can rightly say that AUC Press has become the voice of Egypt. I would like to underline here the devotion of the team working under the highly professional leadership of Mark Linz. Special mention should be given to the indefatigable Nabila Aql, who seems to have perfected the art of PR and the organisation of literary events, aspects of the modern publishing trade that are now an indispensable part of the industry.

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