Prize and Prejudice: When an Egyptian Novelist Wins Qatara

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“Those who don’t like Katara can start a prize like it in Egypt.”

Thus the Egyptian novelist Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid, one of five finalists to receive US $60,000 each in the first round of the Katara Prize for the Arabic Novel, speaking to the television anchor Gaber Al-Qarmouti live last week.

A glib remark, for oil-rich Qatar’s foray into supporting literature is worth US $750,000 in total. A mere pittance this may be in the grander scheme of Qatari spending. But were it available to grant-making institutions in Egypt, the sum would be enough for 100 financially viable awards.

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Youssef Rakha: On Fiction and the Caliphate

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By Youssef Rakha

Towards the end of 2009, I completed my first novel, whose theme is contemporary Muslim identity in Egypt and, by fantastical extension, the vision of a possible khilafa or caliphate. I was searching for both an alternative to nationhood and a positive perspective on religious identity as a form of civilisation compatible with the post-Enlightenment world. The closest historical equivalent I could come up with, aside from Muhammad Ali Pasha’s abortive attempt at Ottoman-style Arab empire (which never claimed to be a caliphate as such), was the original model, starting from the reign of Sultan-Caliph Mahmoud II in 1808. I was searching for Islam as a post-, not pre-nationalist political identity, and the caliphate as an alternative to the postcolonial republic, with Mahmoud and his sons’ heterodox approach to the Sublime State and their pan-Ottoman modernising efforts forming the basis of that conception. Such modernism seemed utterly unlike the racist, missionary madness of European empire. It was, alas, too little too late.

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